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The End of the ‘Wear It Once’ Trend

Melissa Wall

I know little to nothing about fashion trends. The vagaries of the fashion industry are as incomprehensible to me as a turbine jet engine. But I do know that one of the most important trends of the decade– perhaps of the era – is currently being set by the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Sophia Loren, and, perhaps most notably, Kate Middleton.

It’s the trend of wearing the same clothes more than once.

We all know that celebrity-dressing habits are the epitome of crazy excess. In the age of constant selfies and nonstop public scrutiny, celebs set a gold standard for conspicuous consumption when it comes to fashion – and not without good reason, given that it can be a career setback to be “caught” wearing the same outfit twice. But while we may want celebs to dazzle us with ever-changing looks and sleek poses in magazines, this whole “life as costume drama” trend comes at a cost. Namely, we’re reinforcing a completely unsustainable way of consuming items of clothing that has ramifications on everything from the supply chain to the water table to our own pocket books.

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Kiera Knightly in her now-famous wedding dress, which she wears often

The habits of the famous trickle down into normal behavior, and in the age of social media, where everyone is the star of their own digital feed, wearing a dress twice (or at least, being seen wearing a dress twice) has become an actual worry for the rest of us. Think I’m exaggerating? One 2012 survey found that 80 percent of women buy new party outfits out of “fear of being ‘Facebook tagged’ in the same clothes more than once.”

All this vilification of double-wear means one thing: women (and men, but the marketing and magnifying glasses tend to be aimed more at women) are buying more clothes than we need. Tons more. We’re wearing something for purposes of having it look cute in a digitally-blasted photo, then shoving it into a closet crevice – or, worse, throwing it away – and moving on to the next item.

It’s obvious that wearing an article of clothing once and then chucking it is wasteful. But when you look at the volume of waste it produces, the global footprint, and the resources taken to sustain all this waste, you get an idea of just HOW wasteful. Wasteful to the point of harmful. Wasteful to the point of destructive on a global scale.

Deep down, we all know this is ridiculous – it’s a trend based on an illusion, all staging and spectacle, signifying nothing. Even celebs don’t toss out a designer blouse or pair of jeans after its first wear. Still, we keep on participating in a cultural norm that is harming our environment, wasting our hard-earned cash, putting garment workers at risk, and ultimately doing no good to anyone.

Imagine if we reversed the trend to go the other way? I remember the first time someone pointed out that I was wearing the same dress in a Facebook photo that I’d worn a year earlier. It didn’t occur to me that the comment wasn’t a compliment – “it’s such a lovely dress, it stood out twice!”

I was naïve, but it’s a naivete I’m choosing to hold on to. I love finding clothes that I can wear again and again, unique items that I know I’ll never get tired of reaching for in my closet, and rediscovering. I own a dress I bought at a sample sale that I’ve worn to no less than 5 weddings in the last 4 years– it’s become a good luck charm, at least in my eyes. Look, I’m wearing the green silk shift! You two will be happy forever! It’s tough to pinpoint what, if anything, we gain from treating clothes like disposable box cameras. But it’s clear what we lose – the real pleasure that comes from ownership of a beautiful, quality item, and the relationship and significance that can develop from wearing something unique over time. We rob ourselves of the narrative around a particular cocktail dress, the memories attached to the parties it’s seen, the formal dinner party, opening night at the ballet, the dates gone bad (or good). Over time, clothes can become more than just fodder for a social media snapshot – they become part of our personal history. They may even become heirlooms for our daughters. If the price of that is losing potential clout on Facebook, I’ll happily pay it.

Melissa Lafsky Wall is the founder of Brick Wall Media and is an editor at Newsweek and the Freakonomics blog.