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We Are What We Wear. Women’s Clothing Reflects Shifting Identities, Values

“If you ask women about their clothes, they tell you about their lives.” That’s what Delia said after she and her sister, the late famed writer-director Nora Ephron, asked 100 of their friends “to tell us the stories of their clothes.” The sisters then synthesized those stories into a play called, “Love, Loss and What I Wore” (debuted off-Broadway in 2009). “Nora said the play is about identity,” that is, the identities we reflect or try to be through our clothing, shoes and accessories, Kristin Marguerite Doige wrote in Nora Ephron: A Biography.

“I tried spending quite a lot of money on a purse, the theory being that having an expensive purse would inspire me to become a different person,” Nora wrote in her bestselling book, I Feel Bad About My Neck.

“One of Delia’s contributions about high heels,” Doige continued, “provid(ed) thoughtful fodder for the ongoing problematic relationship women have with the things they must wear, want to wear, hate to wear, and need to wear as they perform their femininity at work and at home.”

Our clothing reflects, “who you were when you bought the thing, wore the thing, and most importantly, who or what you love, and perhaps lost in it,” Doige wrote. “It’s about relationships – not with the clothes themselves, but with the people they represent – mothers, sisters, daughters, husbands, lovers.”

I’d add that what we wear for “work” reflects how we identify with our jobs, titles, careers, vocations, too.

“The woman I want to be”

A tiny 2010 study on women and their relationship to their clothing found that, “women have an (sic) dynamic relationship with their clothes that can be grouped around three co-existing views of self; ‘The woman I want to be’, ‘The woman I fear I could be’ and ‘The woman I am most of the time’.”

It states that “These three views illustrate women’s attempts to achieve satisfying images as they engage with clothes to create, reveal or conceal aspects of their identity.” But that women find this to be “pleasurable, making clothes selection and use a positive force in women’s lives.”

Our clothing reflects our values.

Women’s clothing has always reflected our values, but those values have evolved, especially with the higher levels of authority and education women have attained, the cultural impact of the pandemic and working from home, generational shifts, and the impact what we (men and women) wear has on the environment.

More women are becoming sensitized to what our wardrobe reflects about our values.

Some celebrities are walking the talk too, such as Angelina Jolie and Emma Watson. For example, Watson “chose an Emilia Wickstead outfit made with recycled yarn to meet Al Gore while donning a repurposed Harris Reed dress for the Earthshot Prize ceremony,” and wore “(a) full-look by the Scandinavian upcycling brand Rave Review” at the huge UN climate conference known as COP26, Quora reported. Cate Blanchette wore a Stella McCartney pantsuit from 95% recycled materials to the 2023 Earthshot Prize Awards in Singapore.

British Vogue reports that celebrities are “ramping up” their focus on sustainable fashion, including by wearing eco-conscious brands or vintage clothing.

Fashion’s massive environmental impact

“The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second,” according to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), with the fashion industry producing between 8% and 10% of global carbon emissions. That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.

The fashion industry uses about 93 billion cubic meters of water each year, according to the UNEP, “contributing significantly to water scarcity in some regions.” Then there are all those tiny microfibers from disposed clothing that are polluting our waters and marine life.

Pressuring the fashion industry – and bringing receipts

Many organizations are spreading the word, pressuring and empowering fashion brands, including big fashion houses, to be much more eco-conscious and to keep prices affordable. From the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to the Conscious Fashion Campaign that’s partnering with UN, to Earth Day Network and Cradle to Cradle, among others, organizations are nudging brands and showing how it can be done.”

It’s about the whole fashion manufacturing process: making sure the raw materials (fabric, dyes, buttons, etc.) are sustainably made, minimizing the energy and water they use and its carbon emissions. There’s transporting the products to stores, warehouses and consumers too. And, doing it with transparency and accountability for their impact.

That includes how they treat their workers (usually women) making the clothing, shoes and accessories as well. “The fashion industry is a supply chain,” Kerry Bannigan, Founder and CEO of the Conscious Fashion Campaign and of the Fashion Impact Fund, told me in an exclusive interview on Electric Ladies Podcast.

“The reality is it’s a human chain. Nothing is made that we wear that does not go through many human hands. And so really for me, the environmental aspects are extremely important. But, it’s really about brands being more open about their supply chain,” Bannigan explained. That includes, she said, “the environment that people are working in, for example, and then how their pay is and their education and how they’re looked after.”

What does your clothing say about your values and identity?

We know what we wear says something about us. As Dana Jacobsen said in a recent segment on CBS Saturday Morning about a new shoe museum, “you are making a statement with your shoes.”

We choose what to wear based in part on what identity we are embracing at that moment, as well as who we’re with, as the Ephron sisters point out. And, I’ll add, our values and how we want to feel.

What do you wear and what does it say about what you value? About your identity? About your relationships?

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