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Fashion: A Superficial Pastime for Superficial People

Why Fashion is Actually the Secret to Understanding Humanity.

By Sofia Butler

Someone once asked me:“Why do you care so much about how you dress? Fashion is a superficial pastime for superficial people.”

I generally try to be a polite person… so I didn’t slap him.

But the question made me angry. It unlocked something deep inside of me. I have always had an intuitive sense that the impact of fashion is far deeper than what meets the eye. However, it was not until I took the course “Fashion of History” with Professor Chernock here at BU that I finally had the rhetoric to explain what I had long felt to be true.

Fashion is often regarded as superficial and frivolous. Something for women. Something for shallow people. And yet, fashion globally is a $2.4 trillion trade. Why would we pour so much money into something with no meaning or impact?

Clothing is one of our most essential tools of communication. Every day, we all wake up and ask ourselves the question: “What am I going to wear today?” The clothes we wear are an entire language of their own– the reality is most of us are just not taught how to consciously speak and listen.

As Ann Hollander writes in Sex and Suits,“Most fashion in dress is adopted with the conscious wish not to look fashionable, but to look right.”

Many of us may wish to look presentable, professional, beautiful, cool, interesting, athletic, or any other number of traits. Often, the clothes we wear contribute to a narrative we have of ourselves and one we communicate to others: “Fashion, like modern art, is always a representation.” Yet, many individuals just want to wear the “right” thing at a given moment and do not feel the word ‘fashion’ has anything to do with their simple cotton T-shirt and blue jeans.

But by looking deeper at either of these two simple garments, we can learn about patterns of oppression, innovation, and behavior. We can unveil the state of economics, politics, religion, and identity— all in a single garment.

Take a simple pair of blue jeans. Six billion pairs are produced annually. They are one of the most popular garments ever invented. True denim is made from cotton, one of agriculture's dirtiest crops. They undergo a process called “sanforization” which requires 5 gallons of water for only three pairs of jeans. The resulting water waste is toxic and is often dumped in poor communities near the factories where jeans are produced. Okay, so this makes sense enough– we get it: fashion can be bad for the environment.

But the magic of even stopping to consider a pair of jeans and the process of their creation is it unlocks a world of questions:

Who is designing garments? Who is making them? How are they treated? Why are they treated that way? Where do clothes go at the end of their life? Why do clothes go “in and out” of style? What does clothing tell us about politics? Dominant groups? Oppressed groups? Who is paying? And why?

When we embrace this whole new lens of understanding the world, we unlock potential for transformation and impact. So much secret knowledge is dancing beneath the fabric of our coats– under the soles of our shoes. Fashion is a hidden superpower for understanding humanity and all of its beauty and destruction.

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