As a kid, and as a young mom, I wanted school uniforms. They would eliminate worrying about style, shopping, sewing or comments about a sister’s hand-me-downs. Uniforms are easy: just pull on your skirt and knee socks, button up your blouse, tie your shoe laces and go. I grew up knowing that Jesus said that we shouldn’t worry about clothes. “Consider the lilies of the field,” he said. “They neither toil nor spin, yet even King Solomon was not arrayed like these.” But clothes were still a burr under my saddle.
In the 1960s, my roommate also disdained the morning hassle of dressing. She created her own uniform: blazer, white blouse and kilt. She had exactly two of each. I didn’t have the nerve to work in downtown Montreal like that, so I kept doggedly shopping. Later, I discovered secondhand shops. I still like them; recycled clothing is comfortable and easier on the Earth.
The ethics of clothes make shopping still more confusing. I learned about sweatshops with my husband, Bill, in El Salvador in 2000. There, we met factory workers who made clothes for a popular label. They told stories of long hours, forced overtime and low wages without benefits. We learned that women were not allowed to use washrooms when needed, only when mandated. This meant that the women drank less water, even though the factory was hot. As a result, sometimes women fainted at their sewing machines, and often they developed kidney and bladder problems.
Kevin Thomas of Toronto spent years working with the Maquila Solidarity Network
. This Canadian network promotes solidarity with groups around the world to educate consumers and lobby corporations to improve working conditions. Frequently, he is asked which brands are ethical because people are frustrated running around, trying to figure out where to shop. He urges people to write to companies using sweatshop labour and stay on their case. “Write them, and you will receive a polite response. That means you need to write again. And maybe again. Invite friends and colleagues to do the same. Part of creating change is helping businesses see that it is in their best interests to have decent working conditions for employees.”
Many of us have overstuffed closets but “nothing to wear.” My friend, Marguerite Theophile, in Mumbai recently sent a link to UnRavel
, an amazing view of clothing and consumers by Indian filmmaker Meghna Gupta. This 14-minute documentary is both funny and provocative. We see tons of used clothing processed in a north Indian factory, where people don't know westerners. And the narrator, who has never seen one either, will steal your heart; she is indeed beautiful, in the sense that Jesus meant.
To my mind, the workers in this factory are dressed beautifully. And yet, they look with wonder — and sometimes longing — at our castoff clothing. They are curious to know what western women are like, and so they imagine us. Westerners must be very rich to wear clothes a few times and discard them, they muse, but evidently they lack enough water to even wash their clothes. Underwear decorated with rhinestones also evokes pity. Who would force women to wear such things? Ultimately, the clothes (some likely made in India) are sorted, shredded and made back into thread.
I am still thinking about a uniform.
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