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The Uniform Project: My two cents

I first came across the ‘Uniform project’ this morning via city heart vintage, and then again on the Guardian website. In case you haven’t come across it before, the Uniform Project is a girl, Sheena, wearing the same dress every day for one year. Here is what she says:

“Starting May 2009, I have pledged to wear one dress for one year as an exercise in sustainable fashion. Here’s how it works: There are 7 identical dresses, one for each day of the week. Every day I will reinvent the dress with layers, accessories and all kinds of accouterments, the majority of which will be vintage, hand-made, or hand-me-down goodies. Think of it as wearing a daily uniform with enough creative license to make it look like I just crawled out of the Marquis de Sade’s boudoir.”

What found interesting is the way it was presented in the Guardian article: They really very strongly emphasised the sustainability/ethics/climate change angle, much more so than Sheena herself does (the reference to sustainable fashion in the quote above is the only mention, and the website is much more focused on the fundraising as the project’s key objective).

The reaction from the commenters on the Guardian website was generally fairly critical, mainly towards the claim that this project is in some way an exercise in ethical living (there were also some idiotic comments about Sheena’s looks which obviously out of order and I will not engage with here). Many many people pointed out that she is not actually ‘one woman, one dress, one year’ (the article’s title) but one woman with seven identical dresses and more shoes and other accessories than most people will ever own in their entire life time and that all these other things also have an environmental (and monetary) cost.

This really resonated with me, because the claim to ethical superiority often made by thrifters and crafters is one that I do find problematic, and I have posted about before. I felt compelled to comment on the Guardian’s website, which I have never done before, both to defend the project as a worthwhile thing to do from a creative point of view, and to say something about the environmental argument. Here is what I wrote:

“As a creative challenge, I find this fun and inspirational. And she does look cute! In the fashion/thrifting blogosphere, there are a lot of challenges like this, although they usually last for a much shorter period of time. I occassionally participate in them and really enjoy the way they make me think anew about my wardrobe. Wearing the same dress for a year without repetition is quite impressive, although possibly less so given the constant inflow of new donated accessories [note – people can donate their accessories for this project].

As an ethical project this is a lot of rubbish of course. If you’re going to have seven dresses, it really is irrelevant whether they all look the same or not. And something being handmade does not actually make it resource neutral. If the person only hand makes a few things each year, but buys all the gear (sewing machine, dress form, pattern books etc.), it is almost certainly less resource intensive to just buy the clothes from a shop.

I buy about 90% my clothes from charity shops (minus underwear of course), customise them myself or very occassionally buy them off etsy, but I would never say that I live this way for environmental reasons. I do it because its fun, its cheap, its creative and individual. It’s my hobby. I occassionally get quite annoyed with my fellow thrifters and crafty folk for implying that they are in some way saving the world, when really they are just channelling their consumption into different, slightly less harmful, avenues.”

I don’t know, what do you think?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • hollie 26 June 2009, 12:46 am

    Ok, I have a question, do these bloggers really imply that they are saving the world by thrifting?? In my experience I have never read that on a blog.I can only say that for me, thrift shopping and making my own clothes is one of the many things that I choose to partake in to live my life in a way that I am ethically proud of and what feels good for me.

    I agree, it's fun, but it is also a great way to show others that thrift shopping is a socially acceptable way to look great and empower them to do the same. If everyone decided to buy second hand, even just occasionally, that would make a difference, right?

    I think the project could have been done a little bertter if their main goal was all about sustainability, but perhaps we are being a bit too critical. If it is gaining some media attention, that must be a good thing? Perhaps it will start a trend of similar projects that can then learn from this?

    At this point I am just rambling, but I guess what Iam trying to say is that I mostly agree with you. Thanks for sharing your opinion on it!

  • Veronica Darling... 26 June 2009, 2:29 am

    Hey, just a quick drop by, but I think anything that is pointing out and highlighting that the world is materialistic and wasteful is important… so even if it's an art slash sustainable slash creative expressionist project, she's still *doing* something.

    I wouldn't claim I'm saving the world in any stretch, but I do believe that not buying new is certainly on the right path for a sustainable and better future for my family. And also I know I'm not contributing to any slave or cheap labor in the process.

    Love you throwing these ideas around!

  • Kate 26 June 2009, 6:46 am

    Thanks for your thoughts. I came across the uniform challenge this morning and find it very interesting for all sorts of reasons. Mainly, I think it's a great catalyst for getting us all to think about what we wear – do we really need a new outfit? Can't we just rework an existing one? What does dressing a certain way mean? I often look at how people are dressed and think "they decided to wear THAT today – I wonder why?" – and then reflect on my own choices.

  • Oranges And Apples 26 June 2009, 7:46 am

    Thanks for your comments. I think its really important to talk/think about these issues. I don't claim to have the answers, but I just think its important to ask, you know?

    I'm not saying at all that there are no ethical advantages to thrifting, obviously there are many, but I do think they are often overstated. People often give ethics as their main reason for being a thrifter, but if that really is your prime motivation, then there are many other things you can do that are equally if not more valid ways of conserving resources. Many reasons for choosing secondhand shopping that are much more lifestyle related. There is academic research on this too, which shows that people who shop in charity shops often cite environmental reasons, but when you dig deeper, their motivation is really all about self-expression, individualsm and creativity, just like people who take a lot of interest in new fashion.

    My main problem with the thrfiting thing is that it is often presented as a complete alternative to the 'buying new' economy, a way of dropping out of the system. This completely ignores that the two economies are intrinsically linked. A lot of what i thrift is originally from high street shops. If people don't keep new stuff which they wear for a bit then donate to the charity shops, there would be nothing in the charity shops for people like me to buy.

    The other argument I was trying to make in the old fast fashion post is that thrifting allows us to maintain this constant need for newness. If we really want to change the world and the fashion economy, we need to slow down, and really work with what we already have, not just channel our shopping habits elsewhere.

    Anyway, like I say, I'm not really advocating anything here, I just think that there are many issues around thrifting, handmaking and sustainability that really haven't been addressed or even acknolwedged yet. Nothing ever is that easy.

    Whoo, I do like to go on, don't I?

  • Sal 26 June 2009, 2:54 pm

    Huh. I'd seen TONS of bloggers laud this project as a fantastic endeavor … but hadn't heard any of the counterpoint. I tend to agree that this project is more about creativity than sustainability, but am impressed with the endeavor. Especially as it is a fundraiser.

    Will have to read some of those Guardian comments!

  • Hannah 27 June 2009, 6:22 pm

    very well put, and i wholly agree with you. the term "sustainable fashion" is a bothersome one to begin with. anyone who has a personal crusade to save the environment through shopping is someone to avoid. but we can all try to consume less, use what we have, and feel good about not shopping at certain places known for harmful practices. i don't think i would say that her project is really attempting to inspire anything but creative styling.
    great post!

  • Eyeliah SS 29 June 2009, 11:10 pm

    It is unfortunate for her interntions to be misunderstood, and then she is judged based on this misconception. I love the project, and is so inspirational to show girls how to spend less on clothes and mix it up, which is my main goal with clothing too. Great response you left. 🙂

  • Fruitful 20 March 2012, 10:22 pm

    I love that you wrote “thrifting allows us to maintain this constant need for newness. If we really want to change the world and the fashion economy, we need to slow down, and really work with what we already have, not just channel our shopping habits elsewhere.” My most excessive shopping hauls have all been thrifted, and the experience leaves me as overwhelmed and disconnected as if they were new (just not as financially depleted). Maybe more, as I’m more likely to experiment with stuff that doesn’t suit me when I thrift. I’m not there yet but I do want to learn to work with what I have (and only have stuff I can work with).

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