Sunday, April 18, 2010

Conscientious Consumption: The Wedding Outfit

Ever since I got clever about my finances, I find clothing at the bottom of my spending priorities. I devote most of my income to food, shelter, paying off debt, therapy, savings, and bits of social and cultural fun, all while living within the limited means that my not-so-bad (by Michigan standards) and yet not-so-great (considering my intelligence) hourly wage provides. Perhaps if I didn't spend $349 a month paying down student loans and other debt, I would be more interested in new clothes. But now that I am trying to commit myself to buying only sweatshop-free or second-hand apparel, I find that even when I do have the cash, I don't feel like taking the extra time needed to shop responsibly. The result is that my wardrobe rarely changes.

Believe it or not, I used to be a bit of a clotheshorse. Cute skirts and uncomfortable shoes were more common than jeans and sneakers. I didn't wear t-shirts. But now, between being married and working a job that doesn't require me to dress any particular way (while also providing me with the largest collection of free t-shirts I've ever amassed), I admit I don't try much anymore. Sometimes I miss the days when my wardrobe actually garnered good reviews, but mostly I'm just thinking about other things.

Maybe that's why finding clothes to wear to weddings stresses me out so much. The big burst in wedding invitations these past few years has coincided with my dwindling interest in clothes. I seem to always find myself scraping for an appropriate dress or skirt with less than 24 hours before the ceremony. And then I wind up wearing something that feels too dark or too tight or too informal, and then I feel weird when I know I should just be having fun and feeling happy for my friends. I wish I could just get over my discomfort but in anticipation of yesterday's wedding (my boss's), I decided it would actually be easier to allow myself a little more money and time to find some appropriate, sweat-free gear.

I began with pre-paycheck reconnaissance mission to Orchid Lane in Ann Arbor. For the past several years, Orchid Lane has been my primary source for brand-new clothing. I like their loose-fitting, hippie batik style and the girls who work there are delightfully outgoing saleswomen. When I decided to shop sweat-free a few months ago, I was glad to remember that much of Orchid Lane's apparel is sourced directly from third world producers. The clothiers make a better-than-sweatshop wage and I get to enjoy their gorgeous goods. During my visit, I spotted a rack of colorful patchwork rayon sundresses in the $20 - $30 price range. I checked the tags and found the Orchid Lane label, my assurance that the items were fairly traded. On my way out of the store, I also noticed some cute, poly-cotton stretchy tank tops with labels that said "Made in Cambodia". Hmm. I asked the young woman at the counter, "Hey, are the items with the 'Orchid Lane' label fair trade?" She replied, "All of our items are fair trade." Really? Even the ones that say "Made in Cambodia"? "Oh, yes. The owner travels around the world buying clothes directly from the producers."

I thanked her for the information, but was nevertheless dubious. A few days later, I ran into a former Orchid Lane employee who I'll call Lydia - she happened to sell me my prized stripy lime green tote bag (made in India). I asked her to give me the honest truth. Are all of Orchid Lane's items fair trade? She smiled ruefully and shook her head "no". While that claim once was true, they have more recently moved in the sort of tighter, stretchy apparel that appeals to UM coeds, and most or all of these clothes are sweatshop produced. As I told Lydia, I don't blame Orchid Lane for making that business decision - I'm sure they make a bigger profit on the Made in Cambodia shirts, and I appreciate that they still offer sweat-free clothes for conscientious consumers. But I would have a lot more respect for them if they didn't encourage their employees to lie. Lydia concurred and admitted that that is one of the reasons she no longer works there. That's their loss. She was a damned good saleswoman.

I nevertheless returned this past Monday to purchase one of the patchwork rayon dresses (after getting some tips from Lydia, I felt assured that it was fairly traded). All that I needed were some brown ballet flats or sandals and a strapless bra to go with it. But then the week got away from me. Dan was out of town with the car. Wednesday was my birthday, which I devoted entirely to hanging out with my friends. And then between work, recovering from my birthday, catching up at the gym, and more work, I realized that I had only a small window on Friday morning to complete my wedding outfit. Again, with just a day to go, I found myself stressing.

I'll be honest, I gave up on sweatshop-free underwear a couple months ago. I can't afford to spend $14 on a single pair of bikini briefs. I made my peace with Hanes Her Way (made in South America - hey, at least the carbon footprint is a bit trimmer) and decided that I would not buy everything fair trade. I suspected that I would make the same choice with my next bra purchase, but I really hoped I could hold out for some second-hand sandals to go with my dress. But with limited time and the knowledge that Saturday's temperature would be somewhere in the forties, and that I would want to be wearing pantyhose for slight extra warmth, which meant that I needed closed-toe shoes (being a woman can be so freakin' annoying), I found myself at Target.

I used to love shopping at Target and I still appreciate that I can go in with twenty five bucks and come out with a pair of shoes and a bra, but what have I to show for it? A hideous foam brassier (made in Bangladesh) that actually made Dan laugh, a pair of paper thin flats (made in China) that will not last beyond a few workdays, and the knowledge that both items were likely made by young women who would have to work at least thirty hours to buy either one. In short, I felt like an asshole.

Well, what's done is done and all I can say is that feeling of awfulness is enough to make me even more dedicated to this sweat-free mission. Honestly, it felt way worse than that "I'm not dressed well enough for this wedding" feeling. So when I woke up yesterday morning with unresolved questions like, "What will I wear to cover my bare arms?" I decided I was done with stressing over the wedding outfit. I determined that my ultimate goal would be to have fun. I didn't think about it any more while I was at work yesterday. And when it was time to get ready, I found a few things in my closet to complete the ensemble - an orange linen scarf that my friend B brought home from her recent trip to Ethiopia, a brown blazer I had purchased from Orchid Lane six years ago (made in the USA!) and a lovely blue bracelet from an African bead store in Detroit. In the end, I wound up with an outfit I loved, one that hearkened back to the era when I was actually known as a snappy dresser.

And completely unrelated to that, I had a wonderful time at the wedding.

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