What We Eat and What We Wear: The Intersection of Food and Fashion
I had to step foot inside a mall this week. As I expected, it was not a pleasant experience.
As I walked along, peering into the various stores advertising denim for $12.95 and “buy one get one free” campaigns, I got the same feeling that I get when I enter a supermarket: a mixture of being overwhelmed and desensitized.
Be it a supermarket or a mall, most of us live in a culture where we are told that having lots of choices is a good thing, and the more choices, and the cheaper, the better. But studies have actually shown that too many choices can be paralyzing.
Think about how you feel in a grocery store aisle with 50 kinds of cereals, versus a small market with 2 to 3 kinds. There is happiness in simplicity. It’s why you take pleasure in finding out what your CSA box is going to hold.
Not only do smaller shopping experiences allow us fewer choices, they make for a more humanizing experience. An hour before entering the mall I had gone to the food co-op to shop for a few bulk grains and vegetables. It’s a store with about four aisles. Four. That’s minuscule in comparison to the average American grocery store. But to me, this size feels manageable. I am not overwhelmed when I walk in, and I feel as if I am treated as a human being, instead of just another number. I can interact with the woman at the checkout counter, who I recognize because she was at the checkout counter the last time that I came here. She is not just a worker and I am not just a consumer; she is a person and so am I. We engage in a human exchange, one that is far more personal than any other supermarket I have ever been to.
It’s the same reason that we have a love of markets. There are fewer choices – restricted by geography and season – which in a way, allow us to be more creative in thinking about what we are going to make when we get back home to the kitchen, and there is a personal, human exchange. We shake the hand of the farmer, we ask the baker what his or her favorite bread of the moment is and we discuss ideas for what to do with the latest seasonal ingredient with another market goer standing in line with us. These are the human interactions that we depend on. They are what make the fabric of society. They are what remind us that we are all connected, that our choices have an impact above and beyond just ourselves.
The oversized mentality however – be it in food or fashion – isn’t humanizing at all, but it’s one that has become the norm. Big store, lots of choices (and cheap ones at that), but nothing that you end up having a personal connection to, not to mention the low quality. There is no producer to talk to, no one excited about what it is that they are selling you (at least not genuinely excited, passion that comes from getting a commission does not count). And when you do buy something, whether it’s a cheap dress or a bag of chips, ultimately, you are left unsatiated. The bag of chips satisfies a craving, but doesn’t bring any health benefits, and you just want to go back for more. The cheap dress is going to either be worn once and then pushed to the back of the closet, to be given away in a purge a year later, or worn once and immediately fall apart, bringing you back to another store to buy a new one. And the cycle continues.
There are many connections to be made between the worlds of fashion and food. Cheap jeans and cheap burgers all come at an environmental, health and social cost. In the world of food, we have started to have this discussion. The rise of the Slow Food movement has made many more people aware of what they eat and where it comes from. Now, we are starting to do the same with fashion.
If we are to improve our relationship with what we wear, we must apply the same concepts. Because while a t-shirt does not grow directly from the ground, it does take a producer to grow the cotton, just like a farmer to grow a carrot, and a designer to make the shirt, just like it takes a cook to turn that carrot into a meal.
Many of us think about what we eat because of our personal health. How we think about what we wear should be driven by the same intent. For example, our skin is the largest organ in our bodies. It can absorb as much as the stomach can. What we wear is therefore just as important as what we eat. If you don’t want a plate of food ladened in pesticides, why are you willing to wear a pair of jeans ladened with them?
This is a website about food, but the underlying theme is that it’s a website for people who are concerned about the world around them. This year, I am going to focus more on the intersectionality of food and fashion, find the parallels (and let me tell you, there are many) and discuss them, in the hope that we not only eat better, but that we become better consumers overall. That we make the kind of choices that help to build strong regional food and fiber systems. That we bring things back to a human scale, one that our brains can handle and one that doesn’t overwhelm us. One that facilitates personal exchanges, and understanding the entire supply chain that’s required to clothe and feed us.
Call it Farm to Fashion if you will. Whether it’s sustainable textiles made from food waste, a t-shirt that’s grown, designed and sewn within a certain radius or producers who growing gardens that both feed people and make natural dyes, there is so much connection between the food and fashion worlds, and so much that each can learn from the other. Let’s dig in and change how we consume.