Critique of Pure Practical Fashion

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Is it possible to dress purely for function or practicality?  Practical fashion has become trendy, which makes its pure practicality seem mildly suspicious.  Think Patagonia fleece, cargo pants, and windbreakers, not to mention, eco-friendly fashion trends, like bamboo socks, recycled fabrics, and brands that entice consumers with their down-to-earth, fair-trade policies.  While fair trade is clearly preferable to unfair trade and bamboo socks are amazing, profiting off of the presence of ethical terminology seems to open the door for misuse.

Here, we need not restrict ourselves to the fashion of clothing.  There is Endangered Species Chocolate and Dagoba: Inspired Chocolate Empowering Women.  Eating chocolate certainly inspires me, no matter who or what else it inspires.  Sure, I’d rather buy chocolate that saves the rainforest and empowers women than chocolate that hurts wildlife and enslaves women.

M&Ms in flight with NASA's Atlantis
M&Ms in flight with NASA’s Atlantis

I can only hope that there are no derogatory health consequences to eating chocolate that would prevent my consumption of it empowering me to empower others.  Still, I’m troubled that the trendiness of such ideas is used to sell more chocolate—promising, if the ethical standards of the company come from its heart, but disturbing, if the profit of the company is what motivates the overture to ethical standards.  Maybe the message is actually to cut out the chocolate middleman and just save the rainforest?

So, too, with fashion that looks toward a cause other than fashion—fashion that aims to increase comfort and function or to sustain the environment rather than break it down.  Fashion with a good cause is, after all, still fashion.  It is still concerned with sales and looks, even when it makes you look not just better, but more moral.  Unless it is nonprofit fashion, where all the profits go straight to a good cause, it would be difficult to reconcile buying an organic cotton dress with saving a baby elephant.

Perhaps the most consistent policy is to recycle fashion within itself, in the style of brands like Reformation, which takes used clothing and reconfigures it into new styles so as to reduce the waste of fast fashion, such as H&M and Forever 21.  Even H&M has jumped on the bandwagon with its line entitled, “H&M Conscious”—ironically, an even more profitable stratagem, because it is an elitist (and so, more coveted) division of H&M Unconscious.  Well, at least it is all for a good cause—sort of.

Houdini, Jennie the Elephant, and Saturn
Houdini, Jennie the Elephant, and Saturn

The issue of practicality in fashion is complicated by the fact that we don’t know exactly what fashion is good for.  Some people may cast a downward eye on fashion that doesn’t “look” comfortable, which is to say fashion that appears as if it is non-functional.  The judgment is based on the idea that the more a garment grabs you from the outside, the less are its merits on the inside.  This is the unjust corollary of “don’t judge a book by its cover”—i.e., the conclusion that, if the cover calls too much attention to itself, its contents must be doubted.

Whether true or not, we might now inquire into the sustainable prejudices that seem to be dyed in the covering of our clothing, especially clothing that appears to be free of prejudicial dye.  Is it impossible to think of a practical hat in the same way it is impossible to think of Madame Bovary’s impractical hat?  A practical hat will surely have a certain “look” that defies its pure practicality.  Indeed, if a hat were to be purely practical, you would not be able to distinguish it from its function (plus, is its function to cover the head, keep it warm, or support a sports team?).  A hat is never any old hat, except when it is, only to impractically call attention to its own practicality.

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