Young, Thrifted, & Black
Clothes are very important to me. Not in the typical sense. I couldn’t tell you the difference between Gucci and Michael Kors. Nor am I in possession of what many might call a “shoe game.” In fact, I am at this very moment sitting in a coffee shop wearing a pair of clunky, second-hand Skechers that costs less money than the Kombucha I’m drinking. For me, clothes have never been about glitz and glamor or brand names. Rather, I feel my clothes should reflect who I am in the deepest parts of myself. My family, however, has an entirely different clothing philosophy.
I come from the kind of family that buys entirely new outfits for Easter Sunday alone. The days leading up to the holiday were inevitably frantic as my mother dragged my younger sister and I from Macy’s to JCPenny to Sears in search of the perfect shoe-dress combination. My mother must’ve spent hundreds of dollars on these outfits that we’d fidget in during church only to rip off and throw carelessly on our beds after family photos were taken. However, my mom would always make us trudge back up to our rooms and put our dresses on hangers. These dresses, that we’d only wear for a few hours on a Sunday, that we’d otherwise forget had it not been for photos, were so precious to my mother.
There’s a rich history with clothing that runs through my family. From my great-grandmother who would buy two of everything at department stores because the White employees wouldn’t give her so much as a side-eye when she walked in, to my grandfather who always comes to church dressed in fabulous hats, alligator shoes and ties with intricate prints. My family seemed to collect clothing the way other families collect trinkets from vacations. My closet was always full to the brim with dresses and skirts and shirts and pants, purchased for Christmas programs, weddings and funerals over the years. Once, I naively sold a cashmere sweater to a neighbor for $4 at a yard sale and my mother never got over it.
My family has always taken great pride in the clothes we wear. Or rather, in the clothes we’re seen in. Our garments have always seemed to me to function as a second skin. In elementary school my tennis shoes always had to be squeaky clean because my mother said that shoes are the first thing a person notices about you. Of course, as a 7-year-old I never quite understood what she meant. That was before I understood the implications of occupying a Black body. And how clothing could signal, even in the most subtle ways a person’s place in the world. I couldn’t comprehend that when she insisted on ironing my uniform skirts and polos before school every morning that this was her way of sending me out into the world with a kind of armor.
In high school, I started to experiment with my style and took to thrifting. My parents were very confused as to why I insisted on buying second-hand clothes that in their eyes looked cheap and dingy. At first, thrifting was simply a hobby of mine, strictly for fashion purposes. Yet, as I became more conscious of the harmful effects fast fashion has on garment workers and the environment, I began to only buy thrift or second-hand as a conscious practice. Before I knew it, my entire wardrobe was thrifted, much to my parents’ dismay. It wasn’t unusual during my trips home from university for my mother to take one look at me and ask if I needed her to buy me new shoes. My dad once gave me money for my birthday with the request that I buy some clothes from a “real” store. When I explained to him that the reason I thrift so often is to reduce my impact on harming the environment, he laughed, utterly surprised and said, “Who are you?”
This newfound consciousness has wedged me between a rock and a hard place--between an understanding about conscious consumption and the truth about the way Black and Brown people are expected to navigate the world. The average person on the street will not look at me in my thrifted attire and think “conscious consumer.” The average passerby will take one look at my old Skechers and faded jeans against my brown skin and make assumptions about my socioeconomic status. Because in so many ways, the amount of melanin you have determines how much of your story you get to tell before people decide they already know it.
It’s when I consider these phenomena that I understand why my parents placed such a huge emphasis on clothing. It’s not because they love to flaunt their wealth or enjoy having flashy things. But rather, they understand as Black people how our very existence is perceived by the world. As Black people, as Black professionals they know, probably more than they’d like to admit, what it feels like to have someone look right through you. To be dismissed without so much as a glance. Through purchasing nice clothes for me as a kid, my parents were ensuring, even in the smallest way, my Black body’s visibility in the world.
Sometimes this newfound consciousness I have feels like a betrayal of the way my parents brought me up. There’s a sense that maybe I’m representing my family poorly by wearing thrifted clothing by choice. And yet, at the same time, I know that it is only because of my parents that I am conscious of the fast fashion industry in the first place. It’s their hard work that paid my cell phone bill, that bought my books, that put me through university and paved the way for me to even gain such a consciousness. I recognize the privilege someone like me, as a millennial in the age of information, has to be conscious of things such as fast fashion. I also recognize the immense privilege of someone from a socioeconomic background such as mine has to choose to shop at a thrift store, when so many other people who look like me simply have no other option. And ultimately, I’m mindful of my decision to become a conscious consumer must go beyond thrifting alone.
There are nuances to this conversation that I have just barely scratched the surface of. I'm continually learning how to reconcile my upbringing and my convictions. How to balance in one hand the ways in which the clothes I wear may affect people I never meet, and in the other the hard truth that my clothing will always say more about me than I can control. The garments I choose to navigate the world in, speak of who I am, where I come from and what I believe. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may not have all the answers. After all, nuance is but side effect of the Black experience, if not the human experience. I am constantly learning how to navigate the world as a Black person. The clothes I choose to wear along the way, are but another aspect of the process. My shoes may be the first thing a person notices about me, but given the chance, these clunky Skechers would say more about me than the average passerby could even imagine.