Clothing, High Fashion, and Voluntary Simplicity’s Alternative Aesthetic

The historic purpose of clothing, as Henry Thoreau pointed out, was to keep us warm and, in time, for reasons of modesty. Today its dominant purpose seems to be fashion and the conspicuous display of wealth and status. People can, of course, spend thousands and thousands of dollars on clothing, if they wish. But simple livers tend to ‘dress down,’ wearing functional, often second-hand clothing.[1] Such clothing can be generally obtained at a minimal expense. Furthermore, purchases can be avoided or reduced significantly by mending clothing, or even making one’s own.

Dressing down, it should be noted, does not necessarily imply giving up ‘style’ or puritanically denying self-expression through what one wears. But it does seem to imply rejecting high fashion (and all its stands for) in favour of some ‘alternative’ aesthetic.[2] In this way, dressing down can be understood to be an outward statement of simplicity; an effort, however small, to express aesthetically one’s opposition to consumer culture. Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each and every year in the fashion industry.[3] Just imagine if even half of that money was redirected toward green energy or humanitarian initiatives. We would lose so little and gain so much. Again, how we spend our money is how we vote on what exists in the world.

For more on Thoreau’s views on clothing, click here.

[1] See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005) 166.

[2] See, e.g., Kate Soper, ‘Alternative Hedonism, Cultural Theory and the Role of Aesthetic Revisioning’ (2008) 22(5) Cultural Studies 567.

[3] See OECD, ‘A New World Map in Textiles and Clothing’ (2002) available at <> at 15 October 2010 (reporting that in 2002 the global textile and clothing industries amounted to $350 billion).

6 Responses to “Clothing, High Fashion, and Voluntary Simplicity’s Alternative Aesthetic”

  1. Lee Bones says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. I myself have contemplated the options that I have when it comes to simple clothing. I’m interested in learning to sew, but I have a hunch that clothing from thrift stores will typically be the lowest costing option.

  2. Quinton Blue says:

    I keep it simple by buying new clothes, but rarely buying any clothes, and wearing them until they are borderline rags. The key is to choose, not trendy, but classic and basic. A personal uniform also helps. For example, I wear black pants nearly all the time and so I have no concerns with matching. If something does not coordinate with black pants then I don’t buy it. This reduces your wardrobe needs considerably. It can be years before I buy any clothes but when I do, I go with quality materials. I also keep things forever. I have a sports coat that was my father’s and with a little elbow patching it is still wearable. The coat is more than 50 years old and still useable and looks good.
    Latest post from Quinton Blue…Five Answers From Blue on The Sun Tea Chronicles

  3. roselle says:

    So glad to have come across this site.

    Can’t help feeling that it’s congruent with simplicity and a post-peak-oil future that we return also to making what clothes we can; or at least to learning the art. (Reclaimed fabrics are also good.) For instance, many years ago I taught myself to spin, weave, knit, sew and vegetable-dye fabric, often using found chunks of sheep’s wool gathered from hedges (with certain breeds you can find enough shed on brambles in an hour or two in the right location to make a garment).

    And then of course there are also skills like gathering wild food and plant medicine, both of which I include in my lifestyle. If anyone has links to sites with specific info on this stuff (people ask me from time to time what reference material is available online), it’d be good to see them.

    I speak on my own blog of various related stuff, eg ecocentric gardening, amongst other things, but with less academic precision (am a poet).

    Thanks Samuel for this site.
    Latest post from roselle…after Rio, now what?

  4. I started becoming aware of VS by a small article on the Cambridge coop newspaper. I followed up on the group and remained a member of VS of the greated Boston área. I learned a lot and bought many books on simple living, decluttering, simple llife, etc. Best thing I did in a long time. Would like to be part of such a group again. But now I live in Puerto Rico, and here VS is in its infancy. Hope you can help.

  5. Pamela says:

    Spent some time recently updating my wardrobe.
    After studying this subject, I came up with some observations. Buy classic, sturdy clothes.
    Find two to three colors that look good next to your face and buy only those color shirts. Match those tops with only two different color bottoms.
    Pant and skirts are not really noticed that much.
    Perhaps buy two scarves and two necklaces if you are a woman. Make sure they work with multiple shirts/blouses. This is so easy. I think some would call this a capsule wardrobe.

  6. Polly says:

    This topic is of interest to me because fashion and personal style is the one area of mainstream culture that I have the most difficulty rejecting. Of course almost all my clothes are either handmade or second hand, but I still have a penchant for keeping up with the current silhouette, overall look or patterns. This is a problem for me, because even though I don’t support the industry with my money, by wearing my interpretation of the current fashion I still appear to support it. I think the fashion industry is a mega billion dollar waste industry that is irreparably hurting farming, manufacturing and dyeing communities, animals, the environment, and women’s self esteem. I’d love to start wearing white overalls everyday in opposition to this industry! But our mainstream culture’s appearance-is-everything marketing machine has had it’s way with me since birth – I don’t know if I can suppress the urge to jump through the hoops to attempt to look the right way. But I guess living simply and thoroughly rejecting consumer culture isn’t always going to be an easy ride. I’m probably lucky that this is harder than going car free, being vegan and using washable nappies.

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge