On clothing as companions
by Fashion Stylist Patricia Lagmay
I first learned about I-Thou, a term coined by philosopher Martin Buber, while reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. I-Thou is best described by starting with its counterpart, I-It—a way of seeing the world in which everything you encounter, be it a person or a thing, is only relevant insofar as it relates to yourself (with I being you, and It being everything else). I-Thou, as described by Odell, instead “recognizes the irreducibility and absolute equality of the other [person or thing].”¹ In other words, Thou art not an It.
It’s the difference between asking “who are you to me?” instead of simply asking, “who are you?”
Lately, I’ve been playing with the idea of relating to the objects in my life through the lens of I-Thou, partly driven by all the forced solitude brought on by this pandemic, but also as a way of feeling more connected with everything I touch. To anyone who’s watched Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up on Netflix, this idea won’t seem foreign. In it, she begins the art of de-cluttering clients’ spaces by first introducing herself to their homes, taking a quiet moment to say, “Hello, how are you? Thank you for protecting the people who live here.” All this towards a structure we consider inanimate.
Which leads me to the question I’ve been asking all week: what would happen if we saw our clothing as companions, instead of the objects we’ve been trained to consume and dispose of?
Inanimate objects like the stack of sweaters in our closets are clearly limited in that they can’t participate in a relationship the same way that, say, our pets or fellow humans can. No sweater is going to be able to tell you when you’re being a complete dud, nor will one know to surprise you with a congratulatory cake when the project you’ve been labouring over finally comes to a finish. But even so, an interdependence exists. The sweater I wear here, for instance, will only continue to provide value to my life so long as I work to care for it, too. Whether I keep it hung on its wiry dry cleaning hanger or carefully fold it into my dresser, determines if ten years from now, it’ll be there when I wake up to a morning colder than expected. Or if, when I’m meeting my partner’s parents for the first time and need something comforting and familiar (yet presentable!) to wear, it’ll be there to hold my proverbial hand.
Travelling backwards on that train of thought, what would happen if we selected our clothes with the same curiosity and diligence that we espouse when meeting someone for the first time? What if we held each piece up to the light, asking, “Where do you come from? Whose hands made you? What are your needs? For how long will you be staying?” Before ultimately deciding that they’re worthy of an invitation into our most intimate moments.
This exploration is most interesting given that, as a stylist, my entire career is built on consumption. And not just my own, but the encouragement of others’ too. For the last three years, I’ve been trying to reconcile the fact that the world doesn’t need more clothes, with the other fact that my job exists for the sole purpose of selling them. How do I keep on doing what I do without permanently burning our planet to the ground, with the waste generated by the industry I’ve built my career on?
I used to think the answer was in consuming less, in consuming better, in encouraging others to do the same. But maybe it’s in not consuming at all, at least in the way consumption is delineated by I-Thou vs. I-It. Maybe the answer lies in turning the idea of consumption on its head, so that instead of only asking what this piece of clothing can do for me, I also ask how it exists outside of me.
Objects, however technically inanimate, are only as lifeless as we allow them to be. I’m reminded of this every time a seemingly innocuous fortune cookie remnant transports me back to the year I got stranded in a California snowstorm on Thanksgiving weekend, with only a Chinese restaurant to save me from the cold. To anybody else, the fortune is just a piece of paper. To me, it’s a reminder that things always have a way of working themselves out, and that wool will always be warmer than acrylic.
1. Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2019), p.104.