The Political Act of Getting Dressed
Written by TEju Adisa-Farrar
Illustration by Neals Niat
In 2018 my grandmother, Catherine James Palmer, passed away at 89 years old. Before then, I had a few dresses she’d given to me during the moments I went to visit her and helped her re-organize her wardrobe. She had copious amounts of clothes that she brought from Jamaica to California, when she moved here when I was 12. Her closet was not big enough to fit all of them, so she had four additional hanging racks squeezed between her bed and closet.
When she passed away the women in my family went through all of her clothes and each of us took some. She had clothes from all the different time periods in her life, clothes she could no longer fit anymore, so all of us—different sizes—got some things. I got several custom made skirts and Jamaican house dresses...amazed at how well they fit me since most of them did not have sizes. I wear her clothes (and some of her jewelry) often, thinking of myself as a sort of altar to honor her life. Wearing my grandma’s clothes allows me to pay homage to her existence and participate in fast fashion less. Wearing her clothes is as much about my personal style as it is about my identity as a Black Jamerican womyn, and my work’s focus on supporting / mapping alternatives to this oppressive embedded system.
I truly believe the personal is political. Even industries we think of being outside or beyond the realm of politics—like fashion—are mired in our deeply political society. From natural hair dynamics to gender prescription to where most clothes we wear in Europe and the U.S. are made… The fashion industry has been political since its inception. From wool growing to indigo used for dying to the more well known history of cotton cultivation. Textile development and industrialization in the U.S. and U.K. was made possible by plantation slavery. Without the centuries of free Black labor used to pick cotton in the U.S., the U.K. textile mills would not have been able to dominate the global textile industry and the U.S. would not have had its textile revolution.
Understanding sustainability in fashion also has to do with Black liberation and healing our relationship to the land.
Cotton was the U.S.’s first luxury commodity, picked by Black Africans forced into slavery. As a descendant of enslaved Africans in both the United States and the island nation of Jamaica, I know clothes are political. They are interlinked with this history of Black oppression and land degradation. To this day, the mainstream global textile industry devalues labor—labor that is mostly done by women of color, contributes to climate change through environmentally degenerating processes, and promotes over consumption.
These kinds of injustices, those done to our Earth and Black people / indigenous communities / people of color, cannot be separated. Understanding sustainability in fashion also has to do with Black liberation and healing our relationship to the land. This country was developed by exploiting Black people (especially Black women and our bodies) and devaluing the agricultural labor used to produce the natural fibers we need for many products we use on a daily basis.
Now most of the textile cultivation and production is outsourced to countries in Southeast Asia, where mostly women are working to produce our clothes for monumentally less than we buy them for. This whole system is stitched into the tags of clothes we buy, not realizing all the lives we (unknowingly) disavow in the process and how much strain this mass production has on our environment. It is much more difficult and expensive to buy locally manufactured, high quality clothes produced by valued, dignified labor. This is because our society is set up with an imperative towards profit (capitalism), making it cheaper to produce clothes in places with less environmental regulations and labor laws halfway across the world from where we will wear these clothes.
Although, wearing my grandmother’s clothes does not solve the problem of the global textile economy—it means that I participate less, in a system that has enslaved my ancestors and currently disenfranchises womyn (and girls) of color around the world—some of whom look like me.
Most of my clothes I do not buy new. I reuse clothes I’ve had for years, and try to thrift whenever possible. I don’t buy clothes very often. I try to align my style with my values, and be intentional with how much I consume. Ordaining ourselves and getting dressed is an import part of Black American and Jamaican culture. In some cases for Black people, style is not just a means of expression it is also a means of survival. For us, it is a way to reclaim value in a society that has devalued us for so long.
My style: the clothes I choose to wear and the accessories I put on, are influenced by decades of Black resistance to hegemonic culture. It is influenced by my grandmother stepping into a newly independent Jamaica as a young mother in the early 1960s. It is influenced by my father’s passion for archaeology and anthropology. It is influenced by my mother’s fierce creativity and bold audacity to be who she is in a world that has constantly told her otherwise. It is influenced by the history of Black bodies being closest to the land by force—and by way of the tropical African geographies they hailed from. It is influenced by Maroons throughout the Americas who rejected slavery and created their own self-sustaining communities comprised of a creole culture. It is influenced by my love of nature, art, Black diaspora culture, and colors.
I choose resistance, to reject (as much as possible) fashion that reinforces violent systems that are long overdue to be transformed. Even when it is inconvenient, even when it means I participate in mainstream culture less. The world of sustainable, equitable fashion that honors these histories and pays homage to those who deserve it is growing.
The alternatives to fast fashion are becoming more abundant and accessible. Thrifting and inheriting clothes is an individual act we can all do. Understanding these interconnected injustices so we are better equipped to support alternatives is something we can all do. Helping to breakdown the current systems by supporting those who are imagining and building new resilient, regenerative processes is necessary. As I wear my grandmother’s clothes and thrift, continuing to disrupt the status quo of the mainstream fashion industry—I’m stylizing an alternative future of expression, creativity, and environmental circularity.
Teju Adisa-Farrar is a Jamaican-American writer, geographer and poet. Teju’s work centers on political, racial and environmental justice. Her focus is on urban culture, environmental issues, climate justice, alternative geographies, and sustainable futures.