Friday, December 29, 2017

Øystein's Sweater, and the Lunacy of Modern Fashion

When I was a kid I spent a year living in Norway as an exchange student. At the time, knitting was all the rage among my female classmates. I tried to take it up, really I did, but apparently I lack the knitting gene. While others find it meditative and relaxing, I fear for me it just led to cursing and frustration.

Anyway, one of the boys in my class was named Øystein. He was quite memorable - tall and lanky with copious locks of flaming red hair. A true vision of your prototypical Viking.

Øystein played the tuba, and was a bit of a class clown. That way my interpretation at least. Not being fluent in either the language or the culture, sometimes it's hard to tell. At any rate, there was a running joke among the girls in the class about Øystein's sweater. You see, he only had one. Or at least, he only wore one... every single day.

One day, one of the girls offered to knit him a new sweater. Øystein gave her a somewhat puzzled look and replied with complete innocence: "Nei Takk, Jeg har en genser, Jeg!" Which translates to: "No thanks, I have a sweater, I do!" The entire class erupted in laughter, but it's still unclear to me whether he was trying to be funny, or if he simply couldn't fathom why anyone would possibly need more than one sweater - I mean, you can only wear one at a time, right? Either way, no new sweater was forthcoming, and he continued to wear the same one every day until the winter was over.

I love that story. I think of it frequently, and it puts things into perspective when I read a blog post about wardrobe size, or when I see commercials for clothing stores, or whenever I hear someone obsessing about fashion. 

To be honest, fashion has never really been "my thing." It's not that the younger me didn't try, I just never seemed to be able to pull it off. In the end, I'd always end up spending a bunch of money, and wasting a bunch of time in front of mirrors trying things on, all the while growing less and less content with the way I looked.

And, you know, I really think that's the whole point. OK, bear with me here, as I'm about to get exceedingly cynical, but it seems to me that the entire fashion industry is built upon a horrifically cruel premise.  You make people feel bad about their bodies, so they'll go out and spend ridiculous sums of money buying some new piece of clothing in order to make the bad feelings go away.

I know there are plenty of women out there who will vociferously disagree with me, but I really think that an industry which profits off of giving people a poor self image is just plain evil - to say nothing of skin and bones fashion models, or people in third world countries employed at slave wages toiling away in sweat shops producing the clothes in the first place.

When your really think about it, it's sorta crazy how far the world of fashion has diverged from the actual purpose of clothing.

And even when the styles are less ridiculous than the "thong jeans" pictured above, they keep changing what's "in" every year or two, so people will feel obligated to keep up with the times by continuing to buy their products.

Seriously, once back when I was still working at the music school, a bunch of us were sitting around waiting for a meeting to start. One of the young women was complimenting another on her new boots. She then proceeded to say how ashamed she was of her own boots because they were last year's style. It took great effort for me not to scream, "You're a single mother who has trouble putting food on the table and keeping a roof over your children's heads for God's sake, why the hell are you concerned about whether your boots are last year's style or not!!!"

Of course, I didn't say anything, but it does make me both sad and angry to see people spending crazy amounts of money fighting the hopeless battle against their own insecurities - a good chunk of which have been manufactured by the very industry that wants you to spend the money in the first place!

And don't EVEN get me started about the incredible wastefulness of an industry which produces garments designed to be worn a few times and then discarded. Grrrrr....

I mean, where do people get the idea that it's somehow gauche to be seen wearing the same thing more than once? I recently heard that there was a great stir because Kate Middleton wore the same suit for her family Christmas photo that she'd worn on several previous occasions. Seriously? Do people really pay attention to this sort of thing?

You know, when I quit my job about 10 years ago, one of the great reliefs was that I no longer needed the sort of wardrobe that I used to... not that people in the world of folk music are deeply into fashion, but when you don't have to be applying for grants or schmoozing potential donors, the bar for what's considered "presentable" lowers considerably.

And then the carpet beetles struck a few years ago, and I had to basically pack everything into airtight containers unless it was getting worn frequently enough to be washed every week or two.

So while minimalism was never really my goal in terms of clothing, in the past few years I seem to be embracing the Øystein school of fashion. Seriously, at this point my winter wardrobe (excluding bike wear - which I sorta think of as "equipment" rather than "clothing") consists of 4 pairs of sweat pants, 1 pair of jeans, 3 smartwool base layers, one sweatshirt, a fleece jacket, and yes... ONE sweater!

And you know what, it's sorta wonderful. I basically wear what's clean until it's all dirty, at which point there's enough to fill up the washer (if you include the bike wear and towels) so I throw it all in there and start over again. The only real downside I can see so far is that stuff wears out a LOT faster when you wear it that frequently. But you know what, that's OK. Once the holes in xyz item have gone past the point of no repair, I'll turn it into a rag and fetch something "new" out of storage. Eventually, I'll have to actually buy some replacements, but that's what the thrift store is for, and at the rate I'm going it will be a good long time before I have to go there!

Now, I'm not saying that I think everyone should strive for Øystein status in the clothing department. Different lives will undoubtedly require different sorts of wardrobes. But, the next time you're frantically pulling things out of the closet in the midst of a wardrobe crisis, I'd simply ask you to remember this: You are not Kate Middleton, and nobody really cares what you wear... at least nobody who's opinion you ought to care about does.

There's a wonderful little footnote to the Øystein story. Of all the people I have crossed paths with in this little life of mine, Øystein has become one of the most successful and even famous - well, famous as tuba players go.

It warms my little fashion-hating heart to know that his wardrobe, or lack thereof, in no way hindered his magnificent success. And who knows, maybe it even contributed to it. Because when you're not worried about stupid stuff like fashion, you've got a lot more time, money and energy to devote to the things that really matter in life.


  1. There are as many different clothing styles as there are people I am a neat and comfortable type person. Your wardrobe would suit me fine except I have to go to work 5 days a week. Luckily, this job doesn't require anything fancy like my first corporate job did--a full suit every day. I know people who spend more money than they have on clothing. I don't know if it's they feel bad about their bodies or they just get a high when they buy something and clothing is their choice. I have another friend who expresses her creativity through her clothing. She loves to shop thrift stores and discounts to create outfits. I know others who still wear their high school clothes 30 years later and others who always have on the latest.

    It's a complicated subject as I think about it. It's an area where we love to show our individuality, but want to fit in. No wonder I'm not good with fashion either. That's a hard thing to do.

    1. "...we love to show our individuality, but want to fit in." I think you said a mouthful there. Being accepted by our peers is so important to all of us - I almost think it's biological, since we are clearly social animals who depend on our groups for survival. I think that's why the abusiveness of the industry bothers me so much. They're exploiting a basic human instinct for profit.

    2. I'm probably the "expresses creativity through clothing" person. I'm not super high maintenance with my clothes, and I wear them for years, but I do enjoy clothing and fashion, to a point. For me, it's fun; I try to pick styles that flatter my figure rather than being super trendy, but I enjoy the colors/textures/silhouette that different clothing styles create. I hate clothing trends which change seasonally, but then again, the midwest in general isn't a cutting-edge area in fashion. Frankly, some "trends" are practical and comfortable for living where I do--case in point, boots are huge in fashion these days--I like the look and I find them comfortable, especially in our current single-digit-heavy-snowfall weather. I completely agree with you on the throw-away mindset of the fashion industry; as I already mentioned, I live in the (pragmatic) midwest and I don't really know anyone who treats their wardrobes like that. I guess, like so many things, I take a middle-of-the-road approach to fashion; I'm definitely not a minimalist, and practicalities win out over trends, but finding a new top that fits well and looks good on the clearance rack does make me happy. I guess that makes me the oddball commenter here. Ha.

      I am laughing about you knitting a sweater--I have been working on a (simple!) sweater for my niece's 16 month old daughter--it was supposed to be a Christmas gift but at this point I'm hoping it still fits her when I get it done!

    3. Hahaha! Well, if you don't get the sweater done before she outgrows it, you can always save it for the next person who has a baby girl!

      It's very interesting to me that you don't know anyone with a throwaway fashion mindset. I'm wondering if some of that is unique to... or at least more prevalent among 20-somethings. Not taking a swipe at millennials here, I just think that when you're young, a few years feels like a very long time, whereas when you're my age, something I've had for 5 years still seems "new."

      Anyhow, I do totally agree that buying things that will last is the way to go. I think that part of my feelings on this topic are informed by my many years of shopping at thrift stores. You can always tell what's no longer in fashion by what the racks are inundated with! Apparently low rise boot cut jeans are "out" now.

    4. Yay me! I finished the sweater last night (except to sew on buttons--and I confess, I made a "help me" phone call to a friend to manage the neck band).

      I know that low rise boot cut jeans are out because I'm seeing a lot less "crack" now. Thank goodness. That was as bad as the midriff-shirt trend.

      I think younger people of every generation tend to be more throw-away with their clothing--as you mentioned, time has a different meaning to them, and they don't have the financial pressures that tend to come with age (mortgages, student loans, car payments ... ). I guess I tend to notice eating habits more than clothing with younger people--I'm amazed when I go on my almost-weekly splurge for my bargain-priced latte (94 cents). The local high school has an open campus, and I often run into the high schoolers at my coffee place. Me, I purchase the cheapie special. These kids purchase the expensive coffee drinks plus a bakery snack. I'm astounded at the money they spend, the calorie load they consume, and the amount of paper waste generated--I'm not sure, but I think this may be a several-times-a-week occurrence for them. It's not an occasional fun treat ... maybe I'm mis-reading it, but it seems like it's almost an expectation. I help out with our church youth group and the same thing happens there--these kids come in every stinkin' week with jumbo-sized Slurpees or whatever, and I know that many of them come from families that struggle financially. It boggles my mind. Anyway, I don't think millenials are unique to this--I suspect each generation has been consumer-minded--although maybe we are seeing the accumulation of generations of consumerism and waste??

    5. Hey Kris, I am more impressed than you can possibly know with your sweater accomplishment. Honestly, after many months of tangled yarn, dropped stitches, and tension that was all over the map, my one attempt at a sweater died before I ever got past the body portion of the deal. So I offer a hearty congratulations on finishing the thing!

      The young people spending thing is a bit mysterious, though I do remember that era from my own life. I think for me, at least, it was the juxtaposition of a bunch of different factors. I was old enough to have a job and make my own money, but not old enough to have any real expenses. At the same time, everyone's trying desperately to fit in with their peers - or at least I was - so having the "right" clothes, and doing all of the "right" things got carried to ridiculous proportions. In terms of the caloric intake, I think we'll have to chalk that one up to the blessings of the teenage metabolism! :-)

    6. Well, I've never tried a sweater for anyone older than 1 1/2 years, so don't be too impressed! When I was re-learning to knit (my mom had taught me when I was a teenager but I hadn't done it in years), my daughter was at the right age to knit doll sweaters--little did I know that was a perfect way to learn new techniques. The sweaters didn't take too long since they were doll-sized and if I botched the project, it didn't really matter. Anyway, I would NEVER suggest to anyone that they start learning to knit by making a sweater--scarves are the way to go for beginners (or maybe dishcloths).

      Young adults are their own entity, aren't they? I know I made some goofy decisions at that stage in my life--but I never had the metabolism to eat non-stop!

  2. Man, this post speaks to me.

    I, too, am not a slave to fashion. Though when I went in to the office 5 times a week, I had to pretend. Now it's a pain when I have to dress up for four days out of the year on our annual trip up to the headquarters.

    I generally wear the same things every day: a different t-shirt and a rotating group of hiking pants (or shorts in the winter). And right now, yeah, I'm rocking the same wool sweater that Mrs. Done by Forty got for me...out of a lost and found box that her lab was going to throw away.

    1. Hahaha! I love the provenance of your wool sweater. I think Øystein would be proud!

  3. I love this post! So glad he's 'famous' - it really is like 'the moral of the story'!!!

    1. I know, right? He does seem to have lost most of his crazy locks of hair though. When I knew him, he looked a lot more like Carrot Top!

    2. Oh, I agree with Dawn G's comment.
      Great post!

    3. Glad you liked it. It is fun to think of him being world famous...

  4. I don't think you're being cynical at all. The cynics are the advertisers for the fashion and beauty industries -- the ones who keep telling us we "deserve" whatever crap they're selling and should feel bad for denying it to ourselves. Nowadays people like to throw the words "self care" about (which in my mind should be eating well, sleeping enough and exercising regularly, rather than buying overpriced cosmetics), which is really just a new angle for the same ugly concept.
    As for Øystein's sweater, a while back I began wearing a pair of loose cotton pants I bought for yoga everywhere. My mother though they looked great on me and began gifting me more cotton pants. My father thought I was wearing them because I didn't have any more jeans, so he began giving me jeans. Eventually I sat both down, thanked them for their generosity but I didn't want any more pants since "I only have one butt". They were greatly amused by it, but also a bit confused -- how can someone not want more free clothes?!
    "Because when you're not worried about stupid stuff like fashion, you've got a lot more time, money and energy to devote to the things that really matter in life." Preach it, sister ;)

    1. I love your cotton pants story. My stepmom keeps giving me clothes too... although I think for her it's more a case of cleaning out her closet. You know, my experience with the carpet beetles has really taught me a lesson about the true cost of having a lot of stuff. I know this is an overstatement, but at this point I really see the acquisition of stuff almost like adopting a pet. The cost of acquiring it is a drop in the bucket. The real expense (in terms of money, time and energy) is in storing, cleaning and caring for the thing.

  5. While it is true that the true "cost" of an animal is in maintenance, you are saving a life, creating happiness for another sentient being and hopefully, many happy years and memories. That doesn't compare to piles of clothes, furniture or "stuff" humans acquire. Aside from a couple cheap tees, socks and undies and a hoody, I buy few items of clothing. The fashion industry, like its evil twin the diet/weight loss industry, can't wait to convince us all we need more...that can be said of almost any corporation these days.

    1. Oh, I wasn't in ANY way meaning to imply that animals are equivalent to stuff. They are family members as far as I am concerned. I was just saying that I think people tend to underestimate the hidden costs, both monetary and mental, that go along with all of their stuff.

    2. I was just making the point that unlike piles of clothes, animals are worth the money, time and effort we expend because the bond is priceless. I know you're a kindred spirit.

  6. I also love the "I have a sweater, I do!" story! Thanks for sharing. The pictures on his web page do seem to support the theory that he's a class clown.

    Fortunately, there's also a style called "classic" where last year's stuff is the same as this year's. So that's the kind of stuff I tried to wear to work.

    One thing I really appreciate about Austin is the very casual clothing ethic. You can wear shorts and flip flops in fancy restaurants, for example. I understand that fancy clothes are so much prettier and nicer to look at, but I'd rather live here.

    An old roommate of mine moved to Dallas for a job, and they do not have that philosophy. She felt she had to spend a lot of money on her wardrobe to be taken seriously. She also had to spend a lot on lunch. You had to eat out with your co-workers, and you had to pay your fraction of the total cost, regardless of what you actually ordered--there was no way to get out cheaply. Finally she was able to move back to Austin and stop throwing so much money out the window.

    As for hidden costs to buying things, I'm getting more and more aware of them. I'm now a person who, at the store, will say things like "I'm not dusting that!."

    1. Ha! There is great truth in the fact that different cities have different standards of dress. Years ago I knew a woman who moved to NYC to pursue a career on Broadway. Shortly after 9/11 she decided to move back - I guess the event put things into perspective for her and she decided that being close to her family was more important that chasing fame and fortune.

      Anyhow, after she moved back she re-upped as a voice teacher at the school where I worked, and the first time I ran into her in the hallway, I didn't even recognize her. My thoughts went something like: "Holy Moly! Why is someone running around the music school wearing a formal?"

  7. It's one of the odd things about being a frugal college professor, and also having somewhat trendy young-adult step kids: I get hand-me-down clothes that happen to be in style fairly regularly, for free or nearly so. So there are people who think of me as being fashion-knowledgable, when in fact I'm just wearing whatever-the-heck the students or my kids left behind.

    For me, one of the real tragedies of the fashion-turnover industry is the huge amount of waste it creates. I've helped sort clothes at a variety of charitable places. So little of used clothing (or even discarded new clothing) ever gets onto anybody's bodies. The VAST majority of donated/discarded clothes gets shredded for rags or sent to landfills. What a stupid squandering of energy, resources, mall space, etc . . .

    1. First of all, I love your clothing source! Given the realities of your second paragraph, it's probably much better environmentally speaking than even shopping at the thrift store.

      Back when I worked at the music school and was surrounded by starving musicians, we used to host an annual "women's clothing exchange." This wasn't a formal event, it was just something we did among the staff and faculty. We basically just took over one of the classrooms for a week - we'd all clean out our closets and spend the week trying things on. We never had any rules about who could take what, and we ALWAYS ended the week with a huge surplus, which we took to the Salvation Army.

      It does make me sad to think of the incredible waste.

  8. I agree with Debbie M about "classic". Some things just never go out of style. I tend not to like most of the trendy stuff, so I usually just buy and wear very basic things. I'm overweight, too, so that makes it even less feasible to wear most of the trendy things, even if I wanted to. I tend to take really good care of my clothes, so they last a long time. I don't care that something is "last years's" or even from five or six years ago. It makes me really happy to be able to wear the same thing for several years. I hate change, so breaking out the same sweaters every winter makes me happy. Well, as happy as I can be when it gets cold.

    My mom has successfully cured my sister and me of ever spending too much money on clothes. My parents are horrible with money (think foreclosure, etc), but my mom has TONS of clothes. She's convinced that she can't be seen in the same thing at work too often or she won't be seen as successful or professional. That is so stupid to me! One, I couldn't tell you what my co-workers wore last week even if you held a gun to my head. Two, they literally lost their house in part to trying to wear the latest fashion. It's insane!

    1. Oh my gosh, your mother's story makes me sooo sad. At least you and your sister learned something from it though.

      You know, since I've never really had the money to buy new clothing - or wait... perhaps I should rephrase that. Since I've never been *willing* to shell out the kind of money required to buy new clothing, I think I am blissfully unaware of most fashion trends. My thinking sorta goes: if it fits me and isn't stained or full of holes, it's in style! But I am heartened to learn that there are actually clothes made which are designed not to go out of fashion.


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