The Devil wears Shein: Woes of remaking your college wardrobe
I hate it when people ask me where I got my outfit from.
And no, it’s not in the “refuses to share where she got her outfit from in a fierce attempt to gatekeep her own fashion sense” way. The actual reason is that many — maybe most — of my clothes are from cheap fast-fashion brands. I arrived on Shepley Drive as I’m sure many of you incoming first-years will: with several tote bins full of Forever 21, H&M and Shein-chic, ready to finally “express my true self.”
The ethics of the production of fast fashion is a unique combination of awful. The industry is built on exploitation, from the workers (in many cases, children) creating garments for 16 hours a day in unventilated, unlivable conditions, to the planet itself. The production of fast fashion results in more carbon emissions “than all international flights and maritime shipping combined” — and after it’s produced, it collects in our landfills by the tons.
On a less world-devastating (but still very harmful) level, fast fashion also turns the habit of actively stealing from other artists and designers into a common and lucrative business practice. Smaller designers that foreground ethical, quality garments have, time and time again, been outpriced by cheap knockoffs being sold by Shein, Forever 21, Zara and Old Navy.
Now, the ethics of fast fashion are hard to care about when you are 16 and have 1) a fresh $25 Visa gift card from your grandma and 2) the desperate need (characteristic of you being a 16-year-old) to express yourself in every waking moment and through every inch of your body. Now a 20-year-old with better-developed morals (though the bar was low), the temptation to buy a new $7 Shein top is much harder for me to justify, and the prospect much less alluring. My wardrobe remains largely the same, though, even as my perspectives have changed — and thin Shein jeans and scratchy Forever 21 tops, stretched and patched up over the years, make up a significant portion of it. So, when someone loves my outfit of the day and the truth is, my outfit of the day is effectively bleeding the planet dry, what do I say?
A lot of people assuage their guilt from partaking in fast fashion by arguing that so long as you use the pieces you buy — wear them for a long time and don’t throw them out immediately — you are in the ethical clear. Americans throw out 81 pounds of clothes each year, and even if you’re donating it, much of that gets thrown out, incinerated or shipped abroad. If you’ve bought fast fashion, keeping it and wearing it as long as it can possibly last mitigates your contribution to the global landfill, like reusing plastic shopping bags. (Wearing fast fashion also simulates the sensation of wearing plastic shopping bags, so it’s definitely fitting.)
This relieved my guilt for a time, but it doesn’t change the fact that the garment was produced by inhumane labor, that paying for it incentivized these brands to continue their plunder of every natural resource and that wearing the clothes is effectively free advertising for more consumption. Further, it remains uncomfortably true that, for a long time, the impulse that drove me to buy the clothes in the first place, the frenzy that still awakens over a cheap price — were put over obvious and overwhelming harm. I was willing to consume at any cost — which is to say, at the cheapest price, and at the cost of everything that should matter more.
What’s more, the main (embarrassing and insufficient) justification of expressing myself wasn’t even coming true: rather than creating outfits for myself, I was buying dreams off of size 0 Zara mannequins — shirt, skirt, shoes and all. In the throes of fast fashion, convincing myself I was standing out, I was more homogenous than ever, chasing after the trends evolving at breakneck speed and never quite keeping up with them.
So yeah — even now, as I try to express my own style through the wardrobe I’ve accumulated, it’s embarrassing to admit where some of the pieces in any given outfit come from. But that’s not a bad thing — in fact, those of us who know better (which includes me, and now, you!) and can choose to buy ethically could stand to let our consumption practices weigh on us a little harder. We have to confront the thing in us that, irrespective of need, wants more clothes — that is entertained by $400 Zara hauls on TikTok. The Spirited Away No-Face in us that consumes mostly thoughtlessly, and when thoughtfully, with ready forgiveness. Because the apathy that I felt, that so many feel, about labor exploitation happening in another country, or global catastrophes happening a few years into the future, is inexcusable.
It’s true that college is your place to start new, to be a truer you. For those who do that through clothing and are looking to make every new entry into their wardrobe an ethical one: follow your gut. A lot of fast fashion brands try to use words that have become diluted of all meaning — like “sustainable” and “eco-friendly” — to escape the negative branding. If you’re buying a new garment and the price feels like a steal, it probably is. Certain fabric types can also be a hint to unethical practices. Many crochet pieces, for example, can only be produced by hand, so if you see a crochet piece being sold at a price that couldn’t pay someone for the hours of labor it required to make (along with marketing, packaging and other costs), take that as your sign to leave that piece on the rack. Keep a lookout for synthetic fabrics like rayon, viscose and polyester, which are produced at great cost to our environment and us. For inexpensive options, try thrifting — there are several Metro-accessible options (like Goodwill, Salvation Army and Found by the Pound) around campus.
As much as I would love to regard my wardrobe with the confidence and self-righteousness of Miranda Priestly, it’s something that I’m not proud of. It’s a history of my life — a short collection of memories, hand-me-downs and shortcomings. I can’t change the history it represents, but I can make every new memory something that I’m proud of, and so can you.