Columns

Isman ’15: We are what we wear

By
Opinions Columnist

In yet another faux pas, Urban Outfitters recently released a vintage Kent State sweater that looks to have bloodstains on it. A seeming reference to the shooting of students by the National Guard during anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1970s, the design offended many people and began yet another short-lived boycott of the store.

While this is not the brand’s first offense, Urban Outfitters, Inc., which includes the namesake stores along with brands like Anthropologie and Free People, is as popular and profitable as ever. It seems that for Urban Outfitters no publicity is bad publicity, as Money Magazine put it.

If we really are what we wear, then shouldn’t we be aware of what we wear? But consumerism and the desire to be fashionable overpower any reservations about brands’ use of culture to offensive levels. As consumers, we should be literally putting our money where our mouths are.

In spite of the offenses of large, popular clothing stores such as Urban Outfitters and Zara — which had baby pajamas that were awfully similar to the garb Jews were forced to wear in concentration camps, yellow Stars of David included — people continue buying their products. While we denounce their actions and force these stores to take the offensive items off their shelves, they don’t change our attitude as consumers.

In spite of being aware of both retail stores profiting from others’ pain, I found it hard to stop shopping there myself. In my mind, it was just one offense, and that one offense didn’t take away from the fact that I like their clothing. Yet one offense becomes many — as has happened with Urban Outfitters — when companies realize that their customers won’t curb their purchasing.

Millennials are offended, but the offense never goes deep enough. Or perhaps we really do have a hard time figuring out when high fashion stops being fashionable and simply becomes highly offensive.

Millennials “are especially difficult to reach … because (we’re) constantly bombarded with stimulation and advertising,” according to Money Magazine. “It may take something truly shocking to break through all of the noise.” In other words, companies are forced to do something outrageous for us to pay attention. When they succeed in their goal, we judge them for their actions — or at least say that we do. But the companies have still succeeded in their goals, and while we don’t accept their actions, there is also a bigger chance we’ll be inclined to go shop at these stores because they remain in our minds.

It’s not a surprise that many companies would rather be on the cover of a news source — even if it is for something they have done wrong — than not be on it at all. As consumers, we are the only ones who have the power to change this dynamic, but we constantly choose not to. Actress Sophia Bush’s boycott against Urban Outfitters, which “could possibly make an actual impact on the company’s decisions regarding the type of clothing they design and the message that they send to consumers,” proves that we do have the power to change the motto and wear what we are, as St. Joseph’s University student columnist Lauren Carroll wrote.

This is not to say that everyone should boycott these stores — it seems that most of them issue public apologies along with pulling the offensive items off the shelves — but we should all be aware of our own actions. At times, it is easier to ignore our twinges of guilt than change our actions. It seems easier to just accept the apologies and forget about the transgression than actually change where we shop and what we wear. While the discordance between our beliefs and actions seems wrong, it must also be understood as a choice. We seem to be choosing consumption over what we believe is right.

More than that, oftentimes the real offenses don’t bleed through to the level at which we consume the products, so we remain ignorant as to where our clothing comes from — not just where it’s made, but also who is running these companies. For example, the Urban Outfitters on Thayer Street is possibly one of the quintessential Brown spots, yet I would say that many of us would not agree with what owner Richard Hayne — “a right-wing Republican,” according to New York Magazine fashion writer Sharon Clott — believes.

Chances are companies will continue using tactics that will be offensive at times in order to stay “relevant” and to stay in the minds of the consumers. We, as said consumers, have to make a choice. Will we take the offenses personally and blacklist the brand, or will the awareness not change how we act? Both choices have pros and cons.

Understanding that being fashionable can also mean being offensive means that at times we might put our own beliefs on hold. Do I think everyone will — and has to — stop shopping at Urban Outfitters and Zara? The answer is I don’t know, and I’m not equipped to answer that question. But we also have to learn how to take a definite stance rather than an uncertain one. If we are willing to publicly chastise a company for its actions, we should also be willing to have our actions directly correspond to those thoughts. Nothing will change as long as these fashion faux pas only bring publicity — regardless of how negative — to these companies and not actual repercussions.

 

Sami Isman ’15 can be reached at samantha_isman@brown.edu.