By Bharati Chaturvedi:
I am what stores like to call petite. I’ve always been, even when I was too young to be called petite. This means that I’ve often worn hand-me-downs. Usually, that’s the fate of the youngest. I wasn’t, but even my younger sibling began to shoot away, becoming taller than me before we hit our mid-teens.
Many years later, my wardrobe is all transformed. Apart from spreading to more than the single wooden cupboard built-into the wall, all through my childhood and youth, it comprises clothes which have always only belonged to me. True, many of them are old. A sweater I love is from the mid-1990s, and my favourite red-and black shoes are from 1998. A night-tee is from 1996, a loving surprise-gift on a cold afternoon in Berlin. But they never belonged to anyone else. To be honest, that’s no surprise, because we don’t share clothes anymore. In fact, as people of privilege, we also don’t wear our clothes that often – we simply wear them, store them and wear them again. If we like something a friend is wearing, we try and get the same – borrowing it often seems a lesser thing to do.
But then, there’s Chintan. The women at Chintan are culturally diverse – we like to dress in ways quite different from each other, and we come from contexts which have shaped us the way we are. We were obviously aware of this when we decided to start a clothes-swapping day in the office. Our rule is one: it isn’t mandatory to give something in order to take something – you can take whatever you like. What we wanted to do was to kick start the sharing economy in our office, to practice what we preach and test it out.
Several friends – all Indians – have remarked how repulsive they find wearing something worn by someone else who isn’t your own flesh and blood. “I mean it has touched someone else. What is their level of hygiene? ” an appalled former classmate asked. Personally, if outerwear has been washed and ironed, or dry-cleaned, I don’t see how it can be that un-hygienic. It seems cleaner than a handshake, and I won’t elaborate why. Besides, the air that one breathes has hung out in someone else’s lungs and rolled along their mucus lining before entering my mouth. How hygienic is that? Anyway, I couldn’t wait for our clothes-swap.
It was a lot of fun. A colleague brought along one of her own beautiful cotton sarees which she never wanted to wear. That, plus a lovely ikat saree from her mother-in-law. She urged us to treat them as fabric and cut them up. She had brought them in as materials, not objects of one’s wardrobe. I grabbed them to wear as intact sarees-and now I’ve dressed up in them four times. I had several dresses and trousers, too loose for me, and too fashionable to be easily altered – I had lost weight after I turned vegan. These found willing wearers. And thus, there was stuff for everyone.
We do this randomly, and we find it fun to see how our clothes go off. We urge the men in our office to grab stuff to present at home. Sometimes, we get home with stuff no one liked.
Fun apart, doing this in our office, where none of us are besties outside of work, underscored the need to re-think what second-hand meant. It isn’t the dreaded jootha (used), as much as it is an object who needs to be adopted by someone else. We see it as a first step in sharing. Yes, it is marked by class, no doubt. We didn’t invite a waste-picker to bring in her old clothes, or even a field worker. We all acknowledge this, and we realize that the comfort of donning what has once clothed another body is certainly based on the kind of social comfort we have with others. If you can stay over at their home at night, you might include them in a clothes swap. It’s a good way to start. Even if the clothes economy circulates within our own circles, it works for the planet that we aren’t buying more, yet enjoying more. Besides, as those fancy team-building consultants will pronounce, it helps team members bond.