“I think she looks almost what you call a Quaker” [Middlemarch.] 

At first glance, I must seem a very bad Quaker. A member in fairly-good standing with a religious sect that espouses simplicity and claims a shade of gray for its very own, my palette is comprised of shades of red—which, felicitously, includes purple. But having just finished Sofi Thanhauser’s excellent Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, I am freshly reminded that my clothing choices—most bought at Goodwill or the Material Aid and Advocacy Program’s semi-annual tag sale—should reflect another Quaker value: integrity.

I remember the first time I thought about the history of my clothing, my cotton clothing: The waterfront director at a  camp in the Adirondacks the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, while I lifeguarded up north my family moved from Lynchburg, Virginia to Huntsville, Alabama. At the end of the summer, I flew to “Huntspatch”; my parents, my two brothers and my sister picked me up from the airport.  My family chattering around me, I stared out our minivan’s window at what seemed mile after mile of flatness slathered by mini-malls. When we finally turned off the highway we were surrounded by cotton fields. And Black teenagers, crouched low to the ground, picked that cotton, their long bags snaking behind them like contrails. I will never forgot my double shock at driving past this mid-sixties version of slavery—and that my family continued to chatter. In the brief time our New England-based family lived in Alabama they’d already become inured to the sight of underage workers picking cotton? What?

Did I stop wearing cotton? No. I’m not Lucretia Mott. But when I do, sometimes I remember to ask myself the same question fashion journalists ask on Oscar night as the glitterati parade by: “Who are you wearing?”



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