Most people have been affected by the recession in some capacity. For residents of Michigan, it’s been exceptionally harsh. With a $1.4 billion budget deficit, the state Legislature has gotten creative in figuring out ways to cut back. Recent measures were adopted in draft budget bills passed by lawmakers in mid-April, among them, one that would force children in the state’s foster care system to buy their clothing at thrift stores.
The young people would be issued a gift card that could only be used at designated vendors like the Salvation Army or Goodwill. So there’s no chance of slipping into Aeropostale, Abercrombie + Fitch (or any of the other stores popular amongst kids) and spending the entire $79 stipend on one or two items. In Fashion: A Philosophy, Lars Svendsen notes that we “seek identity in the body, and clothes are an immediate continuation of the body. That is also why clothes are so important to us: they are closest to our body.”
It’s not uncommon for the average American teenager to explore used clothing stores (also known as thrifting) at some point, but it’s usually born out of a sense of individuality. While wearing pre-worn garments isn’t a recent phenomenon, it became more acceptable in the early 1990s during the height of the grunge aesthetic. Flannel button downs and holey t-shirts were re-appropriated even on the runways—ultimately leading to Marc Jacobs termination from Perry Ellis in 1992.
Today, hipsters shop at stores with thrift, vintage and resale garments merchandised alongside each other. Whether it’s a matter of saving money or a desire to buy clothing that differs from what’s currently being sold in mainstream stores, these vendors offer an outlet for a unique kind of consumerism: relatively low price points, an opportunity to buy in bulk (by the pound in some stores), and participating in the green movement. The common denominator with the teenagers and hipsters experimenting with used clothing is choice and anonymity. No one knows where they’ve purchased their pieces unless the information is volunteered. The foster children in Michigan are relegated to shop exclusively at stores that are associated with charities and everyone will know it.
“Image is a picture that one wishes to project to win approval, respect or prestige by appearing stylish, sophisticated or chic, and it functions within an interpersonal network system,” writes Yuniya Kawamura in Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies.
In Orlando,Virginia Woolf stresses that clothing doesn’t act as just a shelter from the elements. She writes, ‘They change our view of the world and the word’s view of us.’ The government controlling what we wear isn’t a novel notion. Women can’t walk down the street topless and none of us are permitted to leave the house without wearing something to cover our lower halves. But this particular instance in Michigan smacks of classism. These kids live a transient lifestyle and thrifted clothing is by its very nature ephemeral. The argument here isn’t to pamper foster children because they’ve had it rougher than most. The allotted money should be permissable at any vendor with the understanding that the clothing allowance’s maximum is fixed. With the state adding another impediment to an already stigmatized life, the foster children will have an even more difficult time integrating into society once they age-out of the system.