Growing up, a big part of expressing my gender identity relied on dressing the part, affordably.
Last June, I threw a Selena Quintanilla themed party for my queer friends. People still tell me how vividly they remember the outfit I wore that night: I was pink from head (literally — I dyed my hair pink) to toe. What I was always too embarrassed to tell them, though, was where I bought everything. I’d found my hot pink blazer on ASOS, my shoes from the discount section at the Foot Locker, and I’d cut my pink crop top from a shirt I snagged at H&M.
At a time when we can no longer feign ignorance about the human and environmental toll of fast fashion, I’ve been feeling really guilty about my intimate relationship to the industry. I’ll admit, some of my fondest memories from the past few years stand out because of the outlandish outfits I got from chain stores. Having access to affordable fits has allowed me to churn out so many different looks, explore my gender identity, and instantly connect with other queer people. Style is an integral part of queer POC culture that has allowed us to celebrate our community, forge radically inclusive spaces, and imagine better futures.
Now, I’m not saying this is an excuse to ignore the very real harm that fast fashion perpetuates. What I am saying is that if we’re going to have honest conversations about boycotting fast fashion, we also need to talk about why giving it up is going to be much harder for some people than others. We would be remiss if we ignored the concept of cultural sustainability — which, in this case, is the emotional safety and security of queer people who thrive through the exploration their gender identities — when we talk about letting go of fast fashion.
Many queer people, myself included, grew up being punished for not acting according to the gender assigned to us at birth. People called me gay before I knew what the word meant because I preferred playing with Barbies to sports. As I got older, male family members would tell me to speak up or to correct a limp wrist and implored me to stop standing “like a girl.” I grew up believing that feminine was the worst thing I could be. It wasn’t until I arrived in New York and met more queer people that I realized that I could actually find immense joy and power in that feminitity. And a big part of expressing that freedom was the option to dress the part, affordably.
As I began to embrace the “girlier” parts of me, I was having a hard time finding feminine clothes that fit my broad shoulders. That’s when a friend recommended I shop at Rainbow, a fast fashion retail store that mostly sells women’s clothing but has a sizable plus size section. It was there that I found tight leather pants and skimpy cheetah-print shirts that fit me perfectly, as well as extravagant faux fur bags. Now, Rainbow is where I’ll go anytime I know I have to pull a last-minute look.
“A person’s style and how they carry themselves speaks volumes to who they are, and I want when people see me to know I am confident, sharp, and unique,” says Ashton Brooks, a Black queer TV producer in Denver. “Although fast fashion is an issue that I am learning more about, it has also been a resource for queer people with limited means to express themselves.”
One of the problems I have with a lot of mainstream conversations on sustainable fashion is that they define sustainability in very limited terms, often by people whose material and social conditions have mostly been met. What they often neglect to consider is how entire ecosystems of marginalized people need to be sustained, too.
“Defining sustainability is the responsibility and right of people who most need to define it for and amongst themselves,” Whitney McGuire, a friend and founder of Sustainable Brooklyn, wrote in an Instagram post. “These are people for whom their sustainability is dependent upon their survival, and for whom their survival has not been the concern of the dominant classes.”
Queer people’s fight against heteronormativity and patriarchy is its own form of sustainability, because we’re rebelling against the same systems that harm the planet.
Cultural sustainability is also about the rights of marginalized people to determine what is good for our existence, as opposed to giving that right to someone like Elon Musk who might encourage us to drive electric cars but who doesn’t necessarily have a stake in the survival of LGBTQ people and culture. Queer people’s fight against heteronormativity and patriarchy is its own form of sustainability, because we’re rebelling against the same systems that harm the planet.
Sustaining my culture and my sense of self as someone who has been rejected by cishet society is partially upheld by the clothes I get to wear everyday. Although it might seem small to someone else, it is these forms of resistance that keep people like me from being absorbed into systems that seek to reduce the ways in which queerness is expressed.
Look, I know there are alternatives to looking cute and expressing your personal style outside of fast fashion. Some incredibly creative people I know make their own clothes, and there’s also the option to thrift, which is naturally more eco-friendly than buying new clothes. Plus, if you’re lucky enough to have a community of friends who are down for this, you can swap clothes every once in a while so you don’t feel the need to buy something new everytime you want to go out. I partake in all of these sustainable practices when I get the chance.
Still, for many of us, fast fashion is going to remain one of the most accessible options that puts us in control of how we want to be received by others. And while I will continue to do my best to find alternatives to mass produced clothing whenever possible, but I also believe that environmental movements should not shame people without acknowledging the range of human realities.