Do I Wear Empathy?
Empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another; to imagine yourself experiencing someone else's reality
Working in sales, I am constantly putting myself in someone else’s shoes. I am figuring out what a customer needs; styles they like and dislike. I am reading how they feel in an outfit and picking up on any insecurities to then find pieces that give confidence. I step back when individuals like space, but I help when I see individuals that are overwhelmed. Working as a stylist is one small way I practice empathy, but there are so many ways to think about empathy.
Fashion, for instance, defines an identity. The clothes we wear have the ability to give visual cues to others about our own selfhood. I recently discovered the show State of Undress, which looks at political qualms through a fashion lens. Every piece of clothing is political, and we appropriate styles coming from geographies of unrest until a dress becomes just a dress, a print becomes just a print, a color is just a color.
Think of it this way: when I was in NYC I visited the Museum of Art and Design, where they had a Judith Leiber purse exhibit. It was there that I learned that the idea of a woman carrying a purse - her own bag - was a necessity when dress silhouettes changed, no longer camouflaging a hidden pocket. Some even deemed it a form of liberation, signifying that a man is not needed to carry the money. Nowadays though, a purse is filled with things for everyone else (gum, pen, bandaid, chapstick, medicine) that women are stuck carrying. A purse is just a purse, right?
Another empathy challenge I have faced is thinking about the people making my clothes. Because of Clothing Stories, I am looking at every stitch in my garments with curiosity about its origin. I am looking at the fabric content and researching the countries that have the highest exports of the fabric I am wearing. I challenge myself to think about the farmers, manufacturers, and makers. Fashion Revolution has a project called Garment Worker Diaries that looks into the wages, expenses, and time of those making clothes. Just because I am a white woman living in the United States does not mean that my time and worth is more valuable than a garment worker in India, but their hourly wage deems it otherwise. My $15 T-shirt is paid for by the sweat off their backs.
Wearing empathy is thinking about where our clothing comes from historically and industrially. Think about why people wear what they wear and imagine yourself in their outfit. What does that mean for you?
Here are some questions that I try to consider:
- Do I empathize with the makers of what I wear?
- Do I even know who the garment workers are or what lifestyle they lead?
- Do I consume only to get ahead of a trend?
- Do I dress only to consider how I look?
- Does my personal style reflect a larger group of people? What does that larger group represent? What will others “understand” about me based on what I am wearing?
- What visual assumptions have I been wrong about for others?
- Do I know my buying power?
- Do I understand how to view the world through someone else’s perspective? Someone very different from me?
- Dd I respect other cultures dress? Am I open to learning about it?