The Moral Wardrobe: Grandma Was a Collector

Grandma was a collector.

A child of the Great Depression, Grandma’s family kept a small homestead in Indiana. Her father was a Pentecostal preacher. She used to tell me stories of having to “wring the chickens’ necks” when it was time for dinner. This story was always accompanied by mischievous laughter, knowing she would shock her granddaughters by recounting the everyday violence.

Grandma, when she was older and owned a used appliance store with Grandpa, began collecting old costume jewelry, furniture picked up at yard sales, and discounted clothing by the closet full. She wasn’t like other grandmas who knitted and quilted and made things with her hands. She was a shopper.

My earliest memories of going shopping are with her. We would head for the sales racks, try things on, marvel at the deals we’d gotten. Because I lived so close to her – my sister and I could bike over to her house in under twenty minutes – I got used to these excursions. Shopping was how we bonded. There wasn’t a problem in the world that couldn’t be solved by a quick trip to the outlet store. There wasn’t an illness too bleak to be remedied by a quick spin around a sales floor. At Grandma’s funeral, my uncle recounted the time he visited her at the hospital only to have her ask if he would take her to her favorite store, Bealls Outlet, as soon as she got out. That was her second-to-last hospital visit.

Grandma’s life wasn’t always pleasant.

Her father was absent a lot doing church visitations and she had a strained relationship with her mother. She grew up on the gnawing edges of poverty. She married a man who had his own share of suffering and didn’t always know how to lend a helping hand.

So Grandma went shopping. And this was her first and best coping mechanism to dull the pain that lived in her chest, the feeling that she’d never quite gotten the life she’d hoped for. The last time I saw her she asked if I wanted to take a look at all of her new clothes. We spent more than a half hour sifting through the tropical print blouses and pastel capris. I watched her face light up as she showed me her treasures. These were things she got to own, reminders of her freedom, in the face of chronic hospitalizations and looming mortality.

So you can remind me again and again that ethics is about owning less, that persistent shopping is a sign of our collective inability to consider the long game. But for Grandma, it was joy. It was something she could hold onto. To say we must do better must not negate her humanity.

Ethical Details: Top – c/o Known Supply; Jacket – thrifted; Jeans – Everlane Cheeky Jean; Boots – secondhand via ebay; Cotton Straight Scarf in Rust: c/o Anchal Project (they sponsored this post)

I am obsessed with clothing because I love my Grandma.

These things are linked for me. Which is why I have an ethical fashion blog. Because I know that if I want to keep this piece of her alive it requires a massive shift in the industry, a total rethinking of the supply chain. In a way, I guess, I always knew that clothing was about people and relationships, and shopping with an eye toward makers widens that community, allocates a bit more honor to everyone who interacts with the product, from farmer to artisan to consumer.

This Anchal Project scarf, for instance, resonates with humanity, from the GOTS-certified cotton to the traditional stitching to the fact that artisans receive fair wages, healthcare, and educational benefits. Anchal Project makes scarves, bedding, bags, and more using traditional kantha stitching techniques and natural dyes, processes that remind us that tradition lives not in dusty books but in memory.

Grandma’s life wasn’t always pleasant, and neither is mine. 

Our lives are continual proof that we yearn for meaning, and that much of that meaning is derived from meaningful relationships, however imperfect they may be. Sometimes we discover a spark of meaning in memory or in intertwining fingers with a loved one, and sometimes we discover it in a scarf.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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