Poverty or Privilege – What do clothes mean?

By Carol / August 30, 2017 /

“Dress for success.” “Clothes make the man/woman.” “Dress for the job you want.”

I had cause to re-think these oft-heard phrases in the context of poverty and privilege when I read a memoir about a pen pal relationship between two children in America and Africa and subsequently an article written by a Des Moines businesswoman.

My well-stocked closet. Privilege or poverty or both?

Poverty permeates the United States. In 2015, about 43 million Americans – 13.5 percent of the population – lived below the poverty line. But in this land of plenty, even those living in poverty have clothing.

Poverty can look very different in other countries. In alternating chapters, the memoir I Will Always Write Back – How one letter changed two lives tells the story of American school girl Caitlin Alifirenka and African school boy Martin Ganda in Zimbabwe.

At first, Caitlin takes for granted her life of privilege while Martin carefully avoids sharing the truth of his life of poverty because he doesn’t want his new friend to think less of him. Caitlin talks easily of trips to the mall, music, vacations, and clothes. Then she sends Martin a Reebok t-shirt for his birthday.

Though this gift throws him into a crisis of concern about how he can repay her, Martin thanks her profusely. In his letter he says, “…Your gift increased my clothes. Before I had been left with only an old shirt of my dad …”

Only later does Caitlin come to understand what Martin meant. Before she sent the gift, he had only one shirt. Now he has two. This was as incomprehensible to Caitlin as it would be to most us in the United States.

We know through Martin’s chapters how difficult life for the family is when Martin’s father loses his job as the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates. The family struggles to keep from starving yet they keep the children in school for which they must pay tuition and provide uniforms because education is their only hope.

Over months, years, and a multitude of letters, the two children become friends. As they share more, Caitlin and her parents begin to realize the tenuous life Martin’s family lives. Eventually, they send clothes and money to support the whole family. Martin’s response when a pair of tennis they send fit his mother struck my heart. He said:

“She no longer walks barefooted and … my mom is now counted as human in the society.

The family had clothes when they did not have them before. And those clothes gave them status in their neighborhood, at school, and at work. Dress for success? Really? The clothes made them human. I get tears in my eyes just writing that sentence.

Coincidentally, this past week Belle DuChene wrote an article for Lift IOWAClear the clutter in your closet to clear your mind. The genesis of her article came on a day Belle was running late for work because she couldn’t find anything to wear. Even though she had two closets full of clothes.

How often have I felt the same way as I look at shelves of t-shirts and sweaters, racks of jackets, blouses, slacks? When I left the full-time office world, I immediately needed 80{ca423c2f80457838707aff1a8bc8e6d70f99c150e81ef911284cd55564f0337c} fewer clothes but it took me more than 10 years to let go of the suits even though they grew woefully out of date. I’d say I don’t buy many clothes, yet every time DAV calls I’m able to put out a garbage bag or two of clothes.

Belle DuChene’s epiphany led her to re-evaluate her clothing and life. She started a business focusing on ‘isms’ – minimalism, professionalism, volunteerism, etc.. – to help others do the same. I was raised to hold on to anything that still has good use in it, so paring down my closet takes more than a little mental re-adjustment. As I take steps to re-purpose my clothes into other peoples’ closets, I work to get over the idea that I “deserve” something new.

I’m also re-thinking poverty and privilege. Is it really a privilege to live with such excess when it complicates life? Are we clothing ourselves into poverty when we tax the world’s resources with our disposable clothing approach? In our clothes-conscious society where dressing for success does matter, how do we reconcile the conflicting messages?

What do you think my friends? How do poverty and privilege come into play in your lives?

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  1. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on August 31, 2017 at 10:57 am

    Carol, your post reminded me of an experience from The Belgian Congo. Bales of clothing were shipped to that country by relief agencies. The theology school close to where we lived received them for their students. However, the director’s wife intercepted them, took ownership and sold them at a local market for her own profit. This upset me because something intended for those who are in need, was taken by someone to make herself richer. After further thinking I realized that we are doing that every day by our privileged lifestyle, without even thinking about it. Just recently in the news I read that blue boxes put out for used clothing here in our city were being misused by those putting them out, pretending they were going to charity, but then taking the profit themselves. We all need to think long and hard about making this world a better place for everyone, and what we can do about it! Thank you for the reminder!

    • Sharon Lippincott on August 31, 2017 at 1:35 pm

      Oh, Elfrieda, how awful! I give only to Goodwill and Salvation Army. I’d do more with the latter if they were more conveniently placed. I know I can trust them, especially Salvation Army.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on September 1, 2017 at 1:24 pm

      These stories leave me shaking my head, Elfrieda. Thanks for sharing your experiences. The good and bad of human nature is worldwide. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the scammers are out in force. People who want to do the right thing have to be mindful that others will try to take advantage of that.

  2. Sharon Lippincott on August 31, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    Right now when I think of poverty and privilege, Hurricane Harvey comes to mind. It hit close to home. In fact, it hit at my home here in Austin with a delightfully drenching eleven inches of slow, steady drizzle that revived our sun-parched summer yard. We have Houston refugees in town, people who fled from their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Relatively few have flood insurance. Some may not be able to return to work for God knows how long as their places of employment are damaged, perhaps beyond repair. Some work from home and all their equipment and records may be hopelessly lost. Severe poverty along the Texas Gulf Region is going to be endemic for ages.

    I have clothes to spare, and my husband tends to hoard clothes. What better time to clear some rod space? Even old clothes will do for a change in a refuge.

    While I was in the hospital a few weeks ago, I had several chats with a room cleaner who immigrated from Croatia as a teenager about twenty years ago. She’s never been back for a visit, and her family is still there. “Save your money and go!” I urged her. Me? I can whip out a credit card and go tomorrow if I wish, so I hoped my words would not sound . . . insensitive? “It’s so hard to save and tickets are so expensive . . .” The look in her eyes was wistful. She has a growing family. She can’t be making that much mopping floors. “That’s always a challenge,” I agreed.

    A man in one of my lifestory writing groups grew up in India. His tales of growing up in grinding poverty tear my heart.

    We spent a couple of days in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe a few years ago. That entire country lives in crushing poverty, as mentioned in your post. We visited a crafts market, and vendors swarmed us like vultures circling a carcass. “Please Madam. Buy this. Please buy this so I can feed my children!” Their gaunt faces haunt me still. They did not have money, but they did have PRIDE. They were not begging for money, but for SALES. They were in business, however humble, and they needed to purchase those precious school uniforms that were passed around and down until threadbare and full of holes. I wanted to buy everything. Unfortunately I could only buy a few things that would fit in my suitcase, and we had not brought enough dollar bills, the official currency of Zimbabwe. No coins, just bills.

    Those people were poor in possessions, even food and shelter, but they were rich in spirit and pride.

    Yes, I’ve seen poverty. I felt like I grew up poor, though in retrospect, we never lacked anything important. Now I’m grateful every day that we have plenty to eat, a lovely home, clothes to wear and plenty of tech toys. If it takes more to help those in need, count me in. I deeply grieve at Congressional efforts to protect the financial hoarding of those who feel like life would not be worth living if they couldn’t take large families on cruises several times a year, reserving several premium suites and drive Lamborghinis. Or something like that. “I fought hard to inherit my Daddy’s money, and I deserve to keep every cent!” (Except perhaps for their generous political donations.)

    Grant us hearts of compassion for those who have less.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on September 1, 2017 at 2:11 pm

      Your last sentence says it, Sharon: “Grant us hearts of compassion …”

      When I traveled in Peru – a third world country though not as poor, I think, as Zimbabwe – It occurred to me that all Americans would benefit from seeing how others without the safety nets we have in the U.S. live. There, as in your story, if people don’t work, they don’t eat. Knowing this, I was much more tolerant of the people selling scarves and paintings and whatever. We came upon a mother and her very young daughter in traditional clothing. The little girl was charming as she held the halter of a donkey and smiled. After I took her picture, I gave her a two-sol coin, worth about 50 cents at the time. Her eyes grew wide and she rushed to her mother with a “look-what-I-did” smile. She could not have been more proud.

  3. Billie Wade on August 31, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    Carol, thank you for starting the conversation about the connection between poverty and clothing. Like Sharon, I grew up poor, but we always had plenty of food. I do recall my mother getting “commodities” during my father’s hospitalizations. Our clothes came from second-hand stores, usually Saint Vincent DePaul. We bought a new outfit for Easter and the new school year. We bought two pairs of shoes—casual and sporty—when school started and wore them the whole year. But, we always had shoes, however worn and scuffed. Even I cannot imagine being classified as less than human because I didn’t possess shoes or a particular article of clothing, although other students ridiculed some of my clothes. I cannot imagine my father in the marketplace begging for sales.

    Another factor about clothes and status is the construction of clothing. The difference between well-made, tailored clothes and less expensive off-the-rack clothes from everyday stores is evident. There is increasing status from Wal Mart to J C Penney or Catherines to Younkers or Von Maur to Talbots or Christopher & Banks. Well-made clothes elevate status.

    A person with a discerning eye and time to shop regularly can ferret out the “good” clothes at Goodwill, Salvation Army, and garage sales. I’ve known women who shop the garage sales in certain neighborhoods because the clothing is well-made. Others lack transportation to go to sales.

    Today, I wear clothing from mid-level women’s stores and make my purchases with frugality in mind. My wardrobe is sparse, and when I buy, I consider coordinating and complementary pieces. Because I wear an unusual shoe size and width, shoes are expensive. I own three pairs of shoes, one of which is a pair of gym shoes.

    The connection between poverty and clothing is, indeed, a challenge to unpack and attempt to address its many components. I appreciate the conversation.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on September 1, 2017 at 2:17 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Billie. Like you, I grew up without money but with lots of love and plenty of food. My sisters and I have talked about this. We didn’t realize we were poor because most families around us was in the same situation. You’re right that the better made – sometimes simply the more expensive – the higher the status. Our society is geared to being better than … The clothes I find most expendable in my closet are those I buy on a whim. I’m better served to shop carefully and stick to classics.

  4. Joan Z. Rough on September 1, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    A valuable post, Carol. One that everyone should read. As you can imagine, after the white supremacist rally, privilege is a hot topic here in Charlottesville, and one that every one should start thinking and talking about. And it’s not just about clothing. It’s about helping and taking care of one another with kindness and compassion. Though the taking down of monuments is what brought on the mayhem here, it’s privilege that we need to be talking about.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on September 1, 2017 at 2:24 pm

      Thanks, Joan. You were in the heat of it in Charlottesville. If good comes out of that, it’s that people will talk about these issues and begin to examine their own selves and to look out for one another. Hoping you are surrounded by love.

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