Poverty or Privilege – What do clothes mean?

“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% 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?