How Upcycling & “Creative Reimagining” Can Help Us Do More Than Refashion Clothes

Upcycling woman holding blue fabric
Photo by Ksenia Chernaya from Pexels

In my teens, I had to be creative with my clothing to achieve any sort of aestheticized or “unique” look. I lived in a small, affluent town during the height of True Religion, Ed Hardy, Bebe, and Guess — before these brands became part of subversive queer flair and were strictly worn by cishet, wealthy people. Malls were where people shopped — but I was the town’s coined “artsy” one (I got this title by being able to draw a realistic owl during an outdoor education field trip in fourth grade). No way at 15 was I going to disrupt that nomination and conform to the flocks of bedazzlers. 

So being the angsty teen I was, I took to the few thrift stores that I could access. I decided that 80s wear was the thing to revive. This was before I had my own car, and suburbia meant getting someone to drive me to desolate strip malls and small(er) town warehouse thrift stores. With the clothes I did find, they were always a little off here and there, worn from the years of movement, or were about to fall apart because of the loose seams. 

My friends and I were by no means tailors, but we’d sew on new buttons, haphazardly mend seams, and cut out shoulder pads for a more relaxed, mid-2000s look. We never really thought about what we were doing when we were hunting for clothes, but in retrospect I recognize it as a creative alternative to the fast-fashion industry. What we were doing was upcycling, long before we had ever even heard of the term.

My Style Today

This legacy has followed me. If you look into my closet now, it’s a color-coded (I’m a virgo) mash-up of late twentieth-century fashion. To name a few themes, there’s 70s suede, a couple 80s Kristen Blake jackets, 90s Abercrombie & Fitch, London Underground boots, and y2k Skechers (the ones that are all platform). I’ve spent years curating a closet like this.

However, thrifted clothes come with a need to alter them over time. Sh*t just falls apart and you’re left with the remnants of the garment’s former glory. For moments like this, I look to my creativity. Creativity, in this relationship between me and a medium, is a site of resistance. Resistance to the fast-fashion industry; resistance to environmental degradation; resistance to sweatshops and sexism and the injustice of labor practices. Dyes, new stitching, and patches….I love up my clothes when they’re starting to age and simultaneously love up the earth and the people in it. 

Upcycling is essentially a process of re-imagination. It’s a creative engagement using things that pre-date your encounter with them. Sitting with this thought process recently, it clicked: this is an intersectional feminist and very queer thing to do. Maybe not explicitly but implicitly, the processes emulate one another. Feminism and queerness are all about reimagining. They’re about building new methods, new forms, and new connections to the people and things around you. They’re about establishing new opportunities, whether that be new ways to wear a blazer or new ways to have romantic relationships.

Dismantling oppressive systems requires creativity and re-imagination. Similar to imagining a world post-capitalism, we need to imagine our ways out of the systems we are immersed in day in and day out. We need to be scrappy and agile, adaptable and passionate. 

In my years of collecting clothes, I’ve found others incredibly passionate about upcycling. I’ve gone to second-hand shops all over the west coast, from family-run, one-room thrift stores to the established upcycling culture in Portland, Oregon. I’ve met artists that strictly work with used materials and have collectively owned store fronts. I’ve met pickers that make their living at the Goodwill bins. I’ve met retail workers that take weekends off to strictly attend estate sales. What I’ve found is that those who work with already-existing materials (sometimes seen as trash) are doing so because it’s creative — but this creativity can also be very subversive.

Cautious Optimism

I want to be clear. I hold major critiques of “ethical consumption.” Under a capitalist system, I firmly believe there’s no such thing as truly ethical consumption. Capitalism, in its nature, is a system in which every exchange of money enacts a kind of violence. Every time we slide money across the table in exchange for goods, there’s a rippling of unequal effects. Nevertheless, we still exist in these systems. As it is, we have to find ways to operate within it for the time being. 

But upcycling provides a way to disrupt the late capitalist consumer ideal by intervening in the chain of production. It is a form of harm reduction; a glimpse of a creative strategy used to dismantle the system. It encourages creativity and full optimization of resources at hand. Growing up, my friends and I were messing with the system just by being creative with how we dressed ourselves, and when I learned to reconfigure materials in front of me, I practiced reconfiguring the way I engage with the world. The macro mimics the micro. 

The potential for true anti-capitalist living doesn’t exist in the titling and gaining of social cred for being an ethical consumer. Instead, it’s in building the craft of creativity and experimenting with how to alter and reimagine what is within our reach. It is creativity that will bring about the end of the system. If we can’t imagine a way out and test new methods a world without capital is  simply not going to happen. 

Check out the rest of our series on Upcycling!

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