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Empathy is a concept that I am sure most of us are familiar with, but what about applying it to what is in our wardrobes?

When going through the daily routine of getting dressed, we often overlook the fact that our clothes have passed through many hands before they make it into our wardrobes. From the designers and buyers, to cotton farmers, spinners, dyers, and machinists, each have played an important role in producing our clothing.

Each item of clothing has a broader narrative, and we are only privy to part of that story. This narrative began well before the clothing came into our hands. Even looking inside our garments, the clothing label yields only a small part of that garments story – often only the final point of assembly.

There seems to be a disconnect between consumer and what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ (or ‘seams’ for that matter). Could empathy help bridge this gap?

Following the empathy-altruism hypothesis, looking at our wardrobes with more of an empathetic eye, in an attempt to gain a better understanding and insight into the lives of our garments and their makers, may be just the motivation we need to enact change, and make more socially responsible purchasing decisions.

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I started taking a more empathetic approach to my wardrobe last year, being more curious about what I owned. I now find myself looking more closely at garments, examining their construction, and labels, wondering how many hands the garment has passed through, and the continents it has traveled across. Needless to say, my consumption habits have changed dramatically. I find myself buying less (on a ‘need’ rather than a ‘want’ basis), researching before I buy, and trying to purchase only ethical and sustainable items.

One thing I have encountered that may not be helping the problem is the lack of empathy in media reporting. Employees of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, were forced to work in a building that was known to be unsafe. On 24th April, 2013, the world watched on in horror as the factory collapsed, killing 1,133 people and injuring another 2,500 (mostly young women), making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history, and the deadliest garment factory accident in history. Unfortunately, this is not the first tragedy to hit the Bangladeshi garment industry.

Kanchana Ruwanpura PhD, from the University of Cambridge, a garment industry researcher, reports a lack of empathy in the media’s portrayal of these workers, with a tendency to “flatten the voice of labour by reducing workers to a homogenous category or to slaves”. A prime example of this, is the media’s representation of her account of the Sri Lankan Garment Industry. After being asked for input for a piece for Broadly, Ruwanpura detailed the highly educated labour force, the high standards in building regulations, and protective labour legislative framework. What however, was published showcased complete disregard for the reporting of the positives points she had made in relation to the Sri Lankan garment industry. Instead emphasis was placed on the lack of living wages and barriers to unionisation.

The tragedy that was the Rana Plaza factory collapse has been a catalyst for activist groups, including the formation of organisations such as Fashion Revolution. Fashion Revolution have provided us with insight into what life is like for the individuals who make our clothes living in developing nations, enacting genuine change in the way in which clothing is made, while encouraging us to ask one simple, yet powerful question – ‘who made my clothes?’.

The ‘Garment Worker Diaries’, a project of Fashion Revolution, is just one project that is encouraging us to look down at the shirt we are wearing with a renewed sense of empathy. This project takes an intimate look into the lives (and wages) of some of the women in the Cambodia, India and Bangladesh garment industries. The diaries provide us with insight into their daily routines, their weekly earnings and spendings, how they manage their meagre wages, the conditions in which they work (e.g. length of shifts, brands they work for, injuries), and their family responsibilities.

Adopting a more empathetic approach to our wardrobes could help us connect with the people who make our clothes and understand their stories, helping us as consumers to gain a better understanding of the social side of manufacturing. As a result, this could encourage us to make more ethical and sustainable decisions when it comes to our clothing consumption.

Many of us own possessions that transcend their function. They become embedded in our identity, and our sense of self…

In world of mass consumption, where the fashion industry is worth trillions of dollars, it is interesting that many of us own possessions that transcend their function. They become embedded in our identity, and our sense of self, and are valued no longer in terms of their monetary worth but in terms of the emotion invested in the item.

In a study entitled “enclothed cognition” Adam and Galinsky found that clothing can affect our thoughts. In their experiment, some participants wore a garment described as a doctor’s coat and others wore an identical garment described as an artists’ coat. Participants wearing what they thought was a doctor’s coat performed better in attention tasks than those who thought they were in an artists’ coat. The findings suggested, that clothing can affect the wearer due to its symbolic meaning.

The notion that we can imbue our clothing with a symbolic meaning has been widely discussed within the fashion industry with numerous websites, books and artworks exploring the intangible meaning. Garments, like other possessions that are of great sentimental value, can be psychologically appropriated and become vessels of symbolic meaning.

Much like a child’s favourite teddy bear, attachment garments are unique to the individual, their symbolic significance is pertinent to the owner and a brand-new version or a replica of the item would not contain the same meaning. Clothing can act as a security blanket, enshrouding and encasing the wearer not only in a familiar fabric, but with a comforting intangible essence. Some garments can become so precious that they are no longer worn, instead they are nurtured and preserved – hanging unworn in wardrobes or lying folded in drawers for fear of causing any harm to the item.

Yet, other items may be worn and worn and worn becoming dishevelled and threadbare, often left unrepaired for fear of altering their symbolic meaning. Garments that are so highly appropriated, may longer be held to typical ‘fashion norms’ the aesthetic appearance of the garments is outweighed by the meaning or essence of the item.

​As Adam and Galinsky’s study found “enclothed cognition” can affect how participants feel, and so there is great potential for the memories, narratives, and sentimental connections that the garment is imbued with, to positively affect the wearer.