On Clothes as Companions

On Clothes as Companions

Photographed by Sharif Hamza

Can our clothes be more than objects we consume and dispose? Art director and stylist Patricia Lagmay explains a different way of looking at the things we wear.

I learned about “I-Thou,” a term coined by philosopher Martin Buber, while reading How to Do Nothing, Filipino-American author Jenny Odell’s critique-cum-self-help-guide on navigating and pushing back against the attention economy. 

“I-Thou” is best described by first introducing its counterpart “I-It.” It is a way of seeing the world where everything you encounter, be it a person or a thing, is only relevant insofar as it relates to yourself, with “I” being you, and “It” being everything else. “I-Thou,” as described by Odell, instead “recognizes the irreducibility and absolute equality of the other [person or thing].” 

In other words, Thou art not an It. It’s the difference between asking “who are you to me?” instead of simply asking, “who are you?”

Lately I’ve been playing with the idea of relating to the objects in my life through the lens of “I-Thou.” 

To anyone who grew up with an even mildly superstitious lola, this idea won’t seem foreign. Both my lolas believed, in their own unique ways, that objects carry energy. For my maternal lola this took the form of a daily ritual she practiced with figurine frogs of varying shapes and sizes, faithfully collected over the years. Every morning, she would turn the frogs one-by-one to face the front door, believing that doing so allowed them to do what they do best: welcome good luck.

For my paternal grandmother, it was provenance that mattered most. She had a predilection for the beautiful and the ornate: intricately carved dining tables, beds made out of solid narra wood, “Last Supper” carvings chiseled by hand. But instead of buying them from commercial merchants that produced them en masse, she chose to support local prisoners who had taken up the craft of woodworking. My dad and his siblings grew up eating family meals around a piece of furniture that had been carefully built by the hands of a man who was working to right his wrongs.

Decades later when my lola passed away, it was this same table that we gathered around, trading stories of our favorite memories with her, and getting to know her still.

Not objects

All this has led me to a question I’ve been mulling over for a while now: what would happen if we saw our clothing as companions, instead of the objects we’ve been trained to consume and dispose of?  

Inanimate objects are limited in that they can’t participate in a relationship the same way that our pets or fellow humans can. No pair of jeans is able to tell you when you’ve crossed the line in an argument, nor will one surprise you with a congratulatory cake when the project you’ve been laboring over finally comes to a finish. 

But even so, an interdependence exists. 

The sweater I wear as I write this, for instance, will only continue to provide value to my life so long as I work to care for it. Whether I keep it hung on its wiry dry cleaning hanger or carefully fold it into my dresser, determines if 10 years from now, it’ll be there when I wake up to a morning colder than expected. 

What would happen if we selected our clothes with the same curiosity and diligence that we espouse when meeting someone for the first time? What if we held each piece up to the light, asking, “Where do you come from? Whose hands made you? What are your needs? Before ultimately deciding that they’re worthy of an invitation into our most intimate moments.

As an art director and stylist, my entire career is built on consumption. And not just my own, but on the encouragement of others’ too. For the last five years, I’ve been trying to reconcile the fact that the world could probably do with a little less clothes, with the other fact that my job exists for the sole purpose of selling them. How do I keep on doing what I do without contributing to the continual destruction of our planet, with the environmental waste generated by the industry I’ve built my career on? 

I used to think the answer was in consuming less, in consuming better. But maybe the answer lies in turning the idea of consumption on its head, so that instead of only asking what this piece of clothing can do for me, I also ask how it exists outside of me. 

Objects, however technically inanimate, are only as lifeless as we allow them to be. I’m reminded of this whenever I turn my wrist to check the time on the gold watch I inherited from my lola. To anybody else, it’s just 1 P.M. To me, it’s a reminder that my lola and I are still together. Long after she’s passed. Long after she checked the time on this watch, too. 

Vogue Philippines: July 2023 Issue

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