We, as humans, have our own identities. We have our own cultures and values. We can be altered depending on our communities and experiences. We are a material society, our possesions become an extension of who we are, of our self, of our image perceived by others.
We give objects meaning; stationary, static, non-feeling items can have enormous sentimental value and we treat these objects with respect. We hang them on our walls, we place them on shelves, we hang them in our wardrobes wrapped in plastic. Why do we decide which objects should become valuable and meaningful? Why do we write stories about these objects and give them a biography?
Kopytoff and Apadurai (1986) discussed how humans map their own identities through the biographies of things; this in turn has impacted greatly on following studies into material cultures. Humans are able to add value to objects, turning them into commodities, commodities that may mean something to one person and nothing to another. Biographies of things, of course, depend entirely on who is creating this biography and where. As Kopytoff goes on to explain, a car in Africa will have a completely alternative biography to a car in America.
As supported by Chaplin and John (2007), materialism starts at an early age, and has a direct affect on self-esteem. So why do we continue to subconsiously link expensive branded clothing with someone who is wealthy? Why do we use objects to define us and convey messages? And, more importantly, why do we put so much love and value into an inanimate object that could have little to no value to others?
Following my reading of Kopytoff and Apadurai, I have decided to take their list of questions to create a biography of a simple, everyday item. Something majority of us wear each day but never consider it a valuable item. Despite it’s intensive use, and the fact we humans gift these as Christmas presents, we all (pretty much) have a spare one lying around. It comes as a pair, but we don’t feel sorry for the lost one, we don’t grieve for the missing item. Why? Why do we not consider these as emotionally valuable as other items?
Kopytoff’s questions are as follows:
- What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its ‘status’ and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized?
- Where does the thing come from and who made it?
- What had been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things?
- What are the recognized ‘ages’ or periods in the thing’s ‘life’, and what are the cultural markers for them?
- How does the thing’s use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?
My initial reason for choosing a sock as my main object was because it’s something we can all relate to. As my research into the psychology behind keeping items we no longer need I delved into the depths of “Fast Fashion” and it’s impact on our mentality with clothing. Nowadays it’s acceptable to buy a dress, wear it once and either shove it in the back of your wardrobe and forget about it or give it away to charity. I spent a lot of time in Ghana and it’s so sad to see that there currently is a serious crisis where a lot of the charity clothing given to this country ends up on rubbish heaps, contributing towards the pollution of our planet.
30 foot high mountains of high street labelled apparel, majority of it unwearable or unusable and can not be sold on for rewearing. Why do we have such a disassociation with clothing nowadays? Why do we not value the clothing we buy and when did this stop?
The following is my primary research into the psychology of clothing and our mentality towards items we no longer need.
I asked 7 people from different backgrounds and ages to answer the following questions about the single sock in the bottom of their drawer and asked for pictures.
- What is the age of the sock?
- Where was it purchased or what make is it?
- What was it’s initial use – ie everyday, sports, just for certain shoes?
- Where do you think it’s other half could be?
- Why have you kept this one?
- Could a sock ever mean anything to you?
- Why did you buy this sock in the first place?
- If you were to try and sell it, what would you ask for it and why?
- How does this one sock make you feel?
I then collated the responses and picked the most informative and useful data. My different subjects were:
Female aged 21: Approx 5 year old sock, purchased from Primark. It was a sock specifically for wearing with pumps. I think I lost it’s other half when I was travelling round Europe. I have no idea why I’ve not got rid of this sock yet and I’ve moved house loads! I don’t think a sock could be meaningful, they’re too cheap and they’re just necessary everyday items. I bought it because I always need them and buy the socks in multipacks. I think I could sell it for 10p? I feel sorry for it in a way because it has lost it’s other pair but because it matches the other socks I suppose it’s not lonely?
Male aged 25: About 2 years old, not sure where I bought it but it’s for wearing with trainers when I’m doing sports. It’s other half is probably at the bottom of my gym bag somewhere. I’m not sure why I’ve still got this one, I don’t ever use it so should probably get rid. I don’t think so, especially these socks they jsut serve a single purpose! I bought this pair because they are comfy to wear with my trainers. I don’t even think I could give this away for free! To be honest, it makes me annoyed because I really liked wearing these socks but I’ve lost the other half.
Male aged 34: I don’t know. Maybe about 5 years old? It’s a Pringle sock. Casual sock. I have no idea, probably somewhere in the house! Laziness, I didn’t even know it didn’t have a partner. No it coudn’t mean anything to me because it’s an inanimate object. Someone else might think a sock has meaning maybe if it’s the sock they wear when their favourite football team wins… I didn’t buy it, it was a gift. I wouldn’t ask for anything, it’s one sock, no one would buy it!! It doesn’t make me feel anything, it’s a sock.
Male aged 63: This sock is about 7 years old and I bought it from M&S. I wear black socks for work and so this is why I bought this pair. I’ve got about 10 black pairs of socks so they all match. I have absolutely no idea when I lost the other half, for all I know it could be in with the other socks. I keep this one because it might come in handy if I ever lose another sock. I do think a sock might become meaningful to someone, if they experienced something whilst wearing them it might have a special meaning? But probably not! I don’t think I’d want to sell this sock because it could be useful. I suppose it gives me a bit of hope because although it’s not a whole pair, one day I might have to use it because I’ve lost another sock.
Female aged 59: 3 years – bought from John Lewis to wear underneath jeans. Possibly in the bin? I thought it’s partner might turn up. Christmas socks and walking socks I am particularly fond of! Nice colour and the right length at the ankle. I couldn’t sell it I imagine it is worthless on its own. Happy, it is a lovely sock to wear and I will certainly purchase more of the same!
Overall the general responses were “Are you really asking me to spend time writing about a sock” – Initially I would have loved to get some stories from each individual about the socks but I know other people have their own lives and jobs!! This data was intentionally written to combine both Qualitative and Quantiative data to provide a more rounded overview on peoples thoughts and opinions on something so ‘everyday’.
Upon breaking down the research, it’s fairly conclusive that the majority of the subjects had no idea about the spare sock lying around and would probably get rid of it. It seems only the older generation believe the sock can still be useful even without a matching pair. Is this difference of opinion due to our different generations and the way we were brought up? Does the older generation care more for items of clothing because there was not easy access to fast fashion and cheap clothing?
I was inspired to use these unused socks as a representation of the current crisis Ghana is facing and how we should start respecting the clothing we purchase. Below is my final edit using research from Primary and Secondary sources including the data obtained first hand and further research.
OBRONI WAWU : Dead White Man’s Clothing
Don’t give away useless items!
Stop throwing away your clothes!
Do you really need to buy that new top?
What happens next in the story?
There is a serious crisis happening in many Third World Countries around the Globe. The effects of fast fashion and cheaper clothing means we no longer have any regard for the items we buy. We no longer give these items any significant value and fewer people are purchasing second hand clothing. 11 million items of second hand and often poor quality clothing are being shipped to one port in Ghana every week – where the population in this country is around 30 million.
Research has shown that the younger generation have less regard for clothing than the older generation. Adults aged 25 or below are happy to disregard or throw away a spare sock or top than try to repair it or utilise it elsewhere. Contradictory to common belief that Generation Z (those born in 1996 and later) are aware of the current climate crisis, they are also the least worried about “fast fashion” and the effects throughout the globe.
We need to start valuing our clothing again and we need to consider what happens next when you give your clothing away – What happens next in the story?
Following research of Kopytoff and Apadurai, their list of questions to create a biography of a simple, everyday item can be easily adapted to your own items. Consider something majority of us wear each day but never consider it a valuable item – a sock. Despite it’s intensive use, and the fact we humans gift these as Christmas presents, we all (pretty much) have a spare one lying around. It comes as a pair, but we don’t feel sorry for the lost one, we don’t grieve for the missing item. Why? Why do we not consider these as emotionally valuable as other items?
If we start to consider these questions on every item of clothing we are about to throw away or give away will it make us reconsider their usage?
Next time you want to donate that top, ask yourself can it be used again? Can it be used as something else? Can you extend the life of this item just by following some simple rules?
The combination of this disregard for clothing and fewer charity shops being utilised, our expendable items of clothing are being shipped abroad and countries can not cope with this.
Before you throw away any item of clothing consider it’s story beyond the dustbin.
Layout and Intended Reaction
Powerful statements now need to be seen clearly and make the consumer think twice. I initially intended to go down the route of following the story of one sock through it’s lifetime using the research I have obtained. However I don’t feel this would be powerful enough – the message needed to be in black and white and clear for others to see and understand. My use of the billboard to represent my message stemmed from seeing multiple Tube billboards with strong advertising for the companies that encourage fast fashion.
We need to promote the negative impacts of fast fashion around the world. It’s so easy to just give away an item of clothing and not consider what happens next. For me, the story these clothes have to tell is a very important story that will make us all question whether we are doing a good thing. Therefore I have taken the initial strong messages from my 300 word text and placed it into a billboard with the pictures of the disregarded socks.
The Billboard would have been an effective advertising technique but as this week’s outcome was intended to be an editorial I felt it needed to be more refined and in a layout such as a magazine etc. I took elements from this billboard – the use of the socks piled up and the wording. I didn’t feel the billboard had enough relevance and clarity and so I feel the final editorial piece is much clearer in putting across the message.
Changes made following feedback:
This week was huge for me – I made a concious effort to use the skills I’d aquired in Weeks 4 and 6 to research better and use fun in the work I create. I achieved both of those – I made an effort to carry out valuable feedback to inform my work and picked a topic I found fun and interesting to take my own research to the next level.
My main feedback was to try to make the writing clearer and use the wording as the pile instead of the socks. Personally I feel my final outcome was clear enough to reflect the impact I was trying to make and ensure the socks are the main focus of the piece.
However I tried a couple of different elements and changes and ended up with this other outcome:
Chaplin, Lan & John, Deborah. (2007). Growing up in a Material World: Age Differences in Materialism in Children and Adolescents. Journal of Consumer Research. 34. 480-493. 10.1086/518546.
Kopytoff, I. (1986). The cultural biography of things: Commoditization as process. In A. Appadurai (Ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (pp. 64-92). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Miller, D. (2001) ‘Alienable Gifts and Inalienable Commodities’, in The Empire of Things: Regimes of Value in Material Culture. School of American Research Press: Santa Fe & James Currey: Oxford.
Tilley, C. (1991) Material Culture and Text: The Art of Ambiguity.Routledge: London & New York.
Kasser, T. (2003). The high price of materialism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.