Transitioning to a Remote Semester Abroad
Hello everyone! I’m back with another final blog post about my experiences this semester and how they’ve related to my research for the GEO. I hope you are all safe, well, and coping. Thanks for clicking, and happy reading!- AJ x
My junior year abroad has been among the best of my life, but it hasn’t always been an easy one. With the strikes cutting my first semester short from November, and the Coronavirus forcing my spring semester to an abrupt end beginning in late February, I am trying hard to resist the temptation to view my experience in France as a year characterized by chaos. It’s been a year in which I have learned so much, and am continuing to learn more than I possibly could have imagined throughout this period of distance from France, and proximity to my home community in a dangerous and frightening time.
The February break marked the start of the virus’ impact on my life, when my partner and I each spent several days with our families, mine in north-east England, and his in Lombardy. Upon returning, we spent the rest of the break together, hardly remarking the news stories about the virus as anything more than a horrible tragedy, and thinking about those impacted. A week later, however, we both received guidance from our universities which obliged us to observe a self-imposed quarantine for two weeks. Throughout this time, the news about COVID-19 started to gain serious traction; a week later, I was forced to leave Paris due to the border closures: Andrea stayed (and is safe!) in Paris, as returning to Italy is impossible. The last week we spent in Paris was filled with a mixture of joy and anxiety – we were lucky enough to meet with my dear friend Olivia who had had to leave her program in Italy, before she went on home to Connecticut, and we were elated and devastated all at once. We all recognize, and are immensely grateful for, the privilege of having a roof over our head, available food and water, and the stability afforded by university grants and support – these are sadly very previous resources, to which not everyone has access.
In this time of crisis, when I revisit my original work for the GEO, I’m struck by two main thoughts – firstly, that the topic of textiles and sustainability could not be further from relevant (this one’s about as pleasant as hearing your own voice, recorded!). However, secondly, I’m struck by the number of posts I have been seeing online – SOCIAL MEDIA COVID NEWS – have been linking the current pandemic with the climate crisis, and the climate crisis with the fashion industry.
Have you, like me, noticed the number of adverts online promoting the latest sales on fast fashion clothing since the ‘lock-down’, especially on social media? I know I’m just as guilty as the next person of spending way longer on my phone than I’d previously been trying to, particularly on social media websites. It’s comforting to see others’ posts and know that we’re all living the same experience, from friends in the same village to those as far as Russia and China. It really feels like brands are making an effort to capitalize on this extended screen time, and doubling down on advertising products to social media users. Well, we’re not the only ones who’ve noticed, and I for one have been glad to see posts starting to appear, commenting on this phenomenon, as well as its human and environmental impacts. This article in GQ, for example, exposes the human cost of fast fashion production in overseas factories, and this piece for UK newspaper The Guardian details the dangers of fast fashion distribution factories, closer to home for me, in Sheffield, North Yorkshire.
Despite the evident pitfalls of fast fashion even under normal circumstances, I can’t deny the temptation of such eye-catching sales; after all, with a lot less time on our hands, even the activity of scrolling through pages of discounted styles can provide for a couple of minutes’ distraction from the potentially highly anxiety-provoking news cycle. This also relates to the fact that for a lot of us, browsing items of new clothing can be an enjoyable leisure activity – even those of us who feel more at home in a charity shop can definitely agree that an afternoon spent browsing the rails of pre-loved clothing presents a comforting and often inexpensive treat. Thus, the general anxiety provoked by the outside world can end up pushing us towards our familiar self-care routines (we’ve all too often heard the phrase, treat yourself!) and into the loop of consumerism – most evidently with online purchases from fast fashion brands. Just as much as myself as for anyone else, I’ve compiled a list of some alternative ways for us to stay mindful, with an eye on clothing and sustainability (we’re still all wearing clothes, even if they might be pyjamas!) during our time in isolation.
Self (and Earth)- Caring Alternatives to Fast Fashion Consumerism in a Time of Crisis
- Rediscover old favorite pieces – try wearing something unexpected!
These days, more than ever, I’ve found myself staring at my collection of clothes, feeling thoroughly ‘meh’ about any possible selection, before opting for the same paint-stained jeans and comfy jumper I’ve had on for I-don’t-even-want-to-tell-you-how-long! Try to look creatively at what you’ve already got, and switch things up from there for your daily stroll from the living room, to the kitchen, and back…(!) I particularly like pairing a dress I’d consider ‘too fancy’ for everyday, with an over-sized jumper, to create the look of a ‘midi skirt’ while also maximizing my use of the clothes I own – who says a Zoom meeting isn’t an occasion for dressing up, anyway?
- Try an in-house clothing swap, if possible
I don’t know about you, but I’m lucky enough to be observing lock-down in a house with my mam, stepdad, sister and two brothers – and I’ve already had my hands on some second hand steals, without even so much as a shipping fee*! If your family, like ours, has gone on a wee home improvement spree, you can expect to see clothes among some of the items cleared out and swapped around. Why not take the opportunity to hold a family clothing swap, with the remaining unwanted items going to charity at the end of lock-down? You may be surprised by what you can find ‘new to you’, or how much love your unloved items might find!
3. DIY Solutions – Make do and Mend
None of us need reminding that the internet is really, really powerful. From online sales providing an invaluable accessibility tool when used properly, and a danger to the environment and human health when exploited, to social media’s equal powers to include and alienate individual experiences, it’s a reflection and an extension of the society in which we live. The internet is also an amazing knowledge bank where we can tap into resources, for free, in order to transform old clothes into new ones, and ideas into projects we can be proud of! So far, I’ve knitted a sweater, and marveled at my lovely friend Millie’s new handmade jewelry – additions to your wardrobe don’t always have to involve spending money, sometimes all we need is a little time, and a lot of enthusiasm!
- Online Shopping Re-imagined
When you shop with second hand clothing websites, what you spend isn’t going towards big brands’ profit margins – it’s going towards others just like you who want to clear out their closet, often offering unexpected preloved gems at very reasonable prices. Perhaps the money you may have to spare might even prove to be a big help for someone looking to sell, especially given the current circumstances. Just remember to be patient and understanding of potentially longer delivery times, as your seller will have to personally make the arrangements to send you your parcel, to fit in with their self-isolating schedule.
5. Create a Sustainable Wish List
I often feel like a really good way to determine whether any purchase is worth making, is by sitting mindfully with your desire for the item over an extended period of time, then finally asking yourself if this is a good use of your, and the earth’s, resources. William Morris, the British ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’ artist and visionary, urged everyone to be sure that an item was beautiful, and that it was useful, before inviting that item into their home – it’s an idea my mother has reminded me of countless times throughout my formative years! I propose that we ask ourselves these questions, and a couple more – Is it sustainable? Who might benefit, and who might suffer, as a result of my purchase? How long would it take for me to stop desiring this item? – before we make up our minds. If the piece you’ve fallen in love with stands up to all these questions – fantastic! There’s one more step, though: we record in some way (I like to keep a written list at the back of my journal) and wait for the right occasion. For me at the moment, that’s the time when ‘lock-down’ ends across the UK, and independent local manufacturers can safely distribute their products again. The other side of this pandemic represents an enormous opportunity to change some of the destructive habits to which we turned a blind eye before, and replace them with some radically kinder alternatives.
- Alternative Self-Care Activities
For many of us, clothes are a really important means of self-expression. Stepping away from online fashion brands, when there aren’t any physical alternatives, and maybe even taking on a no-buy challenge can be really daunting. Consequently, I’d recommend seeking new ways to show off who we truly are, without breaking the bank or our principles! For me, my Russian major is a big part of my life, which my family, who aren’t Russian speakers, know but don’t always totally understand. I’m looking forward to sharing my passion for my subject in a way everyone will enjoy a lot more than an assigned reading list, by cooking a special family dinner of vegetarian pelmeni and vareniki (savory and sweet Russian dumplings, normally mince and cherry respectively) – they’re a staple food and perfect to make with the often limited ingredients available in over-stressed UK supermarkets. I know for sure that I won’t be able to get the right amount of cherries, so frozen red fruit with a bit of added sugar will have to do – your means of self-expression doesn’t have to be perfect, and that’s the whole point! Bonus points if your way of expressing yourself directly benefits others – that’s what all of this is about. PS – I know our very own WAMH is doing radio shows at a distance now, so maybe you could even listen to the station while you create, or record a program of your own!
Conclusion and Lessons I’ve Learned
Overall and more than anything, I thank you for reading, and staying with me to the end of my post, and I wish you all the safety, security and support in the world, which you deserve in this difficult time.
Secondly, I am grateful for the opportunity, in writing this post, to sit with the fact that this crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, has turned life as we knew it on its head, much for the worse. I am feeling the strain of being separated from loved ones, physically attending college, and the life away from home which I had almost begun to take for granted. We FGLI** and international students often feel as though we lead two different lives – one at home, and another at college – and the UK’s ‘lock-down’ has united the two for me in a challenging and unexpected way. I am also grateful that these, my challenges, are the very least of the problems which this world is facing, and that I have found myself in such a fortunate position.
Finally, I’m grateful for the realization that while I suspected that writing about clothes and fashion during our collective quarantine might feel silly, or frivolous, in fact it feels deeply necessary and relevant. Dressing ourselves is an integral part of being human. Now, more than ever, it’s an integral part of how we treat other humans, those we do and don’t know, and the earth we all share. Let’s try and envisage the end of the crises we’re living through with radical imagination, boldness and kindness.
Now and always, yours in solidarity and all love –
*all thanks to my sister, Emma, and brother, Arthur…
**First Generation and/or Low Income