The Art of Letting Go: Minimalism and Materialism in Modern Fashion

“There’s a template out there. You can call it The American Dream or Keeping Up With The Jones’ or whatever. That’s just a template; it’s not the template. And once we realized that, we could create our own template that works just for us.” - Joshua Fields Millburn

Venturing against and past an American consumer culture defined by excess, many people seek to remove the clutter of their everyday lives; numerous knick-knacks purchased from thrifts stores, a closet bursting at the seams due to a never-ending wardrobe. For many there exists a form of self expression, Minimalism, that isn’t mediated exclusively by material things. A “less is more” approach that encourages and provides a way to maneuver through life without weighing ourselves down by the things we collect.

In Matt D’Avella’s documentary, Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, the audience is given a glimpse into the mythos surrounding the upswing of minimalism’s popularity within the United States. Following Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, the co-founders of the blog The Minimalists, the audience gains not just an insight into the birth of their popular blog, but an idea of how this philosophy completely refashioned their lives. During a tour of his apartment, Millburn mentions how, “as a minimalist, every possession serves a purpose or brings me joy”. A meditation occurs between Millburn and each article of clothing he owns, with Millburn always asking himself, “does this add value to my life?”. And, if the answer is no, he has to be willing to let go of said item without fuss or fight. As a result of this process, both Millburn and Nicodemus were left with fewer items in their life, each remaining item containing significant value. This newfound lack of clutter granted them greater clarity to see what things in their life contained value, be it clothes, jobs or relationships.

Even though this style of purging may sound familiar to anyone familiar with the idea of Spring cleaning, the documentary widens its scope, analyzing the root of this compulsion to consume fashion. At one point we meet with Shannon Whitehead Lohr, founder of Factory45 and a leading advocate for a more sustainable fashion industry. Speaking about the nature of fashion seasons, Lohr elaborates on how fashion’s recent trend of shortened seasonal cycles artificially accelerates what’s in and out, often at the detriment of consumers and the fashion industry:

“Maybe, when our moms were shopping for clothes, or our grandmothers, there were four seasons per a year. Or maybe even two seasons. You dressed for the cold; you dressed for the warm. Now we work in a cycle of 52 seasons per a year. [The fashion industry] wants you to feel like you’re out of trend after one week so that you’ll buy something new the following week. There have actually been accounts of big fashion retailers balling all the clothes of one week together, slashing through them with scissors, destroying them and leaving them on the side of the road so no one can resell them or even wear them. They want consumers to buy as much clothing as quickly as possible.”

Given the temptation of a never ending supply of new clothes, the low cost of items in a store like H&M, and the ever-widening sphere of peer pressure on social media, the avoidance of buying too many clothes becomes a tough proposition.

Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College, punctuates Lohr’s statement about fashion’s transient culture, informing the viewer that, “If you think about the concept of fashion, it embodies in it the idea that you can throw things away, not when they are no longer usable but when they no longer have that social value or they are no longer fashionable.”

As a cure Schor suggests a return to a positive form of materiality as a remedy for incessant shopping. By purchasing quality clothes and then learning to mend and repair said items, you are able to extend the longevity of your possessions. Ultimately, echoing Millburn, we must “create our own template that works just for us”, finding a path which suits our best sense of self-expression, through clothing and beyond.