What does clothing REALLY mean?

I have discovered I have a very narrow view of what clothing really means. The clothes we wear are such a personal reflection of ourselves, our inner self and the way we want people to perceive those inner selves. But after an unexpected experience with a group of people outside the fashion industry I was reminded that clothing is so much more than fashion and that being able to express myself, my creativity and mood everyday was a luxury, a privilege.

The Collingwood Clothing library came into my world through a colleague, they saw a piece on the initiative on the news and bowled over by the idea dragged me (very willingly) along to meet them and we offered to help however we could. A fashion school is pretty well placed to help a clothing library with things like repairs, hangers, racks even clothing (left over from our clothes swaps). As part of getting our students involved and inspired to help, the staff from the clothing library trooped up the road and came to meet our students.

Our inner-city campuses are located in suburbs with many public housing towers and during the COVID lockdowns a security guard working at one of the towers brought in a few pairs of pants to give to anyone that needed them and from there a free op shop was born. This became not just a place for people to access the clothes they desperately needed but also share stories and socialise.


Before the team from the library arrived my class and I talked about the library and why it is needed and important. We talked about CLOTHING POVERTY and how it is not just something that happens in other countries. We talked about our own views on fashion and the students began to realise that not everyone had the access to clothing or even the networks and resources required to access the clothes they need when they need them. Clothes that would make them feel comfortable and any situation, clothes for job interviews, work, weddings and family gatherings. Add on to that the unique pressures potentially faced by residents and part of the public housing community.

It dawned on me through this conversation that as fashion practitioners and educators we talk about the value of fashion to people but often through a narrow lens, we talk about it as an important and economically valuable industry, we talk about it being an important part of the creative community, a barometer of our times and a way we express our individuality and belonging.

No items found.

In sustainable fashion education we often forget to talk about the importance of clothing for those people that actually do not have reliable access to it. The way this lack of access can impact their job prospects, their ability to interact with family and community, the way they are perceived by society and the ability to present themselves in the way they wish to be perceived. This lack of access is all the more shocking when overproduction and waste are one of the many (many, many) issues currently being tackled by the new generation of fashion students.

Clothing Poverty

It is hard to find statistics or research about the impact the lack of accessibility to appropriate (not just any) clothing has on people in our own community. As fashion designers and practitioners we have the luxury of seeing clothing as a way to express our personalities, to experiment and have fun. But for others clothing can mean the difference between getting a job or not, or possibly even the confidence to go to a job interview or start the search. A lack of what is seen as socially acceptable clothing surely must impact social inclusion and lead to a deeper cycle of disadvantage.

In a world of fast fashion, where the fashionable shopper can access more clothing than ever before, it is hard to believe that some people do not have access to the clothing that they need. But it is true, when there are so many other things that money must be spent on even the cheapest of clothing is inaccessible. And remember, the cheapest clothing is also the clothing that is built not to last. Does this constant need for replacement add even more of a financial burden on those people least able to afford it?


“People can’t tell whether you’ve eaten, but they can tell what you’re wearing.”
Louise Cooke, CEO and founder of the charity Sharewear

Social Inclusion

The Australian Social Inclusion Board defines being socially included as meaning that people have the capability, the resources as well as the opportunities to learn, work, engage and have a voice. In a society these activities all require not just clothing but clothing that is socially acceptable, clothing that is fit for purpose.

As part of this new realisation that learning sustainable (or any)fashion can give us blinkered view on why fashion is important. I have realised that part of my role is to open up the world of students to what fashion means to ALL of us, not just those that purport to love it. My students need to see that this industry is not only import because of the number of people it employs, the expression of creativity it is and the terrible impact it is having on lives and the planet. They hopefully will see that fashion is a part of our social structure and it can have a massive impact on the lives of the people within our society.

We must move this industry towards sustainability because it matters to people.

Image 1 & 3 Source: SBS News / Abby Dinham

‘About Thread Together - Delivering New Clothes To Australians In Need’, 2021, September 27, Thread Together, viewed 2 October 2022, https://threadtogether.org/about/.

Australian Human Rights Commission, 2008, January 1, ‘Homelessness Is a Human Rights Issue | Australian Human Rights Commission’, humanrights.gov.au, viewed 2 July 2022, https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/publications/homelessness-human-rights-issue.

Britten, F, 2021, June 20, ‘Clothing banks warn of families in crisis as demand soars’, the Guardian, viewed 2 October 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jun/20/clothing-banks-warn-of-families-in-crisis-as-demand-soars.

Dinham, A, 2022, May 8, ‘Melbourne public housing residents have created a clothes library for neighbours in need’, SBS News, viewed 2 October 2022, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/melbourne-public-housing-residents-have-created-a-clothes-library-for-neighbours-in-need/c9jpxzwhb.

‘Poverty in Australia’, n.d., Poverty & Inequality in Australia, viewed 2 July 2022, https://povertyandinequality.acoss.org.au/poverty/.


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