by Dea GoblirschThe Oberlin Review April 3, 2009
Oberlin students constantly tread the tenuous line between wanting to live sustainably and wanting to be one of the cool kids. When it comes to the clothes we choose to wear, maybe these two things aren't mutually exclusive.
If the prevalence of holey sweaters and the rate at which items cycle through free boxes are any indication, old, ragged and torn clothing has found a stylish second life: on-campus recycled fashion. While vintage dresses, flannel and v-neck American Apparel t-shirts are trendy almost anywhere, including Oberlin, a contingent of Obies have formed a style tribe that interprets recycled and boho chic literally. In contrast to runway models in four-figure patchwork dresses and urban boutiques purveying threads designed to be disheveled-looking, Oberlin students are actually taking clothing from the trash (or at least from the rejections of someone else's closet.)
Like many other groups coalescing around a distinctive aesthetic, Oberlin's trashionistas are marked by a set of ideals that motivate their choices. Mainstream fashion encourages consumers to buy a lot, cheaply, so they can afford to throw it away when the next big thing emerges on the catwalk. Oberlin students who deck themselves out in recycled threads are opting out of this cycle and creating an eco-conscious alternative.
Trashion, as practiced on campus, is not a doughty rejection of style. Some of the most eye-catching members of the student body are those who skip reading Nylon and instead turn previously unwanted and unattractive items into poetically unkempt or childishly playful combinations. Students mix found earrings, bright colors, long skirts and ski caps into whimsical, slightly crunchy looks. I've seen Oshkosh B'gosh children's overalls and chunky grandmother knits fused to create enviable combinations.
College junior Kate Coury, an Oberlin College recycler, is one such dresser. Coury's passion for hand-me-downs and found items is fueled by personal philosophy.
"I have this theory," Coury says, "that if you really, really need something -- and if you think about needing it or wanting it or liking it -- you'll find it somewhere. It works for everything!"
Coury's theory may hold up at Oberlin, where an incredible infrastructure has been developed for the distribution of unwanted clothing, room decor and miscellaneous items. The Free Store, located in the basement of Asia House, is staffed by College Recyclers (including Coury), who make sure one student's junk becomes another one's treasure. At the end of each semester, dorm rooms are cleared out and students relinquish everything from woefully unattractive rainbow-knit hats to last season's chic shoes, skirts and dresses at the Big Swap in Wilder Main. Free boxes are located in all of the OSCA cooperatives, and Harkness has converted its former mailroom, adjacent to the house lounge, into a swap spot. The Recycled Products Co-op runs Procraftination nights, during which craftsters turn beer boxes, cardboard and other scraps are into hand-bound books and jewelry.
Recycled chic is often, and somewhat problematically, coupled with anti-capitalist beliefs. Oberlin's redistribution programs are influenced by freeganism, which advocates minimized participation in the United States economy through exchange and dumpster diving, but manifestations of these ideas are limited to the student body. Oberlin College exchange culture is undermined by its inaccessibility to community members. Free boxes, the Free Store and the Recycled Products Co-op are located on-campus -- the first two in buildings that require College ID card swipes to enter, the latter in Wilder Student Union. In a low-income town such as Oberlin, limiting this wealth of resources to the hip, often economically stable student body seems selfish.In the Academic Commons and on Wilder Bowl, trashionistas flaunt looks that make dumpster diving seem chicer than boutique hopping. Environmentally minded organizers have created a simple, brilliant infrastructure for the re-distribution of recycled goods on campus. Isn't the next step obvious? Let's get out of the dorms and the Asia House Basement and make our incredible resources available to all of Oberlin.