Our “appetite for newness” is not unique to our times, but habits of replacing not retaining are. We’re familiar with the impact on our world, but have we considered its impact on our minds?
The practice of “darning” — mending holes and tears in garments by interweaving yarn — was once a common one. Now few possess the skill, and fewer practice it. Why repair, if you can just replace?
We might expect someone from the fashion industry — an industry obsessed with new looks and new seasons and new trends — to agree. But instead of reinforcing those values, Lucianne Tonti has written a book extolling the virtues of owning fewer clothes and wearing them for longer.
In Sundressed, Tonti details the benefits of a quality-over-quantity approach to clothing — spending more on fewer, better-made items, taking better care of them, and repairing them to extend their lives. As she makes her case, Tonti speaks about her favorite clothes — the fabrics they were made from; the memories woven into them, through years of wear.
Her reasons for wanting the clothes she buys to last for 10 years rather than one are environmental, but also personal. She notes that when it comes to clothes we love — that look good on and feel good to wear — we will be motivated not just by obligation, but desire. When you appreciate something, you’d rather rescue it than replace it needlessly.
The challenge is that our culture is one where making and buying in bulk is incentivized, where much of what we buy is designed to be disposed of and replaced — is designed not to last.
The fashion industry is not alone in cultivating what Tonti and others have called our “appetite for newness”. We’re also encouraged to replace last season’s technology, last season’s homewares, last season’s appliances, with all the latest versions.
Much has been written about the impact of this appetite on the environment, but what about its impact on our minds?
Tonti’s descriptions of her favorite clothes — the high-waisted tailored pants she wore to this job interview, the cotton pants she wore to that dinner — might offer further incentive for retaining, repairing and reusing our possessions as much and as often as we can. The longer we keep something, and keep using it, the more memories it might evoke.
I liken my memory to a sieve these days, and I’ve only just hit middle age. Lately, I’ve been wondering whether part of the problem is a lack of physical prompts. I’d struggle to list all the books I’ve read this year because I borrow and return them. Borrowing beats buying — I don’t need them on shelves gathering dust — but the absence of their continuing presence does mean I’m less likely to remember and reflect on them.
I also wonder, if entries in my calendar were not online — if I etched words into a page, and if that page were on a wall — would they make a deeper imprint on my mind?
We tend to have more options now: with what to wear and read and listen to and watch; we tend to take more photos, record more videos — but there’s a very real sense in which more is less. It’s harder to locate particular photos, it’s harder to print any because we’re overwhelmed by choice. We have fewer physical books and albums — and more screens. We have more updates, more upgrades, more features, more options, but fewer products that are built to last, to satisfy, to stay. And it’s entirely possible that information we access via screens versus more material means is more difficult to process and retain.
It would be a mistake, however — a symptom of the memory-sieve phenomenon — to claim our tendency to forget, our appetite for newness, or our inability to remain satisfied, are in any way new.
There’s a story in the Jewish scriptures of an ancient people who, after they are freed from slavery, are quick to forget and to complain. They’re given rules for living well — the famous Ten Commandments, others too — and tips to help remember.
“Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
Doorframes, gates. Ties. Remembering is work; routine, repetition, and physical reminders can be powerful aids. This is nothing new. But it’s possible that newer habits of replacing our possessions much more frequently might make remembering harder still.
There’s a mnemonic technique — the “method of loci” — that involves committing information to memory by creating associations between objects in a room, or rooms, and information. The information can then be accessed by visualizing a route through the resulting “memory palace,” and attending to the objects on the way. But many objects that we own would already trigger memories — associations have developed naturally.
It’s why therapists sometimes use “object handling” to help patients who suffer from memory loss — the sight and feel of familiar possessions can stimulate the memory.
I’m not suggesting we should cling to junk we no longer need or use for fear of forgetting whatever memories might be linked to it, or that we should never buy new things. And I’m definitely not suggesting we buy instead of borrow. I’m just toying with the idea that, in an age where we’re living longer and living with dementia more, extending the life of certain objects
, might help extend the life of certain memories.
Of course, memories aren’t all of equal value, some are best forgotten. It’s one reason why diaries are sometimes burned — a symbolic purging of the past. But even memories of troubled times can be worth retaining — in fact, those might be the memories most likely to foster appreciation for what we have; or teach us lessons that prevent us from repeating past mistakes and help us live well now.
About a year ago, some of my grandmother’s old mugs were handed down to me; they’re hanging in our kitchen now. They serve us practically, and they serve as a reminder of a story told to me: of how she longed for them and saved for them — had them all on layby, and only after saving patiently, could bring them home. I love the mugs, but what they remind me of — a tale of wanting, working, waiting, then truly appreciating; a story with a moral — matters more.
In a 2019 research paper about “memory objects,” South African scholar Sabine Marschall explored the role of objects in emotionally linking migrants with their home countries. Interviews with a sample of 40 migrants found most didn’t value keepsakes or mementos of home, but some developed a “special relationship” with specific utilitarian objects — especially gifts — “which essentially turned into memory objects over time, precipitating memories and emotional attachment through routine usage and performative action.”
I think of the “utilitarian” wedding gifts my husband and I received, more than sixteen years ago, the “artifacts” we’re still using today — the kitchenware and homewares bought to treat us, built to last. They’ve moved with us from one house to the next. They don’t all carry concrete memories, but I’m sure they’ve aided our remembering all the same. We won’t keep them when they break beyond repair, but the memories they’ve helped us keep, of past chapters in life, might remain.
Even when possessions last, we shouldn’t overvalue them, we cannot take them to the grave. This is old news. So is humanity’s appetite for newness, our tendency to overlook, and take for granted, and forget. But the choice — to pander to this appetite, or to more keenly appreciate what we do have — is ours.
I spoke earlier of an ancient people’s dramatic rescue from slavery. The Jewish people were then called on to remember their rescue, and their rescuer. That story, more than once, likens that people to God’s possession. In today’s world this sounds degrading, but then, and with that owner, it spoke of profound value; they were precious, they were treasured, dearly loved.
A friend of mine has a woolen jumper that she’s now darned several times. The wool is dark, but the elbows feature patches made from brightly colored yarn.
We might prefer the thread to match the jumper, so as not to draw attention to its flaws. But we could see the patches as a thing to celebrate. They tell the story of a possession that could have been discarded, fast forgotten, thrown away. Instead, imperfect as it is, it has been kept.•
*In addition to The Smart Set, Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University also produces a podcast, Pop, the Question, which tackles the crossroads of academia and pop culture. In a related podcast episode, host, Dr. Melinda Lewis sifted through the racks with fashion and thrifting scholar Jen Ayres to unearth the allure of a subculture. A former vintage retailer and longtime thrift store ethnographer, Ayres dug deep to uncover the power of memory and narrative hanging around at the local thrift store. LISTEN HERE