We need clothes to keep warm most of the year and to protect skin from sunburn and insects in the summer. Very simple coverings can do those jobs and one change while the other is washed can work. Some past eras, institutions, and poverty have made these simple arrangements normal. But in America today, no one would settle for that.

There are clothing regulations and requirements. Uniforms are obviously signals about roles and responsibilities. Work sites can demand or expect protective or prescribed styles of clothing, even on casual Fridays. Some schools require uniformity in dress. Social event invitations sometimes include the prescribed clothing or style.

More subtly and important is our choice of dress when nothing specific is required. Then we are able to use our attire to tell the world who we are or how we wish to be understood. For example, some people wear deliberately worn and hole-y denims. Are they saying they work hard, wish to be known as sloppy or poor, or follow a weird fashion trend? Dressing up expensively can tell all who see us that we are wealthy even when we aren’t.

In any case clothing is big business. One estimate says that 80 billion articles of clothing are purchased each year around the world, plus another few billion that are not sold and destroyed. A quarter of chemicals made on earth are used for clothing and this contributes to water pollution. And there are sweatshops where poor people are paid little in dangerous buildings slaving over these clothes.

The making, selling, and disposal of attire keeps employment high. It would ruin our economy to discourage spending so much money on clothes even if it is foolish and wasteful. But really — do we need so many clothes?!

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