Looking away

By Mathias Maurer, December 2018

Nothing but these shoes, nothing but this brand, nothing but this model! Nothing but these trousers, nothing but this top, nothing but this jacket!

As children grow older, so their brand awareness grows. They want what their peers are wearing, otherwise they’re out and it’s embarrassing. If we as parents could still persuade them to wear a woollen vest in winter and a cap in summer, that stops at the latest when they turn into young teenagers. They buy their clothes for themselves, and since they’re always running out of pocket money – in an industry worth well over three billion euros – the clothes have to be a bargain. Or has anyone ever filtered by “most expensive first”?

For every “bargain” in the so-called value creation chain, someone else has to pay the full price: children in African mines, clothing workers in Bangladesh, small farmers in Latin America.

Should we tell our children about these things? All they want, after all, is a cool t-shirt with a unicorn on the front? 

Of course not! We would have to paint the world as something evil for them. So what can be done instead? Pretend it isn’t happening?

Everyone (probably still) knows the fairy tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. It describes how the emperor’s honest ministers are fooled by two (ultimately wise) frauds who promise the vain emperor that for a large sum of money they will weave a suit of clothes which can only be seen by those who are not stupid or unfit for office. Since the new “clothes” remain invisible to the emperor and everyone else, but no one wants to admit that they are stupid or incompetent, everyone pretends to see the beautiful material.

When the court parades in front of the people in a grand procession, the emperor in the invisible clothes is cheered by the crowds. Only a small child trusts their eyes and calls out: “But he isn’t wearing anything.” Even when the other people begin to call out: “But he isn’t wearing anything”, the lords-in-waiting continue to carry the non-existent train ...

No one dares to trust their observation – that something is clearly going on that isn’t right. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale tells us in pictures that our failure to act is influenced by the fear of being negatively judged by others, that we fail to intervene and that we downplay an intolerable situation because no one else is doing so either, and that we are thereby evading our responsibility. Everyone plays along. We know from the psychology of peer pressure that our (personal) perception and opinion is influenced by the status and the number of other people who have a different point of view.

What, on closer inspection, this fairy tale says about human weaknesses in a child-appropriate and indirect form is anything but naive. In its pictorial approach, it can easily be transferred to an ever more conscious analysis of current economic circumstances. “Naked and ethical” (cf. the article by Klaus Rohrbach) – ultimately the issue of clothing is about knowledge and identity: the emperor is in search of himself.


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