Julia Mooney is a middle school art teacher in Moorestown, NJ. This school year, she decided to try an experiment- wearing one outfit for 100 days as “A challenge to be mindful of what, why, and how we consume.” As a result, she has been interviewed on a number of media outlets ranging from Good Morning America to the BBC. She details the challenge on Instagram at instagram.com/oneoutfit100days/. Since she’s a friend, and I had a few questions of my own, we did a sort of back and forth email interview that is below. It’s been edited for clarity.
RP: You have gotten a significant amount of media attention and much of it has focused on the idea of sustainable clothing, and an attempt to not base a person’s value primarily on how a person dresses. Is that an accurate understanding of the topics, and in turn the conversations, that you were hoping this project would explore?
JM: Yes, I’d say that is an accurate summary of the ideas I was hoping to discuss. Depending on the outlet, they do seem to spend more time on one or the other, but I see them as interrelated. It’s definitely possible to come up with an eco friendly wardrobe that’s also super expressive by using thrift, fair trade items, and a sharing economy of some type. However, all of those solutions perpetuate a culture that feeds off of more consumption. We are a culture of excess – one that began in the 80’s and had defined my life and those around me. For that reason I think we are beginning to have trouble recognizing that there is another way. We use the word “need” way too often when it comes to what we buy. It is more likely that we don’t truly need things as much as we want them. I’ve even seen this consumer culture affect how we are enacting the feminist goals that our mothers had for us in the ’60’s and ’70’s. They wanted to give us more choices, and now many of us don’t really feel like we have those choices. With so many two income households, the standards for consumption have changed so that we feel like we “need” much more stuff. Suddenly, a woman may feel like staying home to be a full time homemaker isn’t one of her options anymore. For a lot of families, this might be the right path but in a culture that defines success by material wealth we feel pressured to live according to this standard. So we do… and we buy… and we consume… and we dispose of it all. Then we post about it all on social media. We spend Saturdays at Target and call it a hobby. We buy wasteful gift bags for things we used to wrap in newspaper. We spend $500 on a 2 years old’s birthday party. None of us can sew. Many of us can’t cook so we buy prepackaged, wasteful, expensive frozen food. We must have two cars. We must have enough bedrooms for each of our children. We must buy new matching outfits for every family photoshoot that we must schedule with a professional photographer (and we must stage it like an L.L. Bean catalog. And post about it. And check how many likes we get. And we aren’t teenagers. We are adults). We choose the superficial over meaningful lives and we do it at the expense of the planet. This is the new norm and for the sake of my children I felt the need to reject that.
RP: At what point in your life did you begin to challenge being part of a culture of excess? Was there an experience that was the catalyst to think differently?
JM: I’m an artist, so by nature I think I have always been one to question things. That’s not to say it was always our “culture of excess” that I was questioning. I think that really began to take hold after I had children, which happened to coincide with the eruption of our current tumultuous political climate. Suddenly I had to take more drastic action to address climate change in my personal life. I couldn’t be complacent and then complain about society’s complacency. I had to be a model for my children, who will clearly need to learn how to be critical thinkers who sift through the democratization of media in information. They will also one day look at me and ask what I did to help the planet they will live on much longer than us.
With regards to excess, consumption and being a woman in modern America, it was also becoming a mother that provided me with some clarity. We had three kids, two parents with master’s degrees, and two incomes. Why did it feel like we had “no money”? Why did our house suddenly feel so small? The people who lived here before us raised five kids in this house, with one parent working who didn’t have a college degree. What changed? While there are a lot of factors like college debt and daycare, I realized it was also due to a shift in our consumer culture. It seems this has come at the expense of our environment and perhaps our well being.
RP: I think that’s really fascinating that your artistic nature lead you to question things, which actually leads me to a question I’ve had. A lot of the interviews you’ve done acknowledge you’re a teacher, but not necessarily that you’re an artist. I’ve always had trouble defining what art is because it seems to be defined differently within the art world- not to mention defining an artist’s goals. Is there an overhead cost for art that can be too expensive in terms of sustainability? Are there certain resources that should be limited in their use, even for art? And I’m also thinking of the overlap with fashion as art. Is all art sustainable?
JM: All art is not sustainable. In my opinion art is only worth the cost of its resources if it is good art. There is a lot of bad art. Can we still call it art? I suppose, because there is a difference between good art and bad art and that difference will be defined subjectively by each individual viewer. In my experience the general public often views good art as something which they feel they could not have done themselves.Another very common and very traditional definition is something that is pleasing to look at. For myself and many other people who have had their fill of pretty art that is void of meaning, we prefer art that stimulates our mind over the eye. Does it ask a question that’s worth considering? Does it present a different perspective on our world? Does it challenge a social norm? Fashion is its own brand of Art … I think you see fashion in its fine art version on the runway and that may or may not inspire the practical fashion that we wear. I absolutely see what I’m doing is art more than anything else. I’m using fashion as a medium to explore an issue that needs exploring. For me, that’s what art should do.