A while back, I wrote about how you can travel vicariously through foreign coins that turn up accidentally in your pocket change. Living in Queens, I enjoy great odds of receiving a Croatian kuna, Irish punt, or a Bermudan nickel. But what if you don’t live in the world’s most diverse county as I do?
That is when it’s time to head to your local Old Navy or JC Penney or your favorite discount chain store and play some T-shirt Travel. It’s easy to play. Just look at the tags of the deeply-discounted clothing and see where the items were made. Made in China? Boooooring. Try again. Guatemala? Honduras? Bangladesh? Cambodia? You’re getting the hang of it. Bonus points are accrued for finding a country you haven’t heard of. If you are already a geography nerd, then the points mount for the countries ruled by dictators (how ’bout that v-neck made in Morocco? Made by King Mohammed VI’s loyal subjects!).
The sheer number of countries represented in America’s outsourced labor pool—as found in just one department of one chain store—is astounding, as if the clothing companies have to diversify their manufacturing in case they lose their operations in a country or two to a revolution (I haven’t seen any t-shirts made in Egypt in a while).
For me, the label-reading has effects beyond making me snicker at the irony of Old Navy sweatshirts, each with fashionably distressed lettering reading “Brooklyn” or “The Bronx,” being made in Cambodia. I wonder if, when I was in Phnom Penh a few years back, I walked past the woman who stitched them. Perhaps when I was trying to cross the street filled with motorbikes whose drivers held little regard for stoplights, and she was much more agile than me, weaving between the motorbikes. Maybe she was the one sitting next to me and slurping up a bowl of sweet ‘n’ meaty caw at a sidewalk lunch vendor.
Such wonderment may distract the t-shirt traveler from uncovering that moisture-wicking shirt, made in the tiny, landlocked African country of Lesotho, on the bargain rack for $6.95 (we have a winner in the obscure country category!). But that is the point: to think about where our clothing comes from, the clothing we rely on every day to keep us fashionably covered. To realize, after visiting Phnom Penh, that many Cambodians cannot afford the clothes their country’s factories make.
In any case, one thing is certain: both the aforementioned elusive Cambodian woman and the fast-fingered worker from Lesotho always know what will be the rage in American fashion long before we see it.