Before the wonderful TV show Mad Men made us conscious of how we have exchanged sophistication and “dressing up” for casual comfort in our clothing in the last forty years, I had felt for some time that something was “off” with clothing design and quality. Buying modern, unique, quality clothing at mid-range prices has been a struggle. In her excellent book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline goes as far as to say that compared to decades ago, middle class Americans are walking around in what then would have been considered rags.
The coat I’m wearing in this photo was my mother’s. It was constructed in the 1970’s in Spain in a beautiful, heavy wool that still looks new. The hems are finished with blind stitching and the buttons were personalized by the tailor. Forty years later, the coat still looks and fits like new, despite years of wear by my mother and then me. The coat cost $200 in today’s dollars, about what you would expect a middle-class wife and mother living on two teachers’ salaries would invest in a winter coat. Today, this coat would be prohibitively expensive and probably available only at a high-end department store or boutique because of its construction quality and details.
Why? And why can’t we find high-quality clothing at middle-class prices?
This is a tough one, and I want to be careful to not come across as a clothing snob, because the answer lies in the democratization of fashion, something that sounds good and noble. Fashion should be available and affordable to all. After all, it used to be. Sears was a middle-class clothing retailer that offered high-quality clothes at affordable prices in the 1950’s. What changed?
Cheap manufacturing overseas and technology have enabled the rapid creation and replenishment of small batches of trendy clothing at retailers. The goal is to lure consumers into the stores often (every two weeks versus once each season) to make more frequent purchases, with the guarantee they’ll find something new and on trend in limited quantities for very little. These so-called “fast fashion” retailers (Forever 21, H&M, and Target are examples) create consumer craving for newness by copying designer fashions and making them available at very low prices. Buying into styles cheaply and quickly has made clothing disposable, either because it falls apart after a few washes or is so trendy that the look is outdated within six months.
Mid-range retailers, such as J Crew, Banana Republic, and Nordstrom, are struggling to compete, so we’re starting to see downgraded quality there also. When I compare my J Crew day coat, whose quality seems just fine, to my mother’s coat, I start to see firsthand how the new paradigm has altered our perception of good design, quality, and presentation in our clothing. Our clothes don’t quite fit right, the fabrics aren’t great, and high-quality clothing seems more expensive than it should be. Sometimes, a high price tag doesn’t guarantee high quality: picking on J Crew again, see their “Collection” line, which is overpriced for what you get and is marketing run amok.
I believe a backlash is looming. Americans’ closets, both men’s and women’s, are bulging, yet there’s a constant “I have nothing to wear” lamentation. The ethical and economic sides of this dilemma are incredibly important but would require a much longer post, so I’ll recommend Cline’s book for those who want a deep dive into the topic and will focus my thoughts on the creative aspect.
Fashion is an art form, and it’s really the only art form I can think of that is experiencing a decline in creativity and quality construction. Designers today don’t have to know how to sew. A designer can draw a picture and email it to a factory with specs. Real, good design considers not just the drawing, but the construction and appearance of the final product. In other words, how a garment is made is just as important as the design on paper. Isn’t this true of all art forms? The creative process becomes compromised when corners are cut in the construction of the design. If I start with a great sketch, but then sloppily apply paint to a hastily assembled canvas, my final painting won’t be that great. Because most of us don’t know how to sew, we don’t know what workmanship to look for in well-made clothing, elements such as blind hems, French seams, and linings.
So, what is the solution? It’s hard to know if we can overcome the economics (the race to the bottom on price and disposability) and questionable ethics (the loss of the US textile industry and the exploitation of overseas cheap resources) of the fashion and clothing industry at the individual level, but we could take some cues from how we’re overcoming the influence of the food industry: think Supersize Me and the move away from fast food and genetically modified food to organic and local sources.
The lack of mid-range quality alternatives has sent me to three places:
- The sewing machine. My daughter went to sewing camp this summer and learned the basics. We bought a sewing machine and together we are learning. Yes, it is an art. It is painstakingly slow when you’re learning, but we’re on our way. This weekend she (and YouTube) will teach me to sew a pouch and an apron with pockets. From there, we’ll tackle the first big project, pillows for the benches on our deck. With practice, we’ll work our way up. I see the trend, too. I casually mentioned this in a meeting at work the other day, and a gentleman proudly proclaimed he was learning to sew and loves it. I have a fantasy where I am wearing something simple in a beautiful fabric, someone asks me where I bought it, and I say I made it. Added benefits are the quality time I’m spending with my daughter, branching out of my comfort zone, and feeling like I’m doing something ethical and worthwhile.
- eBay and consignment stores. I was late to this wonderful party, but thanks to a dear friend, I am now a big believer and thrilled to have discovered both. I have found mid-range designer clothes from seasons past by Elie Tahari, Diane von Furstenberg, and Milly (all American designers, most of their lines made in USA!) on eBay – most with the tags still on – for a fraction of the retail cost. Recently I bid on and won/bought a NWT (new-with-tags) beautifully crafted Elie Tahari dress from the 2008 collection for work, retail priced at $398 for just $73. The key here is to pick designers who you know fit you well and to choose classic cuts that don’t go out of style. Know your measurements so you can compare to those listed to ensure a good fit. Buy up a size if in doubt so you can have garments tailored. Older vintage is still available but wise shoppers are gobbling up what little is left, so speed will be essential if you want a garment from the 50’s or 60’s.
- My own closet and tailor. A friend recently said “cheap shouts, quality whispers.” My closet now whispers. Go through your closet and be ruthless about what fits and feels great. It’s better to have a few pieces that look great on you and make you feel great than a bulging closet full of clothes that don’t. Have things tailored to fit you better and change out simple things like buttons to make clothes unique. Raid your mom and dad’s stash of vintage clothing.
Clothing has always been a reflection of our personalities, so it’s sad to see what has happened in the fashion and textile industry. What do you think? Do you think mid-range quality clothing is on the decline and that the art of fashion and sewing has declined with it?