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overdressed: the high cost of cheap fashion
June 20, 2012 8:28 AM   Subscribe


 
Thanks, flex. Looks fascinating. I was particularly surprised by this, from your first link: "And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa."

I consider it a sin (for me, at least) to throw away clothing, and I do my best to give outgrown kids' clothing to friends with small children. Anything too ripped or stained is de-buttoned and put in a bag marked "Bale" and brought to a thrift shop that accepts them (I'm a fan of thrift shops and use them as a primary source for project material; cheap 100% wool skirts are not to be sneezed at). My understanding was that the bales were recycled...although that word may not mean what I think it means. Thanks for this post. Lots of good stuff here.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:41 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a person who just last week off-loaded 4 or 5 bags of clothes to charity and just last night was crowing about the cute, cheap dresses I bought at JC Penney's this spring, I, uh..., am apparently part of the problem.
posted by jillithd at 8:44 AM on June 20, 2012


flex does it again! (Thanks, flex!)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:49 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


The more I see from this book, the more I want to read it.
posted by immlass at 8:50 AM on June 20, 2012


Some of my happiest memories of kidhood -- no, really -- are of going to the little family-run fabric store in my hometown with my mom. I learned how to sew in middle school Home Ec classes, which were compulsory. After I made a nice calico A-line skirt, Mom essentially said "how would you like to make something you'd actually like to wear to school?" and she taught me the rest. I never did learn how to design my own stuff, but I did learn how to read a pattern envelope, so that I could suss out whether the design elements would flatter my shape. I learned that calico cotton may be corny, but at the time it was cheap to buy, easy to sew, and made in the U.S. (This was the late 1970s-early 1980s.) I learned that polyester and blends were a bitch because it was really easy for me to stretch them out during seaming if I wasn't paying close attention. And I learned that tartan wool was shockingly expensive, but if I worked carefully, that skirt and shawl set would look great and last for years, and it did.

I stopped making my clothes around the time I went to college, when time was at a premium and I didn't feel like lugging a sewing machine to school. I still regret that.

I'm kind of an outlier where this article is concerned: thanks to a period of repeated weight gain and loss, I don't like shopping for clothes, and I tend to wear things until they fall off my body in strips, and my friends suggest, politely, that I might like to get some new trousers and that the 15-year-old Felix the Cat t-shirt should probably be retired. But I'm starting to feel the desire to wear natural fibers again, not cheap and slimy approximations of them. It's been so long since I've sewn, though, that I fear I'd have to devote, like, three or four weekends to a single pair of tweed pants. But based on Elizabeth Cline's message, it sounds like it just might be worth the trouble.

(For me, at least. I know that not everybody likes to sew, or wants to learn how to sew, just like not everybody likes to cook, or wants to learn. I'm not saying "why aren't you sewing your own clothes, lazybones?" at all.)

flex, this post is terrific. Well done.
posted by bakerina at 8:55 AM on June 20, 2012 [10 favorites]


This seems like concern-trolling, but what ultimately is the problem? It seems like she's complaining about the efficiency of our reuse-recycle system with clothing, and just dislikes thrift shops for some reason.

What's her solution? Make our own clothes, and throw them in the garbage when we don't want them anymore?
posted by msalt at 8:58 AM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I hate clothes shopping, so I only have a limited number of clothes and wear them to death. But my kids, on the other hand . . . . We have a pile of friends and relatives with young kids, and get completely swamped with used children's clothing. Add to that stuff they get for gifts and stuff my wife picks up, and my kids have more clothing than we know what to do with. Sometimes giant boxes of used clothing gets passed on to us, and only one or two items make it into their drawers, the rest gets recirculated. When I look back to what I had as a kid -- only two small drawers to fit every piece of clothing I owned, homemade pajamas, one winter coat, one raincoat, one toque, etc. Back then things got patched and repaired, socks were darned. The change to the way things are now absolutely astounds me. We have more gloves and hats for those kids than I can shake stick at. They have a mountain of shoes. Coats of every description for every occasion. Enough pairs of pajamas to fully rig a three-masted ship. Crazy!
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:58 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is really interesting, thanks. I also am in the process of giving away all the junk in my house, surprisingly most is unwanted clothing.
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:59 AM on June 20, 2012


I'm currently getting rid of some clothes (which I do about as often as bakerina), and was debating what to do about an old T-shirt. The words "Trinity Church, Montreal" on the right shoulder are barely visible, and both armpits have gigantic holes. I was afraid that if I donated it, the thrift shop would either 1) kill me or 2) throw it in a landfill. Now I know that it will probably be recycled, not thrown in a landfill; great articles, thanks!
posted by Melismata at 9:01 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll think of this story next time I'm tempted to clothes-shop for no compelling reason other than "it was cute!" Unfortunately, a lot of my donations have come from weight gains and losses which aren't much under my control. (I wonder what percentage of U.S. donations stem from that very cause.) Yet another reason to try to eat sanely - so I don't have to shop insanely!
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:09 AM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I heard an interview with her and was amazed. I spend about $90 a year on new clothes and probably about that on thrift shop fashions.

I'm good with this, but mostly because paisley will never go out of style.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:13 AM on June 20, 2012


Wait. Is this the clothing equivalent of "Eat your beans, there are starving kids in China?"

Because I can't quite see how the author's making connections here. I guess I'd need to read the book to see her full argument, but I tend to agree with msalt that this really seems like a concern troll. What's she trying to accomplish here?

If she's against excessive consumption of raw materials, or the flawed model of material charity donations*, she should come forward and say so, rather than conflating the argument with poverty, thrift shops, et al. It sounds like she's diving into a lot of unrelated topics, and only making tenuous connections between them.

Clothing is getting cheaper. For some reason, we hold on to it for too long. Americans engage in excessive consumption. We tend to think that donating old crap to charities is a good thing. None of these things is a startling revelation, and I'm failing to see how they can be connected into any sort of groundbreaking thesis.

*Charities don't need your old sneakers. They need cash. Cold hard cash. And blood. And bone marrow. Also, occasionally your time. But you get my point.
posted by schmod at 9:22 AM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


The book "Class" by the late Paul Fussell had a lot of trenchant things to say about how disparaging polyester and "cheap"clothing is mostly about subtly establishing class status. As did Thorstein Veblen re: ridiculously time consuming endeavors (like elaborate manners, nuances of wine tasting).

Seeing as how Cline adds sewing your own clothes and dislike of thrift shops to the mix, that's what I'm feeling here -- snobbery masquerading as concern for the poor. Who we will help by removing their main source of inexpensive clothing.
posted by msalt at 9:30 AM on June 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


Reminds me of Tales of Manhattan, the story of a coat's life through several people.
posted by Isadorady at 9:33 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


It doesn't sound like concern trolling to me, exactly. I want to read the book, and it sounds like she's making a bunch of different-but-related points. The one that stands out is what the effect of our used clothing exports are on African and other clothing industries.
posted by feckless at 9:36 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I imagine this is one of those posts will drive some folks to shake their heads in dismay and shame. I, on the other hand, read the links and can't help but think, "What a truly remarkable time to be alive!"
posted by 2N2222 at 9:38 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


We don't want to return to the 19th century, when poor people really could lack proper clothing.

But we're headed for the opposite extreme. Now I can buy a skirt for $15, but it will fall apart in 2 months, when I used to be able to buy a skirt for the equivalent of $30-50 and it would last for years. I'm still wearing a skirt which was used when I got it about 20 years ago (okay, the waist line has gotten tighter). It was from Marks and Spencers' or some similarly affordable but decent clothing chain.

Why else is cheap clothing bad, other than ultimately being more expensive for the poor?

a) it fills up our landfills
b) there is simply too much of it for the second hand market - and why buy a used skirt for $7-10 when you can get new for $15, so then
b) we ship it overseas, where it hurts local industries (this is really, really bad -- don't donate clothes overseas. if you want to clothe people, send money to buy local products)

And the only reason that it is so very cheap is that we use synthetic fibers (made from fossil fuels? I don't know) and pay the seamstresses (almost always women) pennies to make the clothes.

It's an environmental and economic disaster.
posted by jb at 9:38 AM on June 20, 2012 [9 favorites]


And it doesn't help the poor if all the clothing they (in which I include myself) is so poorly made it only lasts a fraction of the time that moderately priced clothes lasted a generation ago.

Poor people deserve decently made clothes as well.
posted by jb at 9:40 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


The rare occasion where naturists are correct to be smug.
posted by subbes at 9:40 AM on June 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


I spend about $90 a year on new clothes and probably about that on thrift shop fashions.

Yeah, this was interesting as yet an example of how warped my sense of "average" can be. I consider it a huge luxury to have a closet that I can just about turn around in (though there's certainly no need to walk into it to reach my clothes). This is apparently far, far from the norm, which kind of blows my mind, but then I've mostly lived in older and unrenovated houses in small towns and cities.

I can't quite see how the author's making connections here.

I agree. I think it's a "consume less" argument, but that's hard to tell as its written. Personally, my wardrobe is already at a "fewer pieces of better quality" state (largely since I hate to shop), and I would appreciate it if the cultural narrative around clothing was such that it wouldn't even occur to me to wonder that my colleagues have noticed that I basically have five outfits, and what they think of that.

The one that stands out is what the effect of our used clothing exports are on African and other clothing industries.

This is much more interesting point to me than what's highlighted here, so thanks for that, feckless. I'm more likely to read the book now.

Some of my happiest memories of kidhood -- no, really -- are of going to the little family-run fabric store in my hometown with my mom.

Me too, bakerina. Mom tried to teach me to sew, but it didn't quite take. I loved shopping for patterns and fabrics with her, though. I've been thinking I should take advantage of the upswing of "home ec for adults" classes and least learn to make myself some wrap skirts.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:48 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It has become almost impossible to find certain items in natural fibers. For the last few winter seasons I have attempted in vain to find a new Merino wool sweater for myself. I ended up knitting one, but the cost of wool is high, around $80 per sweater (minimum fairly cheap wool, I could have spent $200 easily). Cheap Cashmere sweaters are still around, but much lower in quality that they used to be.

On the other end, for some mysterious reasons, I can still find Merino sweaters for Mr. Francesca for around $50, a lot cheaper than I could knit them. Lucky males!
posted by francesca too at 9:49 AM on June 20, 2012


I think I'd be naked and/or smelly, were it not for cheap clothing. I buy the cheap stuff and then wear it until it falls off, because it's all I can afford. It's an interesting historical note to marvel about how we've shifted from making clothing to buying it, but it's also a labour saving miracle, just one of the many other things lost as gender roles shifted such that I am no longer responsible for turning cloth (or even weaving the cloth too) into coverings for people at the cost of room and board.
posted by Phalene at 9:57 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Since I know how to sew and utilize the services of the local tailor when something is beyond my skills, I wear clothes, even clothes from relatively cheap places like Target or Forever 21, for many many years. Thanks to the Salvation Army, I was always able to wear designer clothes even when my family was poor, even if they often had small flaws. I think the real problem is cheap ugly badly-made clothes that don't have a resale market.
posted by melissam at 10:05 AM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's an interesting historical note to marvel about how we've shifted from making clothing to buying it,

This switch happened a lot earlier than people realize in more developed areas. In England in c1700, even poorer people didn't make shirts and shifts, but bought them ready made (or used); richer people, of course, had their clothing made for them. Basically, anywhere with enough people for a market has developed a clothing industry. Making clothes at home was something for a) saving money or b) rural areas.
posted by jb at 10:06 AM on June 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


There are no trends anymore. According to Cline, gone are the days of discernible decades. While the '80s had hammer pants and the '90s had crop tops, the rise of "fast fashion" has made it so that those who came of age post millenium will be without a quintessential embarrassing trend.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

What's that quote? Something like "no man can see outside of the age in which he lives?" It seems to me rather egotistical to say that we are now living beyond trends. I think it's far more likely that people follow this decades trends without believing them to be trends at all, just like we always have. Instead they're perceived to be entirely natural aspects of daily life- not trends but somehow a present eternal- only we cannot see it to be so as it is so altogether normal and expected to us.

When I was looking at the gallery photos on the photobooth post I was struck with an odd sense of sameness about what was on the surface a seemingly quite varied group of individuals. It seems to me that these people are all doing the same thing somehow, and I suspect when we look at such photos twenty years from now we'll have just the same cringing embarrassment as we always have, even if we don't have the words for what that embarrassment's name might be just yet.
posted by Algebra at 10:18 AM on June 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


I will stop buying cheap clothes when I can start wearing Teflon clothes or bibs while eating in public. I balk at paying more than $10 for a plain shirt, because one spaghetti dinner later I will spend the next week scrubbing it, probably in vain. And when every shirt I own has an iron-on cover-up flower appliqué or FIVE around the bustline, it starts to look suspicious.
posted by nicebookrack at 10:20 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of Brian Ulrich's "Copia" project. There's an overview here and there's more on the photographer's website.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:21 AM on June 20, 2012


I buy almost all my clothes at thrift stores. I also avoid synthetic fabrics like the plague, as well as anything with obvious branding on it, and I don't buy anything I don't absolutely love or which doesn't fit me well. I spend perhaps $100/year on clothes, and people regularly compliment me for dressing well. I'm not sure I see a problem with this.
posted by Scientist at 10:22 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm really excited about this book, have downloaded it and am reading it. I think that some of the confusion is warranted ("what's the point?", "what's the solution?"), but the factors that led us to this point are so monumental and almost-absolute that it's worthwhile just to learn more to orient yourself about what's going on. (Learning the historical factors about how more than a half-million American apparel jobs just vanished in the last couple of decades is terrifying and depressing.)

Yes, clothing is very cheap now, and that's better than it being prohibitively expensive, but it's become alarmingly cheap, and what's most disturbing (to the author) is that people are settling for crap clothes simply because they're cheap - they're not searching for a middle ground between dirt-cheap and ultra-expensive. With no demand for a middle ground, we won't be given that option. Consumers are willing to settle for buying things cheaply for the sake of their being cheap.

I'm an experienced seamstress who started making my own clothes when I was a teen in the 1970s, and the price differential between making it myself (the cost of fabric + notions + pattern) and the cost of buying retail was slightly in favor of DIY, but not by much. However, the price differential now is insane, and that's because the retail price of fabric is phenomenally higher, and the manufacturer's costs have been cut to the bone.

I also sew quilts, and in the past 30 years the cost of fabric has skyrocketed, while the cost of cheaply-made bedding has plummeted. I can buy a queen-size bedspread or comforter for $50 or even less, but the cost of making an equivalent quilt would be well over $100 for fabric and thread.

One optimistic thing is that there's a big group of young people who've been watching the fashion runway-type TV shows and now have a hunger to learn how to sew their own unique creations. My local store (G St Fabrics) is scheduling dozens of sewing classes that are being enthusiastically attended.
posted by The Sprout Queen at 10:26 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I buy the cheap stuff and then wear it until it falls off, because it's all I can afford.

Same here. The majority of my clothes must be hand-me-downs from my parents, hand-me-ups from my sister, and hand-me-overs from my friends. Or like five years old. I don't know how other people do it. I guess they must have jobs or something.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 10:39 AM on June 20, 2012


And it doesn't help the poor if all the clothing they (in which I include myself) is so poorly made it only lasts a fraction of the time that moderately priced clothes lasted a generation ago.

Poor people deserve decently made clothes as well.


This is a curious way to frame the situation. It's not as if the poor are forbidden from spending a more significant amount on clothing, or choosing quality over shoddy. Would it really be better if it was like the old days when the poor might have made due with the one outfit for everyday, one outfit for Sundays, weddings and funerals, and had no choice but to make them last for years?

I've not found cheap clothing to be all that poorly made, either. If you're keen enough to take a quick inspection before buying, it's not hard to get an idea about what will and won't fall apart in a couple months. A modest amount of skill can keep these clothes going for a very long time, indeed. Regardless of price. Interestingly, I've found price an inconsistent indicator of shoddiness.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:50 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


There are no trends anymore. According to Cline, gone are the days of discernible decades. While the '80s had hammer pants and the '90s had crop tops, the rise of "fast fashion" has made it so that those who came of age post millenium will be without a quintessential embarrassing trend.

Yeah, no. There are like 300 "fuckyeahskinnyjeans" tumblrs that are evidence against this.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:53 AM on June 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


I recently spent over a hundred hours crocheting myself a lace shawl. If I value my labor at all, even at local minimum wage, it's the single most expensive item I own.

Most of the clothing I make is at least slightly more practical and less time-consuming, but it all takes some time. When I see genuinely crocheted items for sale in stores, it makes me want to cry -- AFAIK, there are no crochet machines that can do more than simple edgings. Most things labeled as "crochet" are machine knit fabric that looks kinda lacy. But I've seen some horrifyingly cheap stuff that really was crocheted -- like paper (!) placemats for <$5. I can imagine the physical pain involved in their production. Ugh.
posted by asperity at 11:03 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I recently spent over a hundred hours crocheting myself a lace shawl. If I value my labor at all, even at local minimum wage, it's the single most expensive item I own.

Thorstein Veblen's argument in "Theory of the Leisure Class" was that conspicuous consumption -- a phrase he coined -- involves not so much expensive items as time consuming items. Because the mastery of something like that shows that you don't need to work to survive, which is the true mark of an upper class person.

He wrote it in 1899, abou the robber barons, but it rings true today.
posted by msalt at 11:16 AM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not that I think it's possible or likely for everyone to start DIYing entire wardrobes, but I do think that being able to sew, if even only a bit, is a really useful skill to have to help lessen reliance on sweatshops.

My personal wardrobe philosophy is to thrift almost exclusively and buy anything designer that fits me. For a tiny seam repair I got a pair of silk lined, wool Brooks Brothers pants for two bucks, which still makes me feel like I won a prize.

I'm a very busty woman, and finding clothes that fit off the rack is tough. Even though my hip and bust measurements match, dresses that fit my chest hang off me everywhere else. Button down shirts are a categorical no. Tshirts are either super loose in the shoulders and neckline, or super tight on my breasts. Being able to alter clothes has saved me much frustration.

I didn't learn to sew until my 30s. (I was lucky enough to be taught, for free, over a period of about 40 hours, by an amazing seamstress- if you see a gorgeous ball gown made of paper grocery sacks, or a beautiful and elegant wedding dress made from white plastic bags, chances are it's hers- this is not quirky duct tape prom dress stuff, but cloth lined, wearable art, that, unless you are kissing-distance close, looks like fabric.) I was very surprised at how time consuming it wasn't. I made myself a bathing suit recently in two hours. I spent no time searching for materials, since I used stuff I had lying around. I used a free Tshirt, a jersey pillowcase that had no matching sheets, and an old pair of leggings. My two hour figure includes design and cut time. I have spent days bathing suit shopping, and I now have the most flattering swimsuit I've ever owned. I'll grant you that I have a strong creative bent and a truly gifted mentor, but what I did was very uncomplicated and saved me a significant amount of money and time. Yes, I invested time in learning, but that's how it works with most skills.

I also have a $200 hand crocheted shawl that a local artist made. My husband bought it for me as an heirloom quality gift for my 30th birthday. I guess I justify this sort of purchase because, besides being a once in a lifetime thing, I'm cultivating a higher quality wardrobe instead of dropping that amount every year in Forever 21, and I'm paying someone who works in dignified conditions.

I wish I could source all my clothing in a local, ethical way. As it is, I'm trying, but I know I still manage to support sweatshops buying things like socks.
posted by Athene at 11:24 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


jb: "It's an environmental and economic disaster."

Most people flinch at the thought of throwing food in the garbage, but don't flinch at throwing the packaging in the trash.

Once we can reconcile that, we can have this conversation, because food and clothing are both undeniably overvalued and underpriced in the developed world, while we're egregiously wasteful in any number of other areas that get no attention.
posted by schmod at 11:34 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Personally, my wardrobe is already at a "fewer pieces of better quality" state (largely since I hate to shop)

I aspire to that same philosophy, but my hatred of shopping is what makes it hard. I can get cheap and crappy anywhere; it takes almost no shopping time at all to get that. But if I want something well made, of durable materials, that fits properly, I have to go to five different stores to find the right thing. It lasts a lot longer, yes, but I have to spend a whole evening to track down some decent pants.
posted by echo target at 11:48 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


2N2222: "
I've not found cheap clothing to be all that poorly made, either.
"

Bingo! This article takes a legitimate issue: "We in the wealthy nations "consume" too much clothing", and attaches it to a mistaken premise: "If we bought more expensive clothes, we would consume less, AND the poor who labor to produce them would be paid more."

In fact, there's more assumptions there that I think are faulty.

Cheap != flimsy. I have 5yo shirts that I probably paid $10 for.

Expensive != well-made. I've had name-brand, expensive clothing fall apart/shred/tear at the seams within a month (which invariably leads me to avoid that name in the future, but that's not the point here).

(These aren't mere anecdotes. I simply do not see a correlation between price and durability in clothing, at all.)

Buying durable clothing != buying less clothing, or throwing away less clothing.

And, of course, if
[a]ccording to Cline, gone are the days of discernible decades,
then Cline is proven an idiot.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:57 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


schmod: "
Once we can reconcile that, we can have
"

Word.

If I buy a sandwich at a local joint, I get:
A sandwich
A sandwich container
A sack
A couple napkins
Possibly salt & ketchup packets
Probably game coupons of some sort

I bought a sandwich several times in London (ca1990s), and received:
A sandwich
A piece of paper wrapped around it.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:59 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oops, meant to quote schmod here:
Most people flinch at the thought of throwing food in the garbage, but don't flinch at throwing the packaging in the trash.


Not
Once we can reconcile that, we can have "

posted by IAmBroom at 12:37 PM on June 20, 2012


I spent $100 on clothes last week.

I got:

a DKNY cardigan (black with white piping)
3 short-sleeved shirts from some brand called Michael Stars - looks like those retail for about $50 each
a t-shirt that's some other designer brand I can't recall
a Ralph Lauren polo shirt
some other shirt I can't remember right now
a black leather purse - no brand

Except for the purse, which has some scratching on the bottom, it all looks brand new. This is not a moral judgment at all; it's not about sweatshops or environmental concerns for me (god knows I buy enough electronic crap). I seriously do not understand on a practical level why anyone would buy new clothes unless they're a non-standard size. I have things that I bought at thrift stores 5-10 years ago. I don't buy shoes because the selection is too small for my size, and I don't buy socks or underwear because ick, but 80% of my wardrobe is either more than 5 years old, from the thrift store, or a hand-me-down from someone I know. We can surely afford more and I am grateful for that, but I'd rather spend my money on other stuff.

Anyway, this article explained to me why I'm able to find such high quality stuff - all the crap gets thrown out or shipped overseas.
posted by desjardins at 1:20 PM on June 20, 2012


And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa

I'd like to see the details on that estimate. Grain would probably give used clothing a run for it's money. The US exports somewhere around a trillion bushels of wheat and wheat products a year and around 40-60 billion metric tons of corn.
posted by Mitheral at 1:40 PM on June 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I said " I seriously do not understand on a practical level why anyone would buy new clothes unless they're a non-standard size." I didn't mean to seem harsh; I am not implying that someone is stupid or financially irresponsible if they buy new clothes. I just meant that it is really, really easy to find quality stuff at a fraction of the price.
posted by desjardins at 1:45 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am not implying that someone is stupid or financially irresponsible if they buy new clothes. I just meant that it is really, really easy to find quality stuff at a fraction of the price.

A lot depends on where you live. It's primarily retirees and nursing homes in my neck of the woods so unless I'm in the market for elastic-waist sweatpants and hideous windbreakers, thrifting is a waste of time. I'd love to have a place nearby that sold clothing I could actually wear to work. But, yeah, I agree to a certain extent. I don't ever see paying full retail for anything unless it's like, a new pair of boots. There are just too many lower-priced alternatives to most garments.

I've also noticed that it is seemingly impossible to find natural fibers anymore. The smell of plastic smacking you in the face when you walk into Charlotte Russe or Forever 21 is overwhelming. (I just go there to buy really cheap trashy shoes.) What blows my mind is that the prices at fast fashion places like Topshop seem waaaaay over the quality of the plastic clothing.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 2:07 PM on June 20, 2012


I seriously do not understand on a practical level why anyone would buy new clothes unless they're a non-standard size.

On a practical level work clothes (for me long sleeved cotton shirts without collars, cotton button shirts and jeans) are pretty well not available in thirft stores around here. At least not in my largish size.

Luckily this type of clothing tends to cheap (Costco jeans FTW) or very durable (Carhartts wear like iron).
posted by Mitheral at 2:24 PM on June 20, 2012


I've been buying thrift online for some time and if you have good measurements taken, the odds of success are high. Out of dozens of things I've bought on Ebay and Etsy, I've only had one not fit right. I still buy some new clothes, namely underthings and basics that are just going to wear out no matter what.
posted by melissam at 2:36 PM on June 20, 2012


This is why I'll always be grateful to the people who taught me to sew-- one of whom is even now making rejected, donated and abandoned clothes into hundreds of small, wonky bunnies.
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:57 PM on June 20, 2012


I'd really like to be able to sew but that takes space, which is something I don't have. I'm too lazy to be able to bring it all out and put it all back again, and it just takes over. I do crochet sweaters/shawls/hats but it's not the same as being able to make my own dresses, etc.
posted by Salmonberry at 3:23 PM on June 20, 2012


I think part of my good fortune is that I'm a relatively small size (2-4 in pants) and a lot of people give their clothes away when they gain weight and figure they're not going to lose it any time soon. It's just a guess though. I have some size 0 and 2 stuff that I will never fit in again; if you're teensy and you like Ann Taylor, hit me up.
posted by desjardins at 4:47 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thorstein Veblen's argument in "Theory of the Leisure Class" was that conspicuous consumption -- a phrase he coined -- involves not so much expensive items as time consuming items. Because the mastery of something like that shows that you don't need to work to survive, which is the true mark of an upper class person.

He wrote it in 1899, abou the robber barons, but it rings true today.


What do the rich do?

Whatever the poor can't.
posted by The Whelk at 6:42 PM on June 20, 2012


the mastery of something like that shows that you don't need to work to survive

Ouch! I wish that were the case. My point was that I'd never be able to afford that sort of product if the labor had been performed by anyone else, nor would anyone be willing to pay me a useful wage for that kind of labor.

If I were rich, I could afford to pay for other people to make me beautiful, high-quality handmade clothing. I'm not, and I'm willing to put my leisure time into making my own, because I want nice things, too. Even if they take me six months to create.

Unfortunately, my low-wage factory job involves significant physical labor and is hard enough on my hands that I've had to cut back on crocheting. I find it easy to empathize with the sweatshop workers who are developing RSI to provide me with cheap alternatives.

I think of what I do as being more representative of conspicuous production than of conspicuous consumption, though I'd agree they're probably related concepts.
posted by asperity at 9:16 PM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, of course I wasn't directing that at you, asperity. I think Veblen was pointing to behavior that would separate the truly rich (old money) from the bourgeouis (nouveau riche), who can throw money at a product but don't have the time to master "refined" skills like, say, golf or wine tasting. He was also a bit of a misanthrope, so he could manners and cleaning among the worthless showoff activities.
posted by msalt at 11:13 PM on June 20, 2012


throw money at a product but don't have the time to master "refined" skills

Definitely, but I don't think much that involves DIY work falls into the conspicuous consumption area, unless the cost or scarcity of materials is more noteworthy than the value of your own labor.

manners and cleaning among the worthless showoff activities.

Wait, you mean they're not? I... have some work to do now.
posted by asperity at 11:24 PM on June 20, 2012


One thing that's not been mentioned -- quality has been flattened out across all price points. Given that 80% or more of women's clothes and shoes are made by sweatshops in China, there's not that much separating a 450.00 Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress from a 29.99 H&M/Zara wrap dress: the fabric in the DVF is probably better dyed and higher quality, but the construction won't be, and the price difference doesn't mean that the print won't run, the fabric tear or the thread shrink when it's dry cleaned. It also doesn't mean that the workers who made it made a decent living. It just means that the holding company gets to pay its executives a nice big bonus.

Full disclosure: I'm a clothes horse, and I've finally started making enough money to buy the clothes I've always wanted, but that I could only afford at a Goodwill (DVF! Theory! Marni! Prada! Westwood! McQueen!). But I've always been a vintage/thrift shopper, so I know what the quality of even mid-point designer lines used to be, and it's just not there any more. The bulletproof cashmere Pringle sweaters of even 10 years ago have been replaced by crap made of shitty fibers that pill if you look at them and sprout holes in the armpits after a month. A good cashmere should last *decades*. Same with a good leather bag -- like old Coach. That's why you pay 500.00 bucks for them. These still cost the same amount, but they're exactly the same quality as fast fashion.

As I age, I really notice this on shoes and bags: I cannot wear cheap shoes without pain, and most of the shoes made in China are, to a greater or lesser extent, garbage. I always used to buy Brazilian and Spanish shoes (reasonably priced and much more comfortable) but they're largely disappearing. Yes, there are some Chinese factories that turn out shoes that will not reduce my feet to molten misery in 20 minutes, but I can only find out by buying them and throwing the painful ones away. Not going to happen.

The result is that I spend real, painful money on French, Swedish, German and Italian shoes -- bonkers stupid amounts -- and repair them obsessively, buy designer clothing when it looks like they're worth it/are on sale, shop at several boutiques that sell locally made stuff, or that 'curate' stuff, and buy lots of stuff from fast fashion outlets. Joe Fresh is, oddly, quite well made.
posted by jrochest at 12:07 AM on June 21, 2012 [11 favorites]


One more thing -- there's a real difference in quality at the very tip-top of the price range. The stupidly expensive clothes are still lovely, but they are abusively expensive -- 20K or 10K for a ready-to-wear garment. This made no sense until the penny dropped: the hollowing out of the middle class now means that there's a large population of people for whom paying 20 thousand for a dress or a bag is just like paying a couple of hundred is for a person making, say, 60 or 70 thousand a year.

This also explains the startling number of designer baby lines, or lines of 500.00 jeans and 700.00 T-shirts. The 3 month old will still puke up or pee on the 400.00 onsie; there's not that much of a difference between 500.00 jeans and 50.00 jeans. The difference is that the expensive brand says that you can afford to wipe your arse with 100 dollar bills -- or set a 100,000 dollar Birkin on fire.
posted by jrochest at 12:16 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the last few months I have bought BNWT linen trousers, designer jeans, new utility trousers and some cheap jeans that fit and don't have any stupid embroidery, at a total cost to me of £15. Total cost of those four items if purchased new would have been in the region of £200, though I don't think I know anyone who would buy both £90 and £15 jeans new.

I seriously do not understand on a practical level why anyone would buy new clothes unless they're a non-standard size.
A friend of mine practically lives in Per Una skirts, but on her budget they're pretty expensive. Over the same time that I've bought those trousers, the shop with the designer jeans has had three in her size and colour range, but I didn't pick them up for her because she will. not. consider. buying clothes from charity shops. She's happy to wear things passed on from friends, but she's got a combination of anxiety about perceived poverty (I think she believes that people will be able to instantly recognise the second-handness, in a way that's not possible with things from friends) and a high level squick factor ('but I don't know where it's been!' - 'of course, I mean a cat might have been sick on it or something, oh no wait, that's your nice brown one....'). And yes, I considered buying the skirts, removing the tags and claiming my mum was getting rid of them, but short of that kind of deception I can't think of any way to persuade her that there's nothing wrong with not-new clothes. She's quite impressed with the jeans, though, and the £5 ebay dress, so maybe over time she'll come around.
posted by Lebannen at 1:14 AM on June 21, 2012


While it is not super cheap, I have found finding someone who can sew and tailor a godsend. Not just to get nicely fitted stuff (though that is good) but because if I find something that 'works' I can give it to her and she can make it in various colours/patterns/variations at a fraction of the price of searching out new things. It's not as cheap as Target et. al., but it means I am supporting local work, getting something I know is well made, getting something I really want and makes up for my inability to sew beyond putting on a button.

And nth suggestions of keeping things simple - you really don't need twenty dresses. Believe it or not, people rarely notice if you wear the same thing again and again. If it suits you, they simply notice again and again that you look great/hot/presentable/put together.
posted by Megami at 2:48 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


One thing that's not been mentioned -- quality has been flattened out across all price points.

Thanks for the observation and your comment, jrochest. I'd love to see a FPP on the technical side of clothing quality, and its decline.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:26 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree that charity shop shopping can turn up some amazing finds and is largely how I stock my wardrobe - especially recently. However, it does take time and luck. Much more so than shopping high street shops. More often than not, my finds have been gorgeous skirt, two sizes too big, lovely trousers, laughably too small, and a cute but worn dress from Primark that there's no way I'd pay 6 pounds for. A bit like making one's own clothes, charity shop shopping is only really viable for the time-rich.
posted by brambory at 3:52 AM on June 21, 2012


Fantastic post, thanks!

I've never understood the prevailing attitude that clothing and fashion is somehow frivolous and unimportant. Bullshit. It's one of the most important signifiers of who we are and how we express ourselves.

Getting dressed is as important in our lives as eating food, and the metaphor extends even further than that. For those who think this is concern trolling, fast fashion is a huge industry which is gobbling up resources, damaging the environment and destroying people's lives while not even providing us with the goods to dress ourselves properly, exactly like the processed food industry.

The choice between natural fabrics and synthetics need not be a factor in this debate - wearability is improving all the time, and some synthetics are actually "greener" than their natural cousins - contrast the water burden of cotton or silk production with polyester from recycled plastics. And quality is accessible at all price points - I have some truly excellent pieces in poly-viscose mixes with Made in China on the label. No, the problems are far more insidious.

The fact is that in the current climate, slow fashion is very, very difficult for anybody to practice, because:
  1. curating a wardrobe is hard work. Planning requirements, learning about quality, refining the persona to fit the lifestyle all take skill, thought and discipline. Few people are willing to invest the effort.
  2. most personal style bloggers encourage overconsumption. They have way, way, way too many clothes, and are probably running a very rapid turnover. This level of choice and variety in most wardrobes is toxic - separates only pull their weight if they can be integrated into multiple outfits.
  3. there has been a significant drop in quality across the board over the last thirty odd years. Vintage stocks and quality vs price in thrift stores reflect this.
  4. speaking as a long-time sewist, home dressmaking is not necessarily sustainable for everyone. To do it really well, you need to invest a significant portion of your free time, and we all make our fair share of mistakes.
With all this in mind, I'd like to see a return to the atelier/factory shop model, where production is confined to smaller, localized units with higher standards. This would be good for local economies, and doesn't need to mean clothes are prohibitively expensive. I don't think I've ever been better dressed than those years in the early 90's when I was sourcing most of the clothing I wasn't making myself from the local factory shops in north London. I don't know what they're like these days, but back then you could find nice quality pieces at affordable prices.

The model pioneered by American Apparel was encouraging. Too bad Dov Charney blew it.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 4:44 AM on June 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


I worked with a guy who refused to donate his old clothes (not buy, donate). He thought it was disgusting and he preferred to throw them in the trash. I never understood that - what does he care what happens to them?
posted by desjardins at 7:13 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Monkeytoes I completely agree with you -- and I wish someone would put one together. I'm not knowledgeable enough about the industry to do it myself.

Also -- the problem with using tailors/seamstresses and dressmaking in general is that it's not just a craft, but an art, and you have to find someone who has a particular magic hand. I don't. My mom, who sewed as a hobby for years, never did. But my grade 11 sewing class, populated by a mess of earnest would be designers, routinely churned out 25 pieces of junk (often beautifully sewn, perfectly finished, but still ugly as sin) by all of us and one magnificent, elegant and stylish garment that looked like it came from Holts (often thrown together without proper seam allowances and with a tacked-up hem) by the one girl who had the aforementioned magic hand. It was very depressing :).

Sewing as a basic technique is something anyone can learn, but making something that fits and flatters is damned hard. You can get a haircut from Magicuts for 8.00 or from Sassoon for 180.00: both people have the same knowledge, but only one will make you look good.
posted by jrochest at 10:03 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I also want to restate the very good point that the "luxury" brands are almost identical to the cheapo fast fashion stuff. With very few exceptions, the "names" so to speak have totally flatteded out thier quality and it's poorly made cheapo crap or bespoke designer one offs and nothing in between.
posted by The Whelk at 12:38 PM on June 21, 2012


I used to save money clothes shopping, first from hand-me-downs, and then by buying a lot from thrift stores until the majority of clothes would no longer fit my body. Desjardin and Mithral, you brought up some important points about size limitations.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 1:32 PM on June 21, 2012


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