A few good pieces

“If I did go out and buy a $300 coat, it would have to go with all the $10 pants I own.”

In February, Jezebel shot out a quick little note about a post on the New York Public Libraries blog.  The focus of both was a 1941 survey of the college girl’s wardrobe and the problems of high and fast consumption in fashion.  The wonderful old days were wonderful, with your standard sweater sets and three basic styles of shoes—and how about the Uniform Project and the Great American Apparel Diet and all those personal internet challenges to reduce consumption and impulse purchases, to slim and simplify our wardrobes.

In our modern day of stores that can move from concept to finished item in six weeks, fashion ‘weeks’ that feel like they run seamlessly into one another as they hop across continental bounds and piping hot trends delivered to your local rag shop every week, we are as “spoiled [sic] for choice” as Stein says.  It can sure appear anecdotally that our closets are swelling like the inflamed fatty liver of a confirmed alcoholic—especially in comparison to the 11-3.5 blouses and 13-3 street length dresses of the surveyed 1941 co-eds.

One thing that really should be noted is the highly conservative nature of wardrobe building in the 1940’s.  In Grace Margaret Morton’s 1943 book The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance she writes, “Conservation is in keeping with the times.  Restricted consumer production has resulted in a silhouette which can be cut to advantage from limited yardage . . . As never before, this is a period which demands convertible, multiple-duty apparel, interchangeable three- and four- piece ensembles.”  Comparing today’s clothing habits to a time when patterns maximised yardage because of war rations can create a false dichotomy.

1943. Farm Security Administration -
Office of War Information Photograph Collection

Of course, having a wider range of clothing options available (or more accurately, acceptable), from pants and shorts to tank tops and sundresses, might have a part in explaining why the average young woman doesn’t spend “75% of her waking hours in the sweater skirt ensemble.”  Changes in how, where and what we can wear at work are a factor also.  Count the number of people you know who have a small, separate “work wardrobe” of suits and office wear supplemented by a double handful of casual pieces for home and a couple things for evening.  We are wearing more things for more reasons more often.

And the brands, stores and manufactures know that and love us for it.  Instead of a handful of cotton shirtwaist dresses and sweater and skirt sets for summer (as suggested by Morton), or the calculated business wardrobe of the 1980s and 90s, we wear more.  There certainly seem to be more eclectic and specific options now than there once were, but they float in a sea of mass market options.

A couple of weeks ago Jezebel again looked at our closets, this time focusing on the earth-wrecking waste of fast fashion, with its affordable options that essentially strangle the environment and starve workers.  Several options are presented, ranging from a $78 turtleneck to a $338 jacket, that attempt to answer the question “What are the choices for decently-made, competitively-priced, really cute stuff?”

But, don’t think that the inability of the average person to pay nearly eighty dollars for a turtleneck goes unnoticed.  “Fundamentally, it’s less and less the case that making ethical, sensible consumer choices is a freedom that hews to class lines. A $35 t-shirt that’s better quality than the $10 Wal-Mart version is still close enough in price that it’s attainable for most shoppers.”

And herein lies a problem.  I feel like a pretty high percentage of people will not, or cannot, pay ten dollars for a t-shirt, let alone $35.  It’s all well and good to save to buy an environmentally and morally responsible clothing choice whose quality may give it a longer life span.  But if someone is already in a position to consider a forty dollar skirt at Target a piece worth saving for, they’re not going to wait another $188 dollars for “a full black knitted skirt that has a sort of Alaïa feel, with its nipped ribbed waist.”

Since I have an aversion to purely anecdotal evidence, as it can easily slip into hyperbole and theory, I ran a very informal survey.  I ended up with just nine replies, folks in the mid-20s to mid-30s range, who are either unemployed, self-employed and/or solidly in the lower-middle to middle class income range; all but one currently live on the west coast.  A third are hand knitters and expressed awareness of the worth of both quality fiber content and of paying more for handmade. However, it’s a pitifully small sample, and I’d love to run this wider, because the results from just this group are telling.

Limiting the definition of “clothing” to everyday clothes and outerwear, I also allowed for clothes that were worn at least three to four times a year (which encompasses stage clothes and some formal wear). Nearly half of the group responded to the first question—“What is the most you’ve paid for a piece of everyday clothing?”—with two answers.  One number was for an uncommon purchase like a corset for stage wear (that was worn regularly off-stage as well), a perfect winter coat, or “allegedly ‘ass-tastic’” jeans; pieces that ranged from sixteen to two times the second price given.   Combining both sets of data gives a range of $30 to $150—not counting the $500 corset which, as a kind of shapewear, gets into the high and tricky ranges of support and undergarment cost more so than everyday clothing.

Asked if this price was more than they regularly pay for a piece of everyday clothing, the answer was, for seven of the nine, a resounding ‘hell yes’.  The other two did not consider their highs of $50 to be significantly more than an average purchase.  Even so, the mean price the sample group would pay was only $21, the most common amount being $10.  An exception of up to $45 when buying yarn to make something oneself was noted.

Already we can see that Sauers’ had one over on me in that folks will totally pay $10 for clothing.  My personal issues (and heavy thrift and sales rack shopping) have blurred my perspective.  Even so, a $35 t-shirt is comfortably above this sample’s average range for a piece of everyday clothing.  But what about their top limit?  Already by this point in the survey it was clear that for jeans and pieces that fit, a person’s ‘average price’ could be edged up closer to their top limit.  So, what was the most they would pay for a piece of everyday clothing?

“I swear on the life of my non-existent children, if I could find a pair of jeans that were flattering and as comfortable as all the skinny people claim jeans are, I would pay at least $100.”  And $100 is the highest price given, by two people who both cite jeans-fitting issues as the reason for so high a price.  With $54 as the average and $30 as the most common limit, we’re still well below the price of that $78 turtleneck.

Knowing that extraordinary circumstance, luck, and the desire to have at least a “few good pieces” in one’s wardrobe can expand the limits of what you’re willing to shell out, the last question I asked was what the theoretical top limit would be for a “SUPER AWESOME AMAZING PERFECT” piece of everyday clothing.  Ranging between $50 and $300 dollars, with an average of $142, every person who gave a limit over $100 stipulated they would pay that much only for something elaborate, custom or handmade.

I wish that I had thought to inquire about thrift store shopping habits directly in this survey, though I had a voluble enough sample that I was able to gather an idea that a good percentage buy used, when they can.  In her article, Sauers  mentions that “Thrift stores are green (and cheap), but hunting through their racks can be time-consuming and offer inconsistent results.”   It could be that people who prefer to pay only around $20 for a piece of clothing are willing to spend the time searching second hand.

Most people I surveyed are ‘crafty’, which can’t be a representative percentage of the population and may affect their purchasing habits.  One way that they seem to be like most of the population is that nearly all mentioned issues finding clothing that fits both their bodies and taste.  Says one,  “I could pay $6 [for] something nearly right, with decent fabric, which I can turn into something wearable… or I can pay $25 for a pair of cheaply made pants that don’t quite fit and say “BOOTY” across the ass in pink crystals and glitter paint.”  These people, with daydreams of $110 silk cardigans, don’t necessarily want the fast fashion offerings of Forever 21s.  And even when they do shop at mall and fast fashion stores, they do it out of necessity, more than convenience.  And they’re not abandoning the between-great-wars sense of wardrobe building either:

Lately I buy most of my clothing at Torrid because I am too easily annoyed digging through a department store for the one piece of plus size clothing that isn’t falling off my average-sized shoulders or down to my knees. I tend to wear my clothes until they are literally falling apart because of this and I do make repairs if I can.

Awareness of the clothing industry’s failings isn’t new.  Clinging to a false nostalgia of a simple wardrobe, filled with a few good pieces, isn’t going to help.  Disregarding the error of steering by nostalgia, the circumstances between then and now are too different, too foreign.  Choosing more ethical and quality options isn’t going to be a saving grace either, not when the divide between its cost and the average budget are still so far apart.

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14 Responses to “A few good pieces”

  1. Mioche Says:

    I should add to my survey answers– easily 90% of my outerwear is thriftstore bought. I have to invest in underwear and shoes unless I want to be miserable, so that’s where most of my clothes budget goes.

  2. bzedan Says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that was true for most folks. It’s logical, as foundation garments and shoes, if scrimped on, can cause the most discomfort.

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