Saturday, October 13, 2012

Can we afford to NOT buy quality clothing? Book Review - Overdressed

My boss left this book on our lunch table a couple of weeks ago - this isn't an unusual happening, we are a group of ladies who share a love of reading besides the love of fabrics and sewing, so book swap is a regular feature in our warehouse. This one really resonated with me, and I thought it might with many of you also.

 image from
We have become a nation of bargain shoppers, choosing our clothing from the most convenient off-price retailer or our favorite mass-marketer who specializes in trendy fashion garments at very inexpensive prices. Sometimes we're so taken with the bargain price we buy multiples of items we really don't even need, simply because we "saved so much"! If most of us were to tally our wardrobes by garment, we'd likely find we own upwards of 300 items; over history up until the 1930's and '40's, most girls and women owned no more than 5 dresses, and many of those were handmade out of available materials. Back then, keeping them in good repair was the norm, as nothing was ever thrown out. Now, many of us don't even react when a garment starts to fall apart after only a few wearings - if we paid little enough for it, we'll just find a new one to replace it - and keep up with a newer trend in the process.

Our response to the cheap fashion in these stores is creating a crisis in the clothing manufacturing industry. In order for the stores to sell garments at such low prices, they must get them for so little that virtually all manufacturing (and fabric production) have moved overseas, leaving the formerly thriving garment centers in places like New York City and Los Angeles with huge areas of vacant real estate, and costing us thousands of jobs. Smaller manufacturers and up-and-coming designers have no way to get their garments produced for sale. And the overseas factories push their production so hard that the workers cannot make a living wage. The examples given in the book are staggering. Every sew-er who makes clothing for herself or others should read this.

I'm not immune to the lure of current fashion for less, as my spending record at Marshall's and TJMaxx will attest. But I refuse to accept shoddy workmanship and prompty return defective garments. I feel the retailer needs to know when a garment has been manufactured with inferior components and sewn with too little care to provide at least a full season of wear. In my alteration business, I generally refuse to take on a repair job on a new garment - I'll send the customer back to the store for a replacement or refund.

Then there's the whole issue of fit. It used to be that people had their garments made to fit them, or at the minimum, altered to create a custom fit. Today I find more often than not, women don't realize what a properly fitting garment looks like. As people who sew for ourselves, we have an advantage over most - we realize that making sure our garments fit well and are made of quality fabrics with good sewing techniques will give us a wardrobes that serve us well and last much longer than most RTW. If we take it a step further and shop less frequently at the cheap fashion stores, we'll make huge strides in promoting more sustainable clothing. We should shop carefully, own less because we buy or make the best we can afford, and make repairs and alterations to preserve the garments we have.

It's not surprising that I became aware of this book at this particular point in time. I've had conversations with several people recently about the value of well-made clothing, what I think of as cost-per-wear. As a custom dressmaker, I have had far more clients over the years contract with me to make special occasion garments, which are usually a one-time wear item, than to outfit them in a career-wear outfit. The suit I made last winter for a Boston surgeon will, properly cared for, last her for years. She'll be able to wear it many times a season - once per week, or a few times a week if the pieces are used separately with other garments. The wool flannel (from Sawyer Brook) jacket and pants are a wardrobe-building outfit. Yes, it was an expensive outfit and took several weeks to make. But at the same time, I developed patterns for the pieces that we'll be able to use again and again, to make more garments that will add to her wardrobe. By contrast, the wedding gown I made for a bride last year cost at least as much as the suit, but was worn only once - it may see more use if the bride decides to sell it, lend it, have it made into a christening gown, or restyled for her daughter to wear, but most gowns spend years stored in a preservation box and are seldom seen again.

The fashions available in the cheap-fashion mass marketers here in the Northeast, as they are across the country, have lured us into buying more and more garments, to keep up with the trends and be fashionable. But in the process, there's less individuality in the way we dress, and far less value in our clothing choices. How do we get out of this loop?

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. I remember reading it long ago, and yes, I totally hear ya...