Unless you’re used to paying about $250 or more for a dress, chances are you are more familiar with low-quality clothing. Most people these days are. Most people don’t know what quality clothes look or feel like because most people do not have quality clothes.
Quality clothing is expensive and not everyone can afford it. Aside from the environmental and human rights issues, there’s nothing wrong with buying cheap clothing if that’s truly all that you can afford. But for a lot of middle to upper-class people who have closets stuffed with way too many (cheap) clothes, low-quality clothes and where they come from, and also where these clothes ultimately end up should give us pause.
The fashion industry contributes to just about every type of pollution imaginable. From dyes and chemical polluting water and soil, to emissions being pumped into the air, to agricultural practices and deforestation, fashion reaches to the furthest corners of our beloved planet. And then there are the sickening working conditions of the vast majority of garment and textile workers. They work long hours for little pay- if they get paid at all. It’s not exactly news that all of this goes on, but if you want to know the true breadth and depth of this issue, check out Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost if Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline.
Cheap fashion is prolific and it is a problem. Consumers have been spoiled (read: brainwashed) by off-price retailers like Burlington, Ross, and TJX (this includes Marshall’s too) into believing that there’s no reason for a dress to cost over $50, unless it’s a special occasion dress or bridal gown. But of course, this didn’t start with off-price retailers. It started with the department stores, many of which aren’t doing too hot right now.
The problem began when department stores started handing out too many coupons and always having things on sale. Walk into a J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Belk, Sears (even one that’s not closing), or even Dillard’s and notice that everything is on sale. Everything. Every day. All the time. And then there are nearly always coupons to be found in the paper, from an email, or from an in store giveaway. I used to work at J.C. Penney and people would line up well before the store opened if there was a coupon giveaway. And there was one just about every month.
During the rare weeks when there were no coupons, the store was like a morgue. If a shopper did come in, they would ask about coupons. When we would tell them that there were no coupons out right now, they would either leave the store, get mad, or decide not to get at least one of their items. Very rarely did they go through with their purchase without a fuss, and even then you could tell that they were disappointed about not having a coupon.
A lot of shoppers think that department store clothing is over priced, hence the constant sales and consumer obsession with coupons. A women’s blouse at Penney’s would cost around $30- $40 at full price. No one would ever pay that. But honestly, that is a fair price for the kind of blouses at Penney’s, despite what the customers might think. Everything costs money, even low quality clothing. We have to consider not only the fabric and labor (and I highly, highly doubt that every garment and textile worker in the J.C. Penney supply chain is getting a fair and living wage), but also import duties and taxes, transportation costs from overseas, distribution costs within the US, packaging & labels, and the workers that you don’t immediately think about when it comes to cheap fashion such as the designer, pattern maker, and fit models.
Of course, a $40 J.C. Penney blouse is not a high quality garment. And at $40, it’s not supposed to be. If you’re wondering how department stores can make a profit after all of these sales and coupons if $40 is actually a reasonable price as I say it is, the answers are
A) they can’t and this is why so many are closing, and
B) for the stores that are managing to stay open, it’s their store credit cards.
Do you know why department store employees can get so pushy with the store credit cards? It’s because our managers would get pushy with us about the store credit cards. Our hours would be lowered or raised based on how many store cards we would open each shift. Store credit cards make the stores money because for various psychological reasons, credit cards make people spend more money than they know they should. And then the cards have the interest and late fees. Interest & fees make the banks money and the banks give the stores a kickback for getting them a new account opened. So that’s what really keeps the midrange department stores afloat… for now.
The fall of these department stores is what has allowed off-price stores to flourish. And although these types of stores don’t have sales or coupons, they still perpetuate the idea that clothes should be cheaper than what they’re marked as- no matter what they’re marked as. When it comes to clothing, most consumers do not and will not pay the “full price.”
The reason why upscale and luxury department stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s haven’t seen as much trouble as mid-tier stores is because designer goods are status symbols that people expect to pay full price for and willingly do so, and also because the regular clientele that these stores cater to are accustomed to true quality in a garment and don’t expect to constantly get things at 60% off.
Again, I want to reiterate that there’s nothing wrong with not being able to afford clothes from Barney’s or Bergdorf Goodman or Sak’s. Lord knows I can’t afford it. I love to thrift shop. And if you aren’t able to afford to buy high-quality clothing, buying second-hand clothes is not only the most budget-friendly option, it’s also the most environmentally conscious option as well. The only issue with thrift shopping is that the garments won’t be of any better quality than the midrange stores. Cheap fashion is disposable and with all of the online outlets for selling second-hand luxury items, most people are not going to be donating a truly high-quality piece to the local Goodwill or Salvation Army; they’re donating last month’s (or week’s!) H&M and Forever21 purchases. The exception to this is if you find a true vintage (50 years or older) piece. But with the popularity and hipster-esque trendiness of thrift shopping that has risen throughout the past decade, those vintage pieces are now few and far between.
So what is quality? What’s the big deal? Is it really that big of a difference? My answer is YES. During my 2 week fashion design summer program, each of us students made a pair of pants. We selected our own fabric and sewed them ourselves. The way we constructed the garment used quality techniques that are missing from most, of not all of what you would find on a pair of pants at TJ Maxx or Marshall’s or even Macy’s.
The most obvious marker of quality construction is a seam allowance that has been overlocked on both sides to avoid fraying. This allows the pants to be let out or taken in easily. The seam allowance was then pressed open to keep it flat so that the garment looks smooth on the wearer.
You won’t find such detail on cheap clothing because in mass production, that extra half-inch of fabric for every pair of pants would add up to hundreds, if not thousands of dollars extra for each “batch” of pants. Plus, most consumers don’t know how to sew these days and clothing is so cheap now that it is less expensive to just buy a new pair if they need to be let out rather than repairing them or taking them to a tailor. Other indicators of high-quality construction are full linings in dresses, skirts, and blazers, well-fastened buttons and secure zippers, patterns on the fabric that match up and of course, even stitching across the correct grain of the fabric. All of these things take extra time, materials, and skill, which would require a higher cost of manufacturing, hence why you won’t find these things on cheap garments.
In addition to construction, the other chief marker of quality is the fabric itself. I can’t go on forever about the specific feel of each fabric, but I will say that you’ll know it when you feel it. Go to a luxury department store sometime and try something on- you’ll feel the difference. Also, high-quality fabric is unlikely to pill after one washing (provided that you follow the care instructions) and high-quality fabric, particularly those comprised of natural fibers, are less likely to attract lint.
All of these factors, when combined into one beautiful and well-made garment, set high-quality clothing light-years apart from cheap clothing. You can see, touch, and feel the difference in how it looks, how nice the fabric is, and how it fits. Well made clothing truly is a whole experience.
And that experience won’t come cheap. In the 1920’s, a high school girl planned to construct a silk dress for herself at a cost of $10.47, as told in The Lost Art of Dress. In 2014, that dress would’ve cost her $141. Granted, it is silk. But in 2019, I can go online and easily find a 100% silk dress for $75. Perhaps this speaks to more efficient ways to produce silk today. Or perhaps it’s indicative of today’s low-quality silk, poor construction, or underpaid garment workers. Maybe it’s a combination of all three. It sounds like a lot of money for a dress. And it is. That’s kind of the whole point here. Well-made, responsible clothing isn’t cheap nor should it be. The high cost is what forces us to be more responsible consumers.
So maybe the title was a bit clickbait-y. I’m not gonna detail ad naseum what exact dollar amound you should pay for all the items of clothing you would need. But I will say how much you will not be paying for high quality clothing. It’s not off-price retail prices. It’s not Sears and J.C. Penney prices. And it is certainly not Forever 21, H&M, Zara, or Urban Outfitters prices.