No acrylic. That might be the only thing I absorbed from years of shopping with my mother.
We were regulars at our local department store in downtown Kalamazoo, but we did our bargain hunting at TJ Maxx, where my mother, confident and fashionable, would lead me, an awkward tomboy, through racks of garments. She examined each label carefully for brand name, material, and washing instructions before approving an item for me to try on. Sometimes, we sorted through entire aisles of cheap items before finding “the deal”: a high quality item with a significant markdown.
I was a slow study, but I picked up on at least one thing: fabrics make a difference. This bit of knowledge stuck with me for years. No matter where I shopped, from thrift stores to local boutiques to Target, I looked for wool, cotton, silk, linens, and leathers. This kept me decently covered through the years. But I fear I have fallen off the wagon recently, snatching up “cute enough for that cheap price” outfits, rather than seeking out quality.
Reading Elizabeth Cline’s new book, “Overdressed, the Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion,” not only set me back on the right path, it also made me realize that, truly, I have been sartorially stupid. And I don’t mean that I have not followed fashion trends (although heaven knows I could have used some help here too). It’s more than that. I may buy organic cotton tees, but overall, I have been naively unaware of the process, product, and industry behind one of life’s most basic needs: being clothed.
Cline begins the book with a confession. She has been suckered in by the promise of cheap fashion for over a decade, never paying more than $30 for an item, and usually much less. Her closet contained 354 items (about the average for an American woman), much of it poorly made, brightly colored, and polyester. The absurdity of her own over-consumption struck her one day while lugging home a massive bag of $7 slip on shoes from K-Mart, and she began to do some research. She talked with bargain and luxury shoppers, bloggers, fashion designers, thrift shop workers, and independent boutique owners. She met with garment factory owners in four countries, including our own, to discuss craftsmanship and pricing. She read hundreds of relevant text and articles. The result is a comprehensive and fascinating look at the factors, players, and attitudes driving the prevalence of cheap merchandise, as well as an astute assessment of the negative impact that our cheap clothes addiction is having on our environment, labor market, and closets.
The more I read, the more questions I started to ask myself about my own attire and fashion-sense. Do I own anything that is well-made? Would I be able to recognize quality workmanship if I saw it? Do I wear frocks that have been slapped together without detail or distinction? Who made my clothes? Did the workers receive a living wage? How many toxins were released through their production? Can they be recycled? Do my sweaters pill up because they are cheap? Did my old clothes placed in the Red Cross bin earlier this year take a slow boat to Africa? How come my grandmother and mother could sew their own clothing, but I can’t even remember how to thread the bobbin? Did I buy my clothes because I liked them, or because they were on sale?
I started to feel a bit overwhelmed. Then, I remembered that before she began this journey, Cline did a quick inventory of her own closet. It seemed like a good jumping off place, so I decided to do the same. Here’s what I found:
- The average woman owns seven pairs of jeans. I own, wait for it, seven pairs of jeans.
- My clothing has traveled from the ends of the earth. I own garments from China, Hong Kong, and Macau, but also from Peru, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, India, Turkey, and Thailand.
- I have a small closet and one small dresser, but I estimate that I own about 175 articles of clothing. What?!
- The stitching and workmanship on my purchases from middle-end retailers, like J Crew and Calvin Klein, is nearly identical to the pieces purchased at low cost shops like H&M.
- I don’t wear about a third of the items hanging in my closet because some element of the fit bothers me (eg wish the hem was shorter, wish the shirt was a little longer).
- Many of the nice pieces I often wear are about 5-8 years old. Go me! I am glad that I was able to spot a few classics over the years. But, how many bags of poorly made items have I taken to Red Cross or the Salvation Army? Probably at least two big bags per year.
- More acrylic and polyester has made its way into my wardrobe in recent years than I realized! Sneaky dogs! There are a few new fabric blends in my closet too, like something called modal, which is some new type of rayon made from the reconstituted cellulose of beech trees.
- My vintage pieces rock. Just sayin’. I have a beautiful 1980’s Adidas lilac polyester jacket that was made in the USA, and it is so righteously made, it is like a well-made groovy suit of armor. Hasn’t dropped a stitch.
- My splurges rock. I spent way too much on a short sleeved orange cashmere hoodie, but I love it.
Sadly, the items that were “deals” vastly outnumbered the items that I love. And that’s too bad. Our clothing is the outward representation of our personality and mood. While it does not define us, it does reflect how we want to be viewed: rebellious, tough, silly, fun, no nonsense, professional, competent, sexy, free spirited, or relaxed. This month at Connect Shore, our theme is disguise, and I can’t help but think that we are somehow obscuring our identity and integrity with a mask of frugality.
Yes, the clothes we wear, like the food we eat, should be highly personal. There were a few references in the book to the popularity of the slow food movement, and I think that it is a valid comparison. I take time out of my week to pick up my locally grown, organic produce from a food co-op. I spend a little extra, but I enjoy the process of buying, cooking, and eating so much more. Selecting an outfit could be the same local and thoughtful experience.
The good news is, now that I am ready to make more deliberate choices about the clothes I purchase, I know what I need to do. To start, I will take my boots to the nice guy with the cat in downtown Salem to have them resoled and repaired, rather than buying a new pair. When shopping, I will look for the “Made in the USA” label, I will make every effort to buy clothing made with care, and I will spend a bit more for quality products I can keep for years. Also, I will learn to sew. I can’t promise myself re-makes like this talented woman, but at least I can make sure my shirts and pants fit well.
I will also plan to keep a look out for local events on the North Shore, like the ones below. See you there?
Plum Consignment, 156 Cabot Street, Beverly MA
Wednesday, October 10, 2012 from 6:00 – 7:30
Clean out your closet and bag up those jeans you know you’ll never wear again. Bring at least 1 and no more than 5 pairs of jeans. When you arrive at Plum between 6:00 – 6:15 you’ll get 1 ticket for each pair of jeans you bring in. You will then be asked to put your jeans on the correct table (according to size) and wait for everyone to arrive. Feel free to shop around Plum – all other jeans not included in the swap will be 15% off! Swapping will begin promptly at 6:30! Peruse the tables of jeans, find ones you like, try them on and once you’ve decided which ones to bring home, simply bring them to the front counter and trade in your tickets for your new-to-you jeans!
1st ANNUAL SALEM COSTUME SWAP
Salem Senior Center in Salem, MA
Saturday, October 13 (National Costume Swap Day) from 10:00 a.m. to 12.00 p.m.
Do you have a closet full of costumes that you would never dare be seen in again or some that will never fit your children again? Can’t think of what to be this year? Don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on costumes for the entire family? We have the perfect solution for you…come to the Salem Costume Swap!! Here’s how it works: Donate your swap-able costumes at the Salem Senior Center. Empty your closet as a recycle/cleaning house project, you may drop off gently used adult, kid or pet costumes at the Salem Senior Center starting on September 10th during normal hours. We will also accept Halloween accessories. In exchange for each complete, clean, gently worn costume, you will receive 1 swap ticket to claim a new-to-you costume at the 10/13 event. No costume to swap? Still want to shop? No Problem! Stop by the event to purchase any costume for $5. Proceeds will benefit Salem youth programs.
TEXTILE RECYCLING DRIVE
Riley Plaza in Salem, MA
Saturday, November 17, 2012 from 8:00am until 3:00pm
Save the date for our next textile drive! The drop off location is Riley Plaza, Salem, MA — look for the large Goodwill truck in the parking lot in front of Salem’s Post Office. THE FOLLOWING CAN BE RECYCLED: clothing, sneakers, shoes, boots, slippers, belts, ties, purses, pillows, bedding (comforters, sheets, blankets, etc.), table linens, stuffed animals, curtains, rags. Your participation means tons of material will be diverted from the waste stream. Everything collected will either be sold by Goodwill to benefit their programming, or recycled into other products.