Friday, March 6, 2015

On Quality

via Pinterest

Many people have discussed the trend of the declining quality of clothing. I even personally know it to be true: J. Crew is a frequently-cited example, and that's consistent with my experience, where things that I bought five years ago are still going strong while new silk tops and sweaters at the store are of noticeably worse quality. 

Yet I've never found that clothes, even those from the most fast fashion of retailers (like Forever 21) are particularly low quality. I can probably count on one hand the number of items that I have discarded solely because low quality led to them getting prematurely destroyed by normal washing or wear and tear: There was a pencil skirt from Banana Republic that, in hindsight, felt lower-quality than their usual at the time of purchase (like an outlet item that they accidentally put on the racks at a "normal" store, if that happens). Then there was a pair of red skinny jeans from Forever 21 that stretched out dramatically on the first wash. Furthermore, I've only ever had one item actually shrink in the wash: a J. Crew wool cardigan that would have been fine if I hand-washed it instead. Considering that I've been shopping for almost a decade (and primarily at the likes of Target and Forever 21), it isn't too bad. It certainly isn't enough evidence to substantiate an epidemic of profoundly noticeable declining quality.

Outside of those examples, I've found that those fast fashion clothes all seem to be of fine enough quality. Things that I wear very frequently (sometimes more than once a week throughout most seasons of the year) generally last for nearly three years at least. Things that I wear less frequently seem to last almost indefinitely: I get rid of them because I get tired of the styles, not because of signs of wear.  Maybe it helps that I machine wash all my clothes with cold water and line-dry most items? Beyond that, isn't it natural that clothes start showing their wear with a few years of semi-frequent use? 

I guess what I'm getting at is that I really don't know what the "quality" of earlier days actually looks like. I agree that true quality, whether of materials or construction, likely requires higher retail prices, as explained in books like Deluxe and Overdressed. Yet, if most fast fashion survives three, four, even five plus years of wear without showing dramatic damage, on what basis is that kind of "quality"meaningfully different from more elevated types? I imagine that the average fashion-conscious consumer could conceivably get tired of an item long before it wears out. Essentially, I'm wondering if the concept of truly timeless "quality" I read about and sometimes aspire to might be a bit of an elusive concept. (It is also not easily accessible without significant disposable income.)

Make no mistake, I still feel considerable responsibility to cut down on my consumption of fast fashion, though I also talk often about the budget constraints that could get in the way. Additionally, in the contemporary retail environment where expensive brands also try to cut costs, price is certainly no guarantor of quality (the comments on both posts I linked earlier include many examples). It can be frustrating to be a consumer that values quality and more ethical production because even when one is willing and able to pay, it seems to be very difficult to identify truly high-quality brands and collect information about how items are produced. 

In closing, I have a few questions that might present some food for thought: How long do you expect your clothes to last? How often do you throw away clothes because of quality issues? How old are the items you throw away? Have you noticed problems with declining quality at the retailers that you frequently go to? 


  1. I enjoyed reading your post, though quality isn't just about how long clothrs last. The way the item is cut, the lining, the finish, the buttons and other small details that add up to more than the sum of its parts. To use an extreme example have a look at an item of clothing that was made before the 1950s and compare it to something recent.

    1. For sure. Though I can't really say that I have ever been able to get up close and personal with items made in an earlier time when quality standards were different, I can see and feel the quality differences between some of my fast fashion and other pieces in my wardrobe. I can't even imagine what the differences might be between "nicer" contemporary items and stuff from the 1950s!

      I do wonder if contemporary consumers (and I speak more from the American perspective) might be stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to buying quality clothes, partially because of personal finances and partially because of what's available at the stores and lack of transparency about manufacturing practices and quality. Speaking for myself, I have significant student loans to pay off, which adds a layer of difficulty to my shopping decisions.

      It is an interesting discussion to have and it is something I struggle with a lot. I imagine that my thoughts might change a bit once I'm no longer a student and have a better grasp of what my discretionary income will look like!


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