The Cost of Modern Fashion
Clothes are cheaper today than they’ve ever been. What exactly does that mean?
Now more than ever, people’s wardrobes are crowded with mass-produced, cheap garments. Spending hundreds of dollars on a piece of clothing is something reserved for designer splurges or bespoke suits.
Yet, in the past, most people would only have a handful of outfits. Nearly everything they owned was customized for them. Fashion the way we know it would be considered very strange, even only a few generations back. The idea of having something custom made for everyday wear is foreign to us. The idea of having 20 shirts would be bizarre to most people 100 years ago.
So, what’s changed about the way we consume fashion and why is it so cheap?
For all the dozens (or in some cases hundreds) of items in our wardrobes, how many of them actually fit well? Since fashion is mass-produced on such a scale, it’s designed to generally somewhat fit a large number of people.
This translates to a lot of shapeless sheath dress, elasticated waists, spandex infused fabrics. Especially in the case of women’s fashion, most clothing doesn’t feature the darting and seaming necessary to accommodate feminine curves. That’s why most women have had the experience of button-down blouses feeling both baggy, and gapping at the chest simultaneously.
It would be more costly to design clothes to fit body shapes, not just vague sizes (which vary incredibly from brand to brand). Imagine walking into a clothing store and seeing it divided into sections such as “pear-shaped,” “hourglass,” etc.
Instead, we make do by buying things with stretch that will cling to us, but fit, or buying oversized items we can style with belts or tuck in. We cuff our pants and in some cases, just accept that we’ll be slightly uncomfortable in most of our clothes. We sit so the waist of our trousers doesn’t gap, and we tug on our shirt throughout the day to make sure it doesn't pop open over our breasts.
Very few people can honestly say that every item in their wardrobe fits comfortably.
Historically, most people wore linen and wool all year round. Silk was for special garments and the wealthy. In some parts of the world, cotton was the staple fabric. Now, a huge percentage of our clothing is…plastic.
Polyester and spandex are spun plastic fibers. While they have some benefits (such as being less prone to fade and fray over multiple washings), they are also very problematic. These synthetic fibers are not biodegradable. If you throw out and old piece of clothing, it will stay in a landfill indefinitely.
Besides the environmental impact, they aren’t actually very comfortable. These synthetic fibers aren’t breathable, and yet a huge amount of summer dresses and skirts are made of polyester. That sticky hot feeling develops because your sweat and body heat are trapped against your skin by these plastic fibers.
Linen, a traditional hot weather fabric is so different. Most modern people have never even worn it (with plenty of cotton and poly blend fabrics being marketed as “linen-style” or “linen-look” but containing little to no linen fiber). Wearing 100% linen on a hot day is a revelation.
After spending a whole day in a linen blouse, some of my time spent out in the hot sun gardening, I still felt comfortable. Even more comfortable than I did in cotton. I’ve worn natural deodorants for years, so even without reducing my sweat production, my skin felt dry and my shirt trapped no odors. The material wicked away my sweat and released it. I sniffed the armpit of my shirt at the end of the day and it smelled like nothing. Linen truly is the perfect summer fabric.
So why don’t more companies make summer clothes from Linen? It’s made from flax. Flax is a crop that takes a relatively large area to produce and less than ideal weather conditions can easily reduce the yield. It’s more of a gamble than something created in a lab. Linen also needs to be woven on different looms than materials like cotton. If it’s not, it gets very wrinkly. Most manufacturers don’t want to invest in multiple loom styles.
Wool has been replaced by acrylic for years now for several reasons. First, many people falsely believe that wool is itchy and heavy. Cheaply knit wool blended with scratchy acrylic fibers (which are also derived from plastic) can indeed, feel that way. But many of the finest, lightest bespoke suits are made from light worsted wool. It’s a very versatile fabric.
Some people also fear that using animal-based textiles is bad for the environment. They believe that using vegan materials is better for the animals and the planet. However, shearing sheep is absolutely vital to a sheep’s health. The environmental impact of wool is also far less than using plastic.
Wool grows naturally, is biodegradable, and a yearly haircut in spring prevents sheep (who can’t shed) from overheating in spring. It’s a win-win. Yet, small farmers with ethical and traditional wool farming practices are being replaced by synthetic alternatives and mass-produced, lower quality wool.
People, in many cases, no longer want to invest in clothing that costs more due to higher quality materials. These mass-production farms are far more likely to have poor conditions for their animals than smaller farms. They also produce poorer quality wool.
Cotton is the most widely available natural fiber in our clothing today. It’s a faster and more consistent crop than linen and costs less to produce than wool. This makes it an attractive option for fashion brands. However, it requires huge amounts of water to produce, more than linen or wool. Most cotton is also blended with small amounts of spandex to add more stretch. Sometimes, this doesn't even need to be noted on the garment tag.
Rather than having new fashions every year, or even every season, fast fashion brings in new items every week. New trends and variations are constantly being pushed out at alarming speeds. This keeps consumers coming back over and over again to see what’s new. Instead of shopping several times a year, many people shop every week. Sometimes even as a chief form of recreation.
Slogan tee-shirts, extreme styles, and unflattering cuts pass quickly out of fashion. So why do we buy these things? They’re cheap. If a garment will go out of fashion or fall apart after only a few weeks, we don’t mind so much if we only spent $10 on it. Periodic sales can also convince us to buy things we don’t really need simply because it’s a good deal.
Since our clothing is mostly generic, it can seem too expensive and time-consuming to really develop and invest in a personalized wardrobe. Unique personal style is often only seen in counter-culture communities. Having a strong personal style feels extreme. And the idea of having your clothing professionally tailored often doesn’t even occur to most people because they spend so little on their clothing.
Last year I started sewing my own clothing. While I don’t own a sewing machine, I’m a pretty fast hand-sewing. Sewing a simple skirt costs about $30 for the fabric, and several dollars for whatever thread, buttons, or zippers I add. So let’s say, about $32. Cutting, sewing, and finishing, even with a machine will still take 1–2 hours for even a simple skirt.
Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour (which in most of the US will barely cover rent, let alone food, transportation, and other necessities — trust me, I’ve worked for minimum wage before). Still, that would be at least $14.50 for 2 hours of work, putting the cost of my skirt at about $47.50.
While of course, companies are able to buy materials in bulk and may use lower quality materials, they also have quite a bit of overhead to account for. They have to pay designers, pay for factories, shipping, retail outlets, and shop employees. So how do they make a profit on a $10 skirt?
Quite simply: they barely pay their employees who make the actual garments.
Companies move their factories to countries where the cost of factories and labor are lower. Companies search for the cheapest possible labor, even when corners are being cut for safety, such as in the case of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 which resulted in over 1100 deaths. Workers, mainly women, spend long days doing hard work for pennies. Even in their home countries, this barely covers their cost of living. Some factories also use child labor to avoid having to pay even minimum wage.
Breaking the Cycle
With fast fashion being so pervasive in our society, how can we avoid it? How can we stop being accomplices to this crime against workers and the environment?
We have to get over our mental block about how much clothing *should* cost. If you’ve only ever purchased fast fashion, ethically produced clothes may blow you away with their price tags. (But keep in mind that higher prices don’t always equal better quality or more ethical production; Zara costs considerably more than Forever21, but their clothing is produced in the same sweatshops.) Our clothing is cheaper than ever, but statistics show that we’re actually spending a lot more on it.
Start by reducing the number of garments you purchase. If you only do your shopping with the season, say 2-4 times a year, you’ll have more money to invest in a few better quality items at that time. You’ll also be less subject to buying trends. You’ll look to purchase clothing that lasts you at least the year, not that will just look cute in one Instagram post before it goes out of style.
And what if you’re a minimum wage worker, yourself? You need clothes to wear to work and to go about your day, but maybe you can’t wait and save up to buy one or two high-quality items. Maybe you’re starting a new job and need to assemble a work-appropriate wardrobe quickly on a tight budget. In this case, secondhand shopping is your best friend.
There’s so much clothing already out there, some of it never even worn. Most communities have at least one thrift or consignment shop where you can buy clothing very inexpensively, sometimes even very high-quality clothing. Online thrift stores have also gained popularity so you can search a bigger stock than you may have available locally.
It’s also important to learn how to make your clothing last. Laundering things properly is important to keep things in good condition. I also think it’s essential to learn at least some basic sewing and mending skills. You don’t have to start sewing your own complete garments as I do. You don’t have to invest in a sewing machine either. Having some needles and thread around (available at the dollar store) can help you fix small tears or popped buttons from otherwise fine clothing.
I’ve had an H&M cardigan in my wardrobe for 5 years. It was all I could afford at the time. Instead of letting it cycle through my wardrobe, I’ve cared for it; mended a few popped stitches in the armpit, and tighten up some loose buttons. Even though it is a fast fashion item, I haven’t let it pull me into the fast fashion cycle of constantly buying and discarding. I made sure to choose something that wasn’t too trendy and then extended its life through care.
Through studying the history of clothing and textiles, I’ve realized that most of us have no idea what our clothing is made of or how its made. That prevents us from being more discerning about what we buy.
Our ancestors were so aware of their clothing. They made and mended and had a deeply personalized wardrobe. Industrialization has removed us from the process. We’re out of touch with our clothes and that lets companies take advantage and make huge profits through unethical means.
Any small changes you make will help. Well-informed consumers can demand more from these companies and lead to a change in this broken cycle.