As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I developed a taste for things like chuck taylors, plaid shirts, colorful coats, and sturdy backpacks. Many of the items I coveted back in junior high have held up with impressive resilience over years past. Today as an adult, I find that in many ways I’m still shopping for the same sort of things: a sturdy pair of pants, a handsome shirt, a large and soft sweater for Minnesota’s chillier months. And let’s not forget the thick wool socks essential to maintaining a full set of toes.
But something has changed. I may be looking for similar things, but finding them is not so easy as it once was. More often than not, I’m confronted by an ocean of cheap, fast fashion that’s constructed as flimsily as the trends it mimics. No matter where I turn, I find the same junky, disposable clothing as the last place.
H&M, Zara, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Mango, Urban Outfitters, etc—the list of cheap fashion retailers goes on and on. Even the smartly decorated local boutiques and stores with higher price tags such as Anthropologie and J. Crew sell the same, low-quality items made of terrible materials with minimal construction. Each of these things is specially designed to feign style and mask the low quality of its composition. I’m talking about the dress without lining, the shirt/dress with obvious bunching from elastic, items with embellishments or details only on the front and not the back, the clothes that warp or droop after a single washing, and the instantly unraveling hems.
As Sarai Mitnick, clothing designer and founder of Colette Patterns, explains, affordable, good quality clothing has for the most part gone the way of the dodo. “Clothing that lasts, fits well, and employs interesting design details (not merely flashy surface embellishment) is almost entirely the domain of high-end labels now,”
We all know that you get what you buy. So why do we keep buying this wear today, toss tomorrow clothing?
Although it’s more difficult, we still have the opportunity to choose quality over junk when shopping. The challenge is in resisting the cheap impulse buy in order to seek out the smarter one. We need to start making more sustainable decisions when it comes to our clothing.
Only when we place an emphasis on quality through our own spending can we expect to find it easily on the racks and shelves of our local retailer. Let us rally against the plastic wardrobe empire. Let us buy and have less, but wear and wear again the things that we have.
Mitnick stresses the importance of looking at the details when seeking higher quality. It’s not as simple as shopping for more expensive garments. A high price tag does not necessarily signify a guarantee of quality. “At my favorite independent boutique here in town, I’ve seen $500 silk dresses with runs in the fabric, and a $400 blazer with fake pockets (I hate that). I’ve seen $800 coats with acetate linings.”
Look for the signs of quality when considering your next purchase and take note of the items and brands that stand the test of time. Consider buying used but well-crafted clothing and invest in tailoring and repairs instead of replacing. Share your underused garments with others who can get more use out of them.
Living according to these priorities in a country full of messages intended to get us to consume is not easy. We are not living in a place that promotes repetition of the same. The idols and celebrities we see on television wouldn’t deign to be seen in the same thing twice. The daily anthem of the radio, tv, magazines, and newspapers is, as Beyoncé so flashily put it, upgrade, upgrade, upgrade! But I have seen a smaller, more thoughtful wardrobe done with grace, from the elegant and classic mix of a woman in Paris to the eclectic and modern one of a young person in Shanghai.
Attempting to shop more carefully will be as much a challenge for me as anyone, but when I consider a world completely devoid of built to last, the effort seems worth it.
Helpful Guides for Spotting Quality: