fabrique en chine

January 3, 2013

When I was in high school and college I scoured my local thrift stores for fantastic vintage finds, picking up knee length wool skirts, tailored wool blazers and sweaters, pin-striped trousers and wide-legged, polyester pants that mimicked the rebellious androgyny of the 1930’s. I once scored a beat-up, rust-colored leather jacket for $5. Judging by the style, it was likely made in the 1970’s or early 1980’s and except for a (recently) broken zipper, is still holding strong.

When we were first married, I took my husband to my favorite thrift store, the one from which I’d hauled treasure troves of clothes stuffed into plastic bags, their modest, stapled-on price tags demanding $1.00, $3.00, maybe even $5.00.

I was in for a surprise. On the racks were clothes from Target with their tags on, barely worn and cheaply made stuff from Old Navy, and stretched out t-shirts. In the intervening years buyers from vintage and secondhand boutiques in the city had descended and swept up anything decent, leaving a desert of unappealing leftovers. The well-made stuff was long gone, and there was nothing of quality replacing it. My favorite  thrift store had been so full of well-made garments priced ridiculously cheap that I once passed up a multicolored faux-fur and leather jacket made for Marshall Fields that was still in beautiful shape, because it was priced beyond what I found acceptable: $25. Today, I can get a thin, semi-warm sweater at the Gap for about that. On sale.

So what happened?

According to Elizabeth Cline, the author of Over-dressed: the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion, vintage clothing sells at inflated rates not merely for its age and period detail but for the very material with which it’s made. For all the money we pay, even at supposedly mid- to higher-ranged stores, we probably won’t find quality on par with anything made before the 1980’s.

I stopped going to thrift stores because once the cheaply made stuff started to appear, I didn’t see the point in buying it used when I could buy it new. It’s certainly inexpensive enough to pick up something cute and trendy by Mossimo or Merona from Target. These brands ape styles past–fitted blazers, ankle length dress pants, satin blouses–without any of the long-lasting quality. The whole point of thrift store shopping had been to pick up unique and well-made items that I could never have afford new. I discarded most of my thrift store treasures a long time ago because they seemed to be remnants from a different time in my life, when I had very little money but still managed to cultivate a rather bold style.

It’s frustrating that today buying new doesn’t mean buying better, and in fact it often means buying worse. Even as I try to live out my values of quality over quantity, investing in a few new pieces each season, they often don’t keep well with regular wear.  The colors fade and the fabric stretches and the seams tear. A light “sweater” I bought at a favorite store tore after a few months’ wear. I now cover the tiny tear with a scarf because it hardly seems worth–or possible, really–to fix.

And reading Elizabeth Kline’s book, I wonder if that’s a good analogy for the whole, potentially disastrous concept of fast and cheap fashion.    

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