When did we start buying so many clothes?

imagesThis past week we went down to LACMA (Los Angles County Museum of Art) to see a few exhibits.  One of the exhibits was Hollywood Costume Exhibit.  It was fun to see all the different costumes that actually had been worn on movies from Wizard of Oz to Stars Wars to The Titanic.   Some of the displays had the actors talking about the impact that the clothing made on shaping their characters.

Meryl Streep had a section with the clothes she wore from many of her movies. She’s such an incredible actor.  Anyway, she said something that really stuck with me.  She spoke about the outfit she wore in Kramer vs Kramer.  They made a decision that as a woman who just left her family, had very little cash, that it really made sense for her to stick to one outfit.  Makes sense.  What Streep said added was that in those times nobody had lots of clothes.

Made me start thinking.  I always liked clothes and fashion.  Those roots run deep.  I think of the days in the late 70’s and my Mom’s wardrobe.  She wore a lot of stuff over and over.  It isn’t like today where people have a lot more clothes.  Nothing really happened around the idea of sustainable clothing.  Not even sure what that would mean.

There is an abundance of stores and more than there ever was vs the 70’s.  The department stores owned all the market share then.  The Gap started in 1969 and was expanding heavily in the mid-late 70’s.  It ate into the marketshare of department stores.  Other concepts of singular free standing stores started to surge.  There were the teen stores, the mens suit stores, etc.  It diminished the market for the department stores who then started the discount craze of one-day sales and alike but all those clothes and options changed the way people shop.  How much they shop and how much they buy.

Not sure where I am going with this but it would be an interesting research topic to see based on income how the consumption of clothing has changed.  At one point people wore the same jeans until they literally fell apart.  Some still do but not like they did.

Comments (Archived):

  1. pointsnfigures

    It still turns my stomach to spend more than $50 on a pair of jeans. I have a couple of pairs, but prefer Levi’s. I think you identified one of the first unbundling trends, the department store!

  2. Stuart Willson

    interesting, this chart suggests we spend less as a % of income today than in the past: http://visualeconomics.cred… . i wonder why. it could be that for the average person, clothes are less expensive today than ever before (off-shoring labor, mass production, etc today vs a seamstress in a shop 60 years ago)

  3. William Mougayar

    I don’t know if it’s income level related (although I’m sure it is a factor), but I was a clothes horse in my 20’s til mid-30’s…you had me at “italian designer” & dropped a lot of dough on that. It helped me develop an eye and appreciation for quality of fabric, stitching, colors, styles, coordinations, etc. Now, I see it as totally overpriced and unnecessarily excessive. What has changed today is our society has become more casual- maybe the trend is for casual-smart vs. fancy-formal-expensive.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Definitely more casual smart and maybe that is why people buy more.

    2. LE

      I remember in the 80’s (when I was in my 20’s) going into Boyds in Philly (it’s “thee” men’s store) and having the owners son in law wait on me. He got me to spend $4000 in one day back then. Luckily, left that phase pretty quickly. They really had a good rap going with that. I’m sure it’s similar to what some women’s clothing stores do to get women to buy.One thing though is after that experience (probably similar to what you are saying) I was easily able to tell when someone was wearing a shitty suit from 20 feet away just by looking at it. Before that I never noticed.The coordination thing was good because back then it wasn’t a free for all things actually had to go together and you could be random like you see now.

      1. William Mougayar

        yup…been there. Ermenegildo Zegna, Georgio Armani, Versace, Enrico Coveri, Hugo Boss, Byblos, etc…- they all made their share of profits from me.

  4. Tracey Jackson

    Most research points to the advent of credit cards and thus charging which really took off in the late 70’s and then hit hard from the point forward. People also felt entitled and advertisers started targeting kids, so buy now pay later became the mantra. While people may spend less of their income, they owe more than ever on their charge cards and thus closets are packed. I remember going shopping as a girl in fall and spring and camp. That was it. Now with the computer people can shop 24/7. But the malls also really added to the problem. With the malls came shopping as a pastime. The first ones cropped up in the fifties, but they did not take on their amusement park persona until the late 70’s and the really came to fruition in the 80’s. Thus we all have too much of everything.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Just in time for us

    2. LE

      Exactly credit cards are key. All ties in to the ease of purchasing with credit cards. Also has to do more with extending of credit I use credit cards for everything but never ever didn’t pay at the end of the month.Ditto for malls as well.

    3. Matt Kruza

      Very insightful. Makes perfect sense once you explained it. (also before my time so maybe I can use that as my excuse for my ignorance on understanding the factors?) ….

  5. Sofia Papastamelos

    I think that the US has developed a very strong fast fashion culture and we have generally become more casual. I’ve noticed on trips to European countries (Germany, France, Spain) that there is a stronger focus on product quality and timelessness. With everything at our fingertips through the web I think we get bored more easily and we move on to the next thing (fashion included) pretty quickly.

    1. Gotham Gal

      As Oscar De La Renta said…his favorite purchase was his last purchase.

  6. Rohan

    I read this article (I’m unable to find it now) that talks about how cheaper and cheaper clothes production centres have resulted in an average consumers quadrupling the rate of purchase. The fact still stands that this is not sustainable..

    1. Gotham Gal

      It is not sustainable. The cheaper the clothes, the more pollution as well. Really poorly made fabrics,etc.

      1. laurie kalmanson

        Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashionhttp://www.amazon.com/Overd…“Overdressed does for T-shirts and leggings what Fast Food Nation did for burgers and fries.” “How did Americans end up with closets crammed with flimsy, ridiculously cheap garments? Elizabeth Cline travels the world to trace the rise of fast fashion and its cost in human misery, environmental damage, and common sense.”—Katha Pollitt“Cline is the Michael Pollan of fashion…Hysterical levels of sartorial consumption are terrible for the environment, for workers, and even, ironically, for the way we look.”—Michelle Goldberg, Newsweek/The Daily Beast“Overdressed is eye-opening and definitely turns retailing on its head. Cline’s insightful book reveals the serious problems facing our industry today. The tremendous values and advantages of domestic production are often ignored in favor of a price point that makes clothing disposable.”

    2. Sari Nickelsburg

      The sustainability issue regarding textiles is something that people aren’t really educated about (myself included), but I think awareness is slowly growing. An acquaintance of mine is the founder of a company called Little Swappies here in NYC where parents can swap and donate kids clothing, gear and toys. I believe she has plans to add a textile recycling component – and generally address the environmental impact of owning so much stuff.

      1. Rohan

        That’s great. I was shocked to hear about it too…

    3. laurie kalmanson

      this book: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

      1. Rohan

        Ah! Thanks Laurie!

      2. Gotham Gal

        thanks laurie

  7. LE

    Fashion is pleasure and enjoyment really and in a way similar to how some people view eating and food. (Vous?)For example you spend a great deal of time at restaurants and also on the subject of food because it is what you enjoy.If someone enjoys fashion it’s really the same. They get pleasure from spending money and buying clothing (regardless of whether they enjoy shopping or not) . I like to buy cars. It’s a process that I enjoy. Has nothing to do with utility (well somewhat) it has to do with simply wanting a new car every so often because I like cars.Ditto I buy way more computers than most people do although I use them for business and they do tend to make me way more productive than someone on a small laptop (for sure, no question about that..)I can go to the same restaurant over and over again (part of that is lack of choice but part of it I don’t have that much of a pleasure tie to food). I also wear (ala Steve Jobs, before he did this) the same thing literally everyday. I find that simplifies things greatly in my life. I have no interest in trying new clothes what I wear now works for me.

  8. LE

    She wore a lot of stuff over and over. It isn’t like today where people have a lot more clothes.You can’t really compare when “we” were growing up. My parents had enough money to send me to private school (wasn’t as expensive back then but still cost thousands) but we never went out to dinner more than a few times per year. Takeout was pretty rare as well. People watched dollars much more closely than they did back then. Obviously. Less of a safety net.Today people are way more spoiled and I’m not just talking people living in NYC in million dollar apartments.My daughter just got an internship in NYC for the summer (she is in college) and my ex wife wants to figure out where she will live. I suggested she try and find a family to live with for the summer where she can babysit for the family. My ex wife doesn’t want her to do that she said to me (this is true) “when you were 20 years old would you have done something like that? I want her to come the house (her house with her new husband) in NJ over the weekends (and have fun I guess)).Get the picture? My ex wife wants her to have an experience. I want her to earn her keep and don’t care at all if she has any fun on the weekend. (I never did. I worked and we didn’t have a shore place). Funny thing is my ex wife grew up with very little so now she wants to spoil her daughter.So this is an attitude change more than anything and we for sure (my ex and I) differ on this.

  9. LE

    Closets in suburban homes have grown vastly. A house that I bought (in the 80’s) built in the 50’s had one small closet in the master bedroom for each person. My parents house (built in the 60’s) had 1 small walk in closet. The house we are in now (built late 80’s) has 1 big walk in and 1 small walk in (for the man). Houses built now have much larger closets.Obviously, housing design follows the wants and needs of the buyers. Back in the 50’s no need for large closets or storage.

  10. awaldstein

    This is behavioral as well as coupled to the credit and the fact that creating a wardrobe for a casual world is more expensive and complex where you simply suit up.For me simple. My parents didn’t have the income and they provided essentials, clothes as presents and hand-me-downs from the brothers. If I wanted more–which I did–i got a job. Which I did.

  11. Marissa_NYx

    As a kid, my mom would make & sew mine & my sisters clothes – we would end up looking like identical twins:) she did it because back then it was cheaper to sew, and it was how you did it. What I loved about those times was the trips to the fabric stores, the sensation of touch and the explosion of color from the encounter with yards and yards of fabric, a veritable feast for our young eyes. Then occasionally there was the decision as to which pattern to buy – McCalls or Butterick? In today’s world of fast fashion, we have abundant choices at low costs but at what price ? While necessity rather than creativity drove my mothers choices, as a kid I relished the opportunity to imagine and create. Joanne, thankyou for reminding me !

    1. Gotham Gal

      i remember those mccalls patterns!

  12. panterosa,

    We live in a tiny bird’s nest in NYC, high up with lots of light. Not a lot of closet space – 4×6 for me, 3×6 for my teen daughter. That includes our coats and shoes, but we store off season clothes elsewhere, and she wears a uniform to school. We both love clothes, and we make it work. I’ve had a dressmaker for decades, and some things I’ve had for eons. We each have a single carry on luggage.Disposable sportswear is the bane of the modern closet, people wash everything wrong, it falls apart. They go get more. I’m surprised at the convergence of many conflicting things – constant need to buy, laziness in care, the cheapness of the customer, and the fabrics vs. the poor quality of people’s appearance after all this vanity and time/money. I’ve had some knitwear for over a decade, and the seam is still straight.With a child outgrowing things at breakneck speed, I have a bag always going to friends, charity, or the women’s shelter. The rigor of how we live has to do as much with space, money, time and attitude, including what is enough to live on. Attitude is informed by how much others have around the globe, and how the globe is affected deeply by rampant consumerism, and whether we want to be a part of that.

    1. Gotham Gal

      The amount of clothes we have given away over the years is mind boggling.

      1. panterosa,

        I hear you. Same here. I keep wondering how that happens.The wasband’s family is large, (good news on hand-me-downs for ski stuff etc), so holidays are a firehose of clothes/stuff from relatives who live in houses, not apartments.