Why is clothing getting crappier?
September 17, 2010 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Why has the quality of retail clothing declined compared to 10-15 years ago?

Asking this question for my wife, who has noticed that clothing that she buys get worn out (seams break, holes appear, and fabric is "pilly") after just a few cycles of wearing and washing. This is clothing from a variety of major retail clothing store: Gap, Target, Nordstrom's, etc.

She wants to know what the reasons are for the clothing getting worn out -- materials, manufacturing processes, etc. compared to not that long ago. It's her experience that items from these same stores seemed to last longer and be of better quality in the fairly recent past.

As a side question, she's curious about where to get clothes at reasonable prices that won't fall apart and get pilly so quickly.
posted by camcgee to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (31 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
more efficient sweatshops? (where "efficient" is optimizing for "profit")
posted by rmd1023 at 10:22 AM on September 17, 2010

I've noticed that American washing detergents will ruin clothing much faster than their European versions. I buy clothing for myself and my sister, who lives in Bulgaria (the same brands, Gap, Nordstrom, Banana Republic), and pretty much all of her garments look like they haven't aged as much as mine.

When I was visiting earlier this month and attempted to do laundry, the washing machine didn't even have a "cold" setting (30ºC was the closest one). I asked her, and she explained that the detergents there aren't as aggressive as those we use in the US.

Maybe it has something to do with the way your wife cares for her clothes?
posted by halogen at 10:23 AM on September 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

For the side question, I find the stuff I get from LL Bean lasts very well. Also, if you are not satisfied at anytime you can return it and get all your money back. (Disclaimer: I have a family connection to LL Bean, but I don't get any kickbacks)
posted by mikepop at 10:23 AM on September 17, 2010

Step one: don't expect any clothes you buy at Target to be high quality. They are not in the business of making high-quality clothing.
Step two: don't wash any nice clothes on hot or put them in the dryer.

If you have a Filene's Basement or Nordstrom Rack near you, shop there to get nice clothes for a lot less money. Buy clothes made out of natural and heavy-weight materials; a lot of women's clothing is made out of synthetics for the shine/stretch factor. (Black polyester dress pants can eat me.)

I can't help on the historical quality decline front; I haven't had the problems with my clothes that your wife appears to be having with hers.
posted by phunniemee at 10:26 AM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cheaper, crappier materials and cheaper, crappier manufacturing methods. Oh, and two ever-present American tropes: Deliver It As Cheaply As Possible, No Matter What the Cost aaaaand Style Over Substance (Or Thread Count).

I'd recommend finding a manufacturer who's openly quality-centric - f'rinstance, I don't happen to care for most L.L. Bean or Lands' End stuff, but both companies pride themselves on their quality and craftsmanship (nice, decent-weight materials, durable stitching, etc).
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:27 AM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

PS. My sister's dryer doesn't heat up very much at all. I never tumble dry the clothes I really like, and it makes a difference, especially for dark-colored fabrics where the edges might otherwise fade. Also, Woolite is wonderful.
posted by halogen at 10:27 AM on September 17, 2010

Back in the 80s I knew someone who handled sales of an accessories line to major retailers in Canada. They told me that their stuff was rejected by a number of "pop" chains because the quality was too good - they weren't interested in the extra expense of durability as their business model was based on their clothing being worn for just one fashion season.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 10:28 AM on September 17, 2010 [5 favorites]

Is she talking about clothes purchased in the last couple of years? Because the recession may have shifted the whole market towards cheaper materials and workmanship.
posted by jon1270 at 10:30 AM on September 17, 2010

As a side question, she's curious about where to get clothes at reasonable prices that won't fall apart and get pilly so quickly.

Second-hand stores. I figure if they've already been through one owner and still look good they're in for the long haul.
posted by geekchic at 10:33 AM on September 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

And in that last 10-15 years, the price of those items has pretty much stayed constant (a shirt that was $20 a decade ago is now $25), despite rising costs. Something's got to give, and what gives is fabric quality and construction quality. (

Buyers for retailers (*Mart, I'm looking at you!, but it trickles down) care more about how much it costs than value (which is a combination of price and quality). Consumers don't help this by buying $14 jeans over $25 jeans, based solely on price.

Also, fabric styles have changed. You cannot treat (f'rex) stretch twill the same way you would treat cotton denim; rayon/polyester blouses cannot be washed like cotton blouses, polarfleece (or equivalent) cannot be treated like sweatshirt fabric, etc. If she's still caring for clothing the way she did a decade or more ago, it won't last as long.
posted by jlkr at 10:35 AM on September 17, 2010

Thanks for the responses. About the washing process, we wash pretty much everything on 'cold.' This is the detergent we use. No idea about its relative harshness.

Step one: don't expect any clothes you buy at Target to be high quality.

I don't think she's expecting high quality from all of these shops, it's that the quality seems to have declined from "acceptable" to "craptastic."
posted by camcgee at 10:37 AM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is she talking about clothes purchased in the last couple of years?

I'm not sure about the exact time frame but I will ask her.
posted by camcgee at 10:37 AM on September 17, 2010

The price of cotton
posted by fire&wings at 10:41 AM on September 17, 2010

It's inflation. You simply don't get as much quality for a given price point anymore, nor for a given model/style. Couple this with cheaper materials being developed all the time, and you have a natural feedback loop to poor quality. You don't get what you don't pay for.
posted by rhizome at 10:43 AM on September 17, 2010

Clothes have gotten cheaper in real terms because they use cheaper methods and materials. If you don't like it then buy better clothes, paying as much as you used to, in real terms.
posted by caek at 10:50 AM on September 17, 2010

Lots of thinner fabrics. Compare an American Apparel shirt to a Hanes Beefy T.
posted by smackfu at 10:54 AM on September 17, 2010

Also some nicer brands now "liscence" their logo to low end manufacturing. I am specifically thinking of Ralph Lauren, nautica, Perry Ellis etc
posted by saradarlin at 10:58 AM on September 17, 2010

Well, the Internet and computers happened.

No, seriously -- sourcing things cheaply is SO much easier than it was in the past. At the 2 apparel companies that I'm intimately familiar with, a great deal of effort goes into pricing items competitively.

Here's an example. You want to make a pair of pants. You need thread, fabric, a zipper, a snap, and some rivets. You want to sell these pants at a $80 price point because you already have a good seller at $30, $45, $60, and $100. You'll sell them to stores at $40.

A designer sketches it. The material is determined by quantity (let's say that you use that same fabric in some shirts and a skirt).

You have 7 factories that your company already has established (via the Internet in part.)

Factory A quotes (via the Internet) you $12 per pair of pants if you buy 1000 and $10 per pair of pairs if you buy 5000. They do this because they get the fabric at $X, the zipper at $X, the thread at $X, the snaps at $X, the rivets at $X, pay their workers $X, and have overhead costs of $X.

But then you speak with Factory B (via the Internet) who can get the zippers for 15 cents less. If you sell 5000 units, your profit will go up significantly.

Factory C is the cheapest, but you have information that they often ship products late, so you'd probably have to ship the items via air rather than a boat in order to get it to the store on time, so you're nervous about using C and losing a ton of profit.

Then Factory D is in a country that you know has better duty rates than the Factories in A and B. This will make you even more money. You tell Factory A that B and C and D are beating them on price and that you need to renegotiate.

(And all this is happening via the Internet and big spreadsheets/databases that hold all the information about zippers and duty rates and labor rates and shipping rates and all that. (One place that I know of had an entire department dedicated to figuring all of this out.) When someone is "creating" a shirt or pants nowadays, s/he is pulling from a big spreadsheet of data to "make" the most cost effective/profit producing shirt or pants possible with the quality of materials that the company has dictated.)

Before the Internet and computerization of the workplace, having all of this data and the ability to quickly communicate information was impossible. At my SO's company, there are some "old school" negotiators that prefer to do all this on paper napkins and want to work with the same 2-3 factories all of the time because they have established relationships with the factory liasons. That way of working is quickly going out the window.

But to get to your question, with all of this competition and data-driven apparel manufacturing, companies are really finding cheaper places to make stuff and as a result, quality can suffer if the bottom line is what they care about most.
posted by k8t at 11:01 AM on September 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

Easy, take a look at an average shirt, average price in 1980:
$14.99. In 2009 dollars that's $38.52.

So, if you're spending less than $40 on a shirt today, you should expect it to be lower quality than a shirt costing $15 a few decades ago. I guarantee if you're shopping at Old Navy for something similar, you're paying 50% of what you would pay for the 1980 shirt. Wouldn't YOU expect it be be lower quality when you're paying half the price?
posted by blue_beetle at 11:08 AM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

A clothes dryer is to clothes what the electric chair is to people. It's good for towels, sheets, and heavy work pants, but wreckification on everything else.
So these factors:
1. Cheap crap from Target, et.al.
2. thinner fabrics
3. relatively harsh detergents
4. top-loading washer (if that is indeed the case)
4. Clothes dryer as opposed to hang drying


premature clothing death.
posted by BostonTerrier at 11:13 AM on September 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Inflation and the squeeze on materials counts, though there's also a degree of planned obsolescence. The TopShop/H&M approach is to clone ideas from the catwalks, with the assumption that you're not going to keep wearing something when it goes out of style, so it doesn't really matter if you're sending year-old clothes to the bin or the charity shop.

The disposability of clothing is a long-term trend, though. If you look at what people spent on clothes in the early decades of the 1900s in relation to income, you'll see that regardless of class, people bought a few quality items and expected them to last. This post on Put This On, drawing on a photo of the grandfather and great-uncle of the Slice Harvester, shows how two "poor, Irish schmucks in Queens" in the 1930s dressed to go out on the town. Those suits and coats probably cost a few months' worth of wages each.

Even in the early 1960s, my dad paid for a suit, a couple of shirts and a pair of Bally shoes from one of the town's tailors over the course of several months, because that's what working-class teenagers with jobs did. So that trade-off of quality for choice isn't really a new thing: it's just more noticeable because you see it in your own wardrobe.
posted by holgate at 11:18 AM on September 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think part of it also has to do with the types of fabrics that are 'in' right now. The trend right now seems to be about layering pieces, thin/sheer/deconstructed, lace insets, burnouts and drape-y effects.

Layering trend means that individual pieces should be worn with other pieces, so naturally the individual pieces need to be thinner in order for that.

Thin/sheer means less durable. Deconstructed looks are popular for reasons I don't know why. And its not just in jeans either! I once saw a t shirt that was artistically ripped all the way down the back. A nice effect, but my first thought was 'how do I wash this?"

Burnout fabrics are created by applying corrosive acid in a design on a blended fiber fabric which eats away one of the blended fibers thus creating the design. So this contributes to the loss of fabric durability also.

Lastly, everything now is aimed to be very drapey and flowy. Strong natural fibers don't naturally achieve this affect unless this fabric is woven/knit very thin. Rayon is generally added to achieve the drapey effect and rayon losses its strength in water. So you can imagine what happens when it goes through the washer. Although it regains strength when dried, the fabric loses some durability.

What cycles is she washing clothes on? Gentle, normal, heavy duty?
What clothes is she washing together? try not to mix delicacies. a soft knit top shouldn't go in with jeans.
posted by p1nkdaisy at 11:54 AM on September 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Nth crummy fabrics. Also Chinese manufacturing.

It is not likely that 2010 washing methods are harder on clothes than 1990 washing methods were; likely the opposite. I fondly remember the better-made clothing of which your wife speaks and it went through the dryer just fine. It was also often sold fairly cheaply; I'm not buying the "inflation" argument, as an older "low-end," cheap garment of yesteryear is almost equivalent to today's "nice" whatnot.

I eBay in my spare time and spend a lot of time in thrift shops pawing around for good vintage and the decline is very noticeable, and it is easy to pick out the older garments. Fabric weight is easily the biggest difference.

I have a theory about artificial fibres that I'll throw out here. Remember when polyester was stigmatized? And then came that stupid fleece. Hey, it's dirt-cheap and comes in a zillion colours, so let's make everything from coats to kiddie pajamas out of this dreadful, nail-snagging, poorly-insulating poorly-breathing junk. Just think of the profit margins! But back in the day poly fleece looked "modern," and it was colourful and cheap and it took off. And polyester lost its stigma, and thus it became acceptable to make clothing out of any old rayon, bamboo, acrylic, whatever garbage. (Like I said, just a theory.) Certainly one stopped seeing all those little cotton and wool logos proudly displayed on hang tags around the same time that fleece started becoming more acceptable.

"Acceptable" to "craptastic" sums it up pretty nicely...

I am also a Bean and Lands' End fan, also not always so huge on the styles, though it is worth checking out the LL Bean "Signature" and the Lands' End "Canvas" lines, which have modernized the styles and apparently hung on to the quality. Both are occasionally fallible, but at least you can send it back.

I am a relentless, shameless return-er to stores and I want to encourage others to be as well. If it works, buy three and tell all your friends, but if it doesn't, feel no shame in firing it back at the company. Find places with good return policies and stick with them. Selling "clothing" that a few launderings leave unwearable is a con, totally unacceptable.
posted by kmennie at 11:58 AM on September 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have some tangential textiles experience, and sweatshops optimizing for profit is totally what's happening here, and particularly with women's clothing the designed to last on season is also dead on.

a few care instructions that can help:

avoid fabric softeners, hot clothes dryers: both of these are murder on any thing with elastic or stretch in it. the softener gums up the stretch fibers and they lose their ability to return to shape. Heat can also damage the elasticity.

pilling is a result of cheap materials. careful hand washing, line drying can help make it last longer, but not much.
posted by jrishel at 12:09 PM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the question was why quality has declined in places like Target, Gap, etc, not why x dollars doesn't buy the same quality any more.

To me the answer has to be that competition is driving prices down, and to stay within the same market, retail companies are having to compromise on quality in order to maintain profits at lower prices.

Plus they're just plain greedier now.
posted by Dragonness at 12:35 PM on September 17, 2010

What about fast fashion?

Here's a theory...
Prior to firms such as H&M, Mango, and Zara (Inditex) clothing with higher fashion content was synonymous with high quality fabric and construction (and of course higher cost).

What the fast fashion purveyors were able to accomplish was offer clothing with higher fashion content but at a low cost (in relation to the designer collections, not commodity or basic clothing which has low-fashion content). Of course that lower price point was obtained by reducing the quality of the fabrics and construction.

Low prices, more fashion content and higher inventory volatility in stores (Zara uses fairly short production runs) draws regular shoppers. For the shopper, there's always something new in the store, it's fairly inexpensive and it's fashionable. That fast inventory turnover leads to better cash conversion relative to other clothing companies and retailers; this draws investor interest, which raises the valuation (and stock prices) of the fast fashion companies.

Now those companies in the unfortunate business of being at either at the same price point or are the same fashion content are in a bit of bind. For the same price point players -- their clothing costs the same, but is less fashionable. For the high-fashion players -- their clothing is just as fashionable, but costs much more.

I think the result is that everyone cuts prices and everyone tries to match the turns of the fast fashion companies. Your low-cost/low-fashion providers need to go even lower price since for the same amount of money you can get something cheap and fashionable. And for the high-cost/high-fashion, they need to cut prices to get back into the game (or, pour money into adversing to make the brand even more fashionable and lower production costs to fatten the margins).

Of course, all of cost optimization means lower quality fabric and lower quality construction. And that's why it's been neigh impossible to find 100% wool womens' slacks with lining.

Honestly, I'm thinking the only real solution is to find a good tailor and have pants made.
posted by cheez-it at 12:37 PM on September 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

According to Stephanie Gaustad, who taught a three-day workshop on handspinning cotton at SOAR (the Spin-Off Autumn Retreat, a week-long conference about fiber and textiles) last year, the difference is spandex, at least when it comes to cotton clothing. Because spandex is a manufactured fiber with its own built-in bounce and resilience, very small quantities of spandex can be used to create a stable "matrix" for a commercial textile. Then the cotton becomes just filler fiber, and doesn't need to provide as much of its own stability. This means that the mill can use much, much shorter staple cotton (staple length = the length of each individual fiber), which is both cheaper and has a "hand" that is initially much softer and more welcoming to the touch. And because the spandex brings its own bounce and resilience, the fabric can be a plain jersey knit rather than a 1x1 rib knit; the rib can use up to 40% more yarn.

If you look at those clothes that are falling apart, I bet you'll find that the cotton ones are 97% cotton, 3% spandex. When I had to buy maternity T-shirts for this pregnancy, I bought cotton/spandex ones because, yes, they were cheap; but I have some shirts that were handed down to me that have lasted through at least two other pregnancies that are 100% cotton rib knit, and they look a LOT better at this point than these cheap thin cotton/spandex shirts do.

Sadly, the trick is not just to spend more money. Quality clothes cost more money, but more expensive clothes are not necessarily of higher quality. Menswear is typically higher quality than women's wear, but not universally, and if you're a woman, that doesn't help you a lot anyway. Probably the best bet is to find a tailor who does women's wear, talk to him or her about what you want, and be prepared to both spend a cough-inducing amount of money up front and forgo being "on trend" for the foreseeable future. (And line-dry your clothes, if it's an option; all the lint you pull out of your dryer's lint trap is direct damage done to your clothes.)
posted by KathrynT at 12:57 PM on September 17, 2010 [16 favorites]

Just want to say her experience matches mine, that things even from high-middle stores like Banana Republic or that sort of thing are poorer quality. Certainly the thin fabrics don't help, but also the stitching is often terrible. Recent examples I've had: a dress shirt that has stitched-in defects like a button placket sewn with accidental creases that will never lie flat; inadequate seam allowances so the side seams start pulling apart under the armpit the first time you wear it. One solution is to check the stitching carefully go through the stack and see if you can find one free of defects. But I agree it sucks.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:41 PM on September 17, 2010

This may be a gender related thing, too. As a male who shops at discount stores for a large percentage of clothing, I have not noticed any particular decline in quality. If anything, the opposite might be more true with the kinds of clothes I tend to buy.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:15 PM on September 17, 2010

Echoing the above, I think it's partly confirmation bias. I'm a female, and haven't noticed anything falling apart or pilling. One sweater got a tad fuzzy recently, but it's always rubbing against my chair at work (where it's freezing, so I wore it all summer). I am an underpaid creative type, so I buy clothes mainly at mass chains, and mine have lasted even years.
posted by cmgonzalez at 6:00 PM on September 17, 2010

The removal of certain trade tariffs and barriers with China.

Also, the Internet, spreading trends faster and making it easier to buy stuff, leading to what we now know as "fast fashion".

It is not your imagination at all. Quality-wise, I'm not hard to please, but most of the stuff in shops nowadays is so bad I wouldn't wipe my floor with it.
posted by tel3path at 6:03 AM on September 18, 2010

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