Last week’s blog post proved a tad controversial in some quarters and an eye-opener in others. I wanted to get people thinking and it seems – certainly from the stats on my various social media accounts – that I’ve achieved that. But following on from my whinge about the swamping of the market to the detriment of the smaller (and more ethical) businesses, here’s the next part of the problem. Read, digest, discuss. I like a good debate.
I whinged at length about the flooding of the ‘big cheapo brands’ drowning and washing away the smaller ones. Why is it such a problem? Surely, if the smaller brands can’t compete – and much of life is about survival of the fittest – then it’s their own fault, isn’t it? Well, no. Not when the playing field is so uneven and the public so reluctant to open their eyes and see what is actually happening.
I’m all in favour of choice. If we all wore the same thing, life would become incredibly bland. I love life’s rich tapestry and I’m all for plenty of choices in the marketplace. The more the merrier in my book! I’ve never wanted to look like anyone else (except, perhaps, Isabella Rossellini, but even then not in her clothing choices). Individualism is a good thing in my book.
But the World Domination Plan of the big cheapo brands actually ruin that. Way back when, in the “good old days”, most basic staples were – relatively – more expensive than they are now, making people have to think more about how they spent their money. They had a finite amount of money (credit was rare and credit cards hadn’t been invented) and had to really budget and consider – crucially – just how long a purchased item would last and whether it was worth the money. People expected to pay a fair price for a fair product. The throwaway society hadn’t been invented. I wonder what my Great Aunt Gladys would think of life now? She was a tailoress and made most of my family’s clothes. My brother had properly tailored long trousers to wear to school in the winter (we’re talking late 50s and early 60s, when many young schoolboys had to put up with short trousers all year round) and Aunt Gladys taught my mother to recognise quality fabric, good construction and finish and garments that would last, even if they were a little more expensive. My mother, in turn, used to flip up garments in shops when we went shopping and a sharp intake of breath would ensue if seams, hems or finishing weren’t up to scratch. If you could afford better quality, then you bought it because it offered better value. Clothes were worn time and time again and expected, with the right care, to last. In order to “ring the changes”, people became inventive and wore them in different ways, with different things and added accessories. This creativity seems to have all but disappeared and now people just want new clothing all the time and equate cheapness with value. This is a fundamental flaw in reasoning.
Of course, not everybody can afford to pay £100 upwards for a frock. I realise this. I know plenty of people, however, who screech at the very idea of paying even £75 for a frock but those same people go out shopping every Saturday, coming back with bags full of clothes from the main emporia of tat. I’m willing to wager a fair wedge that if you add up the cost of the garments in their bulging wardrobes, it would far outweigh the few items I buy each year. I think it’s also a fair bet that (a) if you work out a ‘price per wear’ value for those garments, they are likely to be considerably more expensive than my treasured and well-worn stuff, (b) most of them will be much, much newer and (c) a high number will have never been worn at all. I have garments in my cupboard that date back to the 1980s. My classic Burberry mac, for instance, dates from circa 1983. I’m not its first owner and probably won’t be its last as it is still going very strong and I have a list of people who want me to leave it to them in my Will. I have a scarf/shawl I bought from Harrods for the exorbitant price of £12.50 back in December 1984. The friend with me at the time was horrified. I wonder what she’d say if I pointed out that I still have it and still wear it. My favourite coat dates back to 1989 and still looks a million dollars when I wear it. It was expensive but I have worn it and worn it and worn it and it will go on for many years yet. Hell, it should see me out. I might even be buried in it! Well, if it isn’t spirited away by one of the people who have already “put their sticker on it”.
I also realise that many people see no reason to buy one quality frock when they can buy, say, 4 cheapo ones for the practically the same money. Why buy one of mine, for example? Well, because mine are individually made to order and tend to fit the purchaser, for a start. I’ve seen a lot – and I mean a lot – of the cheapo frocks, that people bring in to me, asking if I can “make them fit”. I’ve looked, I’ve been horrified and I’ve turned every single one away. No. I can’t sort them out because the cut and manufacture of the dresses isn’t up to scratch in the first place. The reason they poke at the neck is because the neckline has just been turned over and, basically, hemmed. There are no linings, no facings, no understitching; nothing to ensure the neckline works properly. Looks lovely on a mannequin but doesn’t work on a real body. At least, not when that body does something ridiculous like, er, move. And the reason there’s something not quite right about the waistline is because the manufacturer has shifted one or more pattern pieces off the grain of the fabric in order to squeeze out more dresses. Woven fabric is solid in two directions. When you start cutting across those threads at an angle, the fabric starts to move and becomes stretchy. This is fine when it has been deliberately cut on the bias as part of the design (much of the beautiful, slinky fit and draping of 1930s clothing is achieved this way) but when it’s not meant to do that, it becomes a problem. How many tops – t-shirts especially – have you seen where the sleeves have twisted, especially after washing? It’s because the manufacturer has skimped and cut the fabric where it shouldn’t have been cut instead of using a bit more fabric and doing it properly. It’s “never mind the quality, feel the width” again. Does it really matter with a £2 t-shirt from Primark? Well, yes. It does. You add up the price of all those rubbish t-shirts you’ve worn a couple of times and then had to ditch because they’re unwearable. Maybe you could have bought one that was well-made in a quality fabric that you would still be wearing – and looking good in – several years down the line.
Of course, if you persist in buying only the cheapo stuff, you may not have that quality option in future. Not unless you’re willing to shell out a lot more money and I do mean a lot. At the moment, we have a middle ground with excellent options – check out Miss Fortune and Lady K Loves for starters – in between the exploitative cheap stuff and the expensive brands. But if the cheapo brands win out, the middle ground will simply disappear so there will be no real option for buying quality unless you can shell out a vast amount of money and your chances of purchasing anything other than mainstream fast fashion will be virtually nil. Not everybody wants to look the same but at some point they may have little choice and that would be disastrous for both the alternative scene (which encompasses more than just vintage/retro) and the planet, as resources are plundered with no regard to economies, the environment and the lives of the people being paid so little to produce sub-standard rubbish to satisfy the first world thirst for more.
Please don’t let that happen.