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the mechanism of production, or: why fast fashion sucks, structurally
I had a conversation with a couple of friends about clothing, and how it’s made, earlier this week, and it wandered into territory I thought y’all might find interesting. So here’s what I had to say, more or less.
Basically: there is a reason the clothes you buy at H&M are so shitty, and it’s not exactly that they’re doing it on purpose. Well, it sort of is. But mostly, it’s because they can’t not be shitty. It’s because the entire production chain, start to finish, has become structured in such a way that it is actually quite difficult to produce quality clothing.
When you buy a piece of clothing at a modern retail store, you are probably buying clothing made with dubiously ethical labor, of fabric sourced to cost as little as possible, made of pieces cut on machines designed to cut as many pieces of fabric as quickly, simply, and efficiently as possible. At every step in the chain, every step that can be cut has been cut. The process of clothing manufacturing is, at this point, breathtakingly streamlined, and it results for the most part in a very specific type of clothing.
If you have any familiarity with vintage clothing, you are probably aware that they are usually of significantly higher quality than most modern clothing. When I say “vintage” I mean, in particular, clothes made before about 1965— before the offshoring of our garment industry began. Most clothes worn in the United States before that time were made domestically, by union labor— that is, skilled workers being paid a living wage. This is relevant.
Also relevant is the fact that clothes used to cost more, as a proportion of a person’s income. The average woman in 1950 had one-quarter a modern woman’s wardrobe, and paid a higher percentage of her income for that wardrobe than a modern woman does. That vintage wardrobe, though smaller, was made to a higher standard— sturdier fabrics, better tailoring, sewn from more complex patterns, adorned with more details and better finishing. That wardrobe routinely featured things like deep-pocketed skirts, matching belts, bound buttonholes, pintucks, piping. These are not things we often see in modern fast fashion.
What happened? Well, it starts with labor. When we lost the domestic garment industry, we lost that pool of skilled labor, and switched to a lower-skilled, lower-paid labor pool. We switched to an emphasis on making as many simple garments as possible, as quickly as possible, rather than fewer, more complex pieces. We chose $5 t-shirts over $250 day dresses.
Which is not to imply that I’m judging people who wear fast fashion. It’s a completely rational economic decision to buy the clothes you can afford, and there are other factors at play here, too.
For instance, the price of fabric was once much lower, and home sewing a much more accessible hobby. Due in part to environmental factors and our changing climate, the price of cotton has risen in recent years— why do you think those whisper-thin cotton knits have been the prevailing trend? Why do you think everyone who can get away with it has switched to synthetics?
This is the point I’m trying to make: at every step in the production chain, from the manufacture of fabric to the design and assembly of the clothes themselves, someone has decided to do the least expensive thing.
Shift dresses require less complex cutting than structured ones— and what, coincidentally, has been the most common shape you see in stores? Miniskirts require less fabric than long skirts— and minis are, coincidentally, in vogue. Sheer fabrics require less raw material to manufacture; machine-assisted beading and studding takes less-skilled labor and less time than other forms of embellishment that call for skill and handwork. Garment workers being paid pennies a piece earn more when they don’t have to add pockets or extra finishing, or sew buttons on too securely.
The cutting machines that stamp out pieces to be assembled into clothing? They’re loaded with as thick a stack of fabric as possible, because the more fabric you cut at once, the more clothes you can make in a day. The thicker the fabric, the fewer pieces you can cut at once; the more pieces you cut, the greater the margin for error, so better make those pieces simple. Clothes that fit close to the body need to be cut and sewn more precisely, unless they’re made of stretchy fabric. Boy, leggings sure are popular these days.
We’re seeing the end result of a garment industry that has cut itself to the bone in pursuit of profit. The clothing currently in stores reflects an industry that has streamlined every process it’s capable of. This has actually influenced trends and driven fashion in a direction that calls for cheap-to-manufacture clothing. It’s a process that is fundamentally unsustainable, because there’s only so much you can cut before you’re left with rags. And it’s built on the backs of a labor pool that has begun to protest its treatment, to demand fair wages and attempt to unionize.
If that happens— and I sincerely hope it does— we may begin to see the price of clothing rise again. With it, if we’re lucky, we may see a rise in quality. When the people who make your clothing are paid a living wage, when they have the ability to develop their skills and be fairly compensated for them, there is a ripple effect through the whole production chain.
We might end up with smaller wardrobes. But perhaps the pieces in them will be worth owning.