Millennial males spend twice as much each year on apparel when compared to men of prior generations. Millennial females are in a similar situation, spending a third more than women of prior generations. How can we avoid losing the shirts off our backs?

(Source of spending statistics)

This is part 1 of a two-part series on figuring out how to bail out of our addiction to fashion. Once part two is up (late June), look for the link here!

The Useful Life of Clothes

First a bit of a history lesson from True Wealth by Juliet Schor:

In the West, apparel has been expensive to produce and has therefore been a high-priced and valuable commodity for centuries. Once fashioned, garments had long and varied lives. A dress or jacket might be born as special occasion wear, then become a garment for indoor sociability, and eventually be worn (and worn out) while doing domestic chores… In some households, garments were turned into quilting squares… A piece of clothing might end its useful life as a rag, and literally turn to dust.

I don’t know about you, but for me this was a:

lightbulb moment


Let’s re-hash this:

  • Years ago, you’d buy the fanciest outfit you could get for a special occasion
  • Over time, you’d start to wear the outfit for less formal situations, eventually leading to it serving as “everyday wear”
  • This would continue until the clothing was worn enough that it would be cut up into quilting squares or rags
  • For those turned into rags, the rags would be used until the clothing disintegrated

There’s a real beauty to the lack of waste in a system like this.

Here’s the figure that’s been floating in my head since reading this in [True Wealth][plenitude-link] last year:

Chart showing a good clothing lifecycle: special occasion wear to casual wear to cleaning and painting clothes to rags and quilt squares to dust; then the dust becomes nutrients for cotton plants that become cloth and ultimately create new clothing

Native Americans (and many other cultures) make sure that when they kill an animal, they use every part - no waste.

This feels much the same to me - it shows a respect for what we’ve been blessed with and helps ensure the continuity of the system.

The Fashion Mentality

Fast-forward to today and we’ve got a whole different mentality driving how people approach their clothing.

With the industrial revolution, the cost to produce clothing went down significantly. Clothing dropped from being roughly 14% of the average family’s budget in 1900 to less than 4% in 2003.

Along the way, clothing manufacturers realized that, to maximize their profitability, there was a need to create increased demand.

The solution? They harnessed something that previously was only available to the elite classes of society - fashion demand.

Clothing used to be something that was cherished and utilized to its full extent, only discarded early in its life by those with too much money.

As prices dropped, clothing manufacturers were able to give people outside the upper echelon of society that same sense of excess and luxury.

This led to a push to discard clothing before it reached the end of its useful life, instead bringing in new clothing as the rest went “out of style”.

Through years of careful practice, many industries have perfected this to the point most people feel that they need to purchase (keep up with) the latest styles and fashions.

We Humans are Weird

To put things like this that many accept as “normal” in perspective, it can be helpful to draw an extreme parallel example.

Say you went to the grocery store last week and bought 5 pounds of red apples. Apples are awesome - they keep for weeks and are great for your health; good job!

Now pretend that today, you saw a “food fashion” update on your favorite TV show that told you how all the celebrities and even your neighbors (gasp!) have stopped eating red apples because green apples are now in vogue.

A happy green apple and a sad red apple

Red is sooooo last week.

Being a good consumer food fashionista, you promptly throw away the remaining 4 pounds of red apples you have and go out and buy some green apples.

After all, you wouldn’t want to be caught eating one of those when they’re out of style, right?

OK, This sounds crazy, right? I mean, c’mon - those were perfectly good apples, there was no reason to throw them out.

So why do we feel differently about clothes? What is it that makes us ditch the boot cut jeans for straight leg only to switch back 2 years later?

Or even better, what about the awesome, impractical, clothing styles that get adopted for just a year or so?

MC Hammer wearing parachute pants

Sadly, I never owned a pair of these. Zubas, yes. Hammer Pants, no.

Financial Aspects of Modern Clothing

Regardless of the logic, we live in a fashion-based world and we’re all subject to the pressures in varying degrees.

There’s a twisted outcome from the push on the fast-fashion approach to clothing that’s best understood by looking at it from the manufacturer’s perspective.

Pretend I’m a fancy clothes supplier and I know I’m going to turn the fashion over every season because I’ve convinced you it’s normal.

At worst, if you’re a good consumer, you keep your winter clothes for one or two years before replacing each outfit.

As a manufacturer, what’s my incentive then to make clothes that can last longer than a year or two?

I can either spend $8 to make a t-shirt that will last 10 years or $4 to make a t-shirt that will last 2 years. I’m going to charge you $20 either way; which quality level do you think I’ll choose?

How can I still charge you $20? Because you’re not even going to notice the quality difference unless you violate all the fashion rules and wear it longer than you’re “supposed to”.

Plus, I’ve got this cool brand name and logo and you saw that one A-list celebrity wear my clothes on a talk show. That’s worth something, right?

Or maybe I’m sneakier and I make a $1 shirt and sell it to you for $5. You think you’re getting a steal because hey, you spent more than that on lunch. In reality, I’m expecting you’ll only wear it once or twice and then toss it for the next shiny one I put in front of you.

Modern Useful Life of Clothes

Based on all of this, here’s how clothing is treated by most people today:

Chart showing a bad clothing lifecycle: special occasion wear gets worn and then discarded; casual wear gets worn and then discarded; cleaning and painting clothes get worn and then discarded; rags are replaced by paper towels and then discarded

We no longer treat clothing as a valued item; we treat it as a disposable commodity.

We discard something that we paid for not because it has ceased to perform its function, but instead because it has ceased to meet the completely artificial definition of being “in style”.

Going through this diagram helped me understand why I never had a desire to be “in fashion”. It’s not that I’m a nonconformist; it’s that I simply think this kind of waste is stupid and completely unnecessary.

It’s the same reason I cringe every time I see new ripped jeans for sale. Are we serious? We’re going to take something that’s fully functioning and intentionally damage it, shortening its useful life?

Plus, we paid someone to do this. That’s right - a portion of that money you spent was for someone (or some machine) that rips up pants. How valuable and authentic is that?

My ripped jeans are because I spend a ton of time crawling around, playing with my kids. That’s authentic :)

Beyond all of this, we often see these clothes end up in the garbage because they aren’t worth enough to donate. Once in the landfill, all of the valuable materials inside the clothing are locked up and unavailable to be nutrients for a new generation of plants.

How to Bail Out

If all of this is starting to sound like a really bad deal for you, then we’re on the right track. We need an escape plan to avoid all this nonsense.

Baby pushing another baby through a doggie door saying "Quickly! While there's still time!"

Let’s take a look at how to escape the fashion money trap in Part 2.