Over the years, quality menswear from famous brands has declined, and such change is evident in other areas of consumer goods, as well. Today, we’ll discuss how the downturn in menswear and the larger fashion industry transpired, what you can do about it, what quality is, and why it still matters on so many levels.
The answer to why the average clothes today are of less high-quality than they were 40 or 50 years ago is complicated and manifold. But, it involves elements such as the change in consumer tastes, free trade agreements, and the popularization of artificial fibers.
It also involves the mass offshoring of manufacturing, discounting as a marketing strategy, and the creation of the internet. Of course, with the constant pressure of shareholder profits paired with price targeting and an increase in seasons, we see a decline in quality overall. We could also mention the throwaway culture or many other influences. It’s not just one thing, but it’s a compilation of everything.
The short answer could be the market has replied to the different demands of the consumer. And so, no one is really to blame, and at the same, time everyone is.
History of The Decline In Quality Menswear: The Mid-19th Century
Even though the last 30 years have seen an acceleration in the decline of quality, if you take a look at history, it dates further back and starts in the mid-19th century.
Before the industrial revolution, fabrics were mainly made out of natural materials. Fabric was a rare good that existed in limited quantities. It was all made-by-hand, and the clothes were made-by-hand as well. Labor was, of course, cheap. So, a majority of the price in a garment was comprised of the fabric.
If you think about it, you had to get a pure fiber that was then hand-spun into yarn and was then hand-woven. This was how you get fabric, and you had to make the fabric into clothes. And because there were no factories and machines, tailors sew clothes by hand. So, this apparent resource-intensity of clothing made them, in general, rather expensive.
Because of that, only rich people could afford more than the mere necessities of clothing. Of course, we go back and look at paintings of people; typically, they were rich people, so there were lots of nice fancy clothes.
The Industrial Revolution
After the industrial revolution, mass production of thread, fabric, and clothing helped to slowly bring down the cost of clothing to the average person. Materials were still somewhat limited to what could be harvested, and fabric finishing processes and the whole factory manufacturing process weren’t as refined and efficient as today, where things are vertically integrated. You can produce a top-quality fabric at a really low price compared to what was possible 100 years ago.
So, even though efficiencies increased and manufacturing costs went down, the material cost was still relatively high.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that man-made fibers were really popularized. In 1910, Rayon was probably the first artificial fiber that was widely recognized. Finally, the market now had a better grip on handling the cost of manufacturing production and the materials that went into clothing.
Of course, two World Wars were at the top of mind for many people, and so were the resources. It wasn’t until after World War II that optimized manufacturing had a big impact on the clothing market.
The Machine Age
In 1940, the daily attire for men consisted of a suit. At the time, the cost of clothing for men was higher than for women. At the same time, men required less variety and, therefore, the cost was about the same. On top of that, clothes were also worn for much longer, which was easier on the wallet.
The average price for a suit back then was about $50, which, in today’s money, would be around $917. That’s just the average. Of course, you can buy suits today that are a lot more expensive, but you can also find suits south of $100 in this day and age.
Most of the clothing Joe Average wore was produced in the US, and Americans spent 12% of their household income on clothing. Shopping was mostly local or maybe used a catalog. But, it was mostly focused on what was immediately available around you.
At this time, a man bought a suit on average about every 24 months. So, in a nutshell, during the middle of the 20th century, men-owned fewer clothes, they spent more on those clothes relative to their income, and they wouldn’t buy new ones as often as we do today.
During the 1950s and 60s, artificial fibers in clothing became really popular. And so, you saw polyester, spandex, and acrylic or nylon pop-up. All these fibers, which heavily influenced fashion in the years to come, slowly helped reduce the cost of clothing. They also introduced a stretchy characteristic to fabrics that were unknown from cotton yarn or wool yarn beforehand.
Still, in the 60s, 95% of all the clothing consumed in the US was made in the US. Starting in the 70s, huge textile mills popped up in low-cost countries, and they allowed the manufacturing of materials at a fraction of the cost of what you could do in the US. This led to the outsourcing of manufacturing.
The Beginning of “Fast Fashion”
In 1975, Zara opened in Spain. At a core, it offered low-priced look-alikes of higher-end fashion brands. In other words, the common person was now able to afford something that looked like what the rich people wore just for less. This concept was really popular, but Zara kept innovating, lowering lead times, and reacting more quickly to changing fashion trends. Basically, what we had here was fast fashion emerging for the first time.
By the mid-1980s, mass retailers like Gap or JC Penney had moved the majority of their clothes manufacturing offshore, and the focus was more on quantity rather than quality. The shift often coincided with brands going public because shareholders wanted more profits and dividends. Brands also discovered that they could sell more volume at lower prices, so they went into lower price segments, and the competition heated up.
Globalization and The Digital Age
In the mid-90s, NAFTA reduced the cost of duties for clothing, which furthermore reduced the barrier to offshoring. That meant American retailers and brands doubled down on cheap overseas production. Around the same time, the internet became accessible to the average man. And by the time the millennium rolled around, e-commerce was already established.
Suddenly, the market a person could shop in went from just locally to basically worldwide. New brands popped up, which sold their goods directly to the consumer, thus, cutting out the middlemen and reducing costs. Classic haberdasheries and menswear purveyors had, often, difficulties keeping up with the changing times.
Traditional retailers started to realize that, most of the time, they would only have two to three months for their fall-winter and spring-summer stock to lay on the shelves before it had to be heavily discounted. So, they came up with the concept of a resort season and a pre-fall season, which could be sold for longer periods of time. But, that made an even quicker pace, a higher turnaround, and even less of a focus on quality.
Today, the average person in the US spends about 3% of their available income on clothing, which is the lowest it has ever been. At the same time, Americans buy five times more clothes than they did in 1980.
So, how is it possible that we reduce the cost of goods fourfold, but we increase the quantity fivefold? Well, a study in 2015 showed that the average garment is only worn about seven times.
So, if you need something that lasts seven times, why focus on quality at all? It’s really just about quantity and the newness of it. In fact, today, only 2% of the clothing consumed in the US is manufactured here.
The consequence is that the textile industry as a whole has all but vanished. While the old advertising channels still exist, we now have online publisher ads, google search ads, and social media ads. And also, we have seemingly normal influencers that can build a whole lifestyle around a product. So, it’s no longer just a brand that says, “Here’s our product. It is awesome. Go buy it.” People can see it in action, and they can trust people when they see them, or so they think.
Acceleration of Fast-Fashion
Despite the shift in the production of quality menswear, many brands such as Brooks Brothers or Ralph Lauren benefit from the perception that they sell only high-quality goods. Still, even they have been part of the race to lower the quality.
We’ve already seen this happening with brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, which started originally as a supplier of sturdy sporting and hunting outfits. It hasn’t been considered a serious clothing brand in the US since the 90s when the focus had shifted to teenagers and t-shirts. Today, it’s anonymous with a washed-up, teen-style trend machine that sells overpriced t-shirts, bold colognes and has borderline-pornographic ad campaigns.
On the flip side, fast fashion brands have become one of the biggest players in the international clothing market. There’s something new every time you walk into the store, thus fueling the demand.
Today, most consumers spend less than their grandparents did. Generally, as consumers, we’re now hooked on low prices and a constant influx of new styles and clothes. The inevitable result is that retailers or brands produce what they can sell. And if they can sell more cheap stuff, where quality doesn’t matter, that’s exactly what they’re gonna do.
Overall, one could argue that the clothing industry is in a pretty sorry state. And as a clotheshorse and quality lover like myself, that is a hard pill to swallow.
So, does that mean that quality today is dead? Personally, I firmly believe it isn’t.
Understanding Quality Menswear
Essentially, quality is “the standard of something higher than other goods of the same kind” or “the degree of excellence of something.” So, in short, it’s thought through to a better degree, manufactured in a smarter, more purposeful way that uses more high-quality ingredients, and something that outlasts other things of a similar nature.
For example, a skinny pair of fine dress socks made of high-quality, two-ply cotton with a long-staple length will probably not last as long as your white pair of tennis socks, which is made out of a blend of single-ply, short-staple cotton, and artificial fibers.
So, why is that? Well, because the tennis sock is simply much much thicker. Does the fine dress sock feel better on your skin? Will it be more breathable? Will you overheat less? And will it look better? Absolutely. But, it won’t last as long. You always have to compare apples to apples.
So, for socks, if you have two socks made of the same thickness. The one pair that is made out of two-ply, long-staple cotton will outlast the single-ply, short-sail cotton one for sure. In fact, cheap cotton is so bad that you couldn’t even make really fine, thin dress socks with it because they wouldn’t last at all. To better spot quality in men’s socks, our $4 Socks vs $40 Socks comparison has you covered.
In today’s marketplace, the term “quality” is often misused. Why? Well, stores have realized if they mention “quality,” they’re more likely to get the sale. In my mind, it’s crazy that it works so easily without even asking “why.” Why is something quality, and why does it matter? This is something we love to do at the Gentleman’s Gazette, and we put it into practice in our series “Is It Worth It?”, where we review iconic products of often high prices and see if they’re really worth your money or not.
Potential Bright Spots in Today’s Consumer Landscape
Even though the market, in general, seems to be moving in the direction of cheaper and faster, the internet has allowed like-minded peers to connect. And, personally, I find that there has been a resurgence in the quality of smaller, very focused brands that truly believe in higher-end goods. These individuals don’t just believe in quality but also in a purposefully-built wardrobe.
For example, a capsule allows you to always have something to wear and have items that are classic that can be combined with all the other things in your closet. Having pieces that don’t need to be replaced all the time and having pieces that are versatile will reduce your cost per wear in the long term.
Because of that, you can afford to spend more on individual items, which means you get something that is produced in a better way, made out of more high-quality materials that feel better and fit better. It’s also less likely to go out of style, and it is environmentally a lot more responsible and sustainable, and eco-friendly. How so? By choosing a timeless wardrobe that has to be replaced less often, you are by definition greener, ecologically-responsible, and sustainable.
Also, if you dig a bit deeper and ask yourself truly and honestly, “Why do I always want something new?” The answer probably is because you’re not satisfied with what you have. By focusing on quality and classic style, you will automatically shift your focus from “what I want that makes me feel good at the moment” to “what’s actually best for me in the long term.”
So, at this point, you may ask yourself, “What can I do about this?” And let me be clear, I’m not here to doom and gloom the clothing industry. I’d rather take this as a chance to look at the current state of the clothing industry and its potential for change and refocus on what really matters.
If I browse the internet today, I find almost more high-quality brands than I did 20 years ago. And the premise of Fort Belvedere, our own brand, has always been to produce high-quality items that are made by craftsmen, that stand the test of time, and that don’t cost an arm and a leg.
So, will high quality cost more than something from a fast-fashion house? Absolutely. At the same time, when we design a product, we always start with a quality level we want to achieve and then assign a price to it. We never have a price target and try to hit that and then lower the quality. That’s just not who we are, and that’s not what we want to produce.
Choosing Quality Menswear
It’s a fact that it is more difficult to opt for quality over quantity because, generally, it is more expensive. But, what can you do about it? Here are our tips:
1. Determine Your Personal Style
The first thing you want to do is figure out a style that works for you that is independent of fashion trends and independent of what’s going on in the moment, but something really works for you.
For example, I have big thighs. So, I’m not going to wear skinny pants because they look ridiculous on me. Instead, I always wear double-pleated pants, no matter whether it’s trendy right now or not. It’s because I like it and it works for my body type.
There’s no right or wrong here. You just have to ask yourself the question: “What do I generally feel good in?” Personally, I love the feel of a nice shirt, jacket, cardigan, or pants on my skin. I also like the look of it and how it makes me feel.
2. Determine What You Frequently Wear & What Fits Well
Ask yourself: “What do I wear over and over again?” Is it corduroys? Is it denim? Is it sneakers? And ask: “What fits me well regardless of style or trends?”
3. Learn What Constitutes Quality
Obviously, the problem is you don’t know what you don’t know. And, sometimes, even so-called half-knowledge can be dangerous. When I read sometimes that only aniline or non-chromium tanned leather is best, I want to scream and say, “No! Not necessarily!” Yes, the majority of chromed tanned leather is cheap. But, there is also extremely high-quality chrome-tanned leather.
At the end of the day, if you can’t tell crap from the quality and you don’t know what quality constitutes, you have to rely on other factors such as the retail price or the purchase price, the packaging, the environment you’re buying it in, or other factors that are not really about the product.
On the flip side, if you know your materials, you know their pros and their cons, you know different construction techniques, you know what leather works better for certain purposes, you can be a lot more intentional and make much smarter buying decisions that actually suit your needs and wants.
Fortunately, because of the internet, there are lots of sources of information. It’s not always good information. But, once you seek out people you like, and you’ve verified, and you can trust them, it’s a wonderful source to find experts in various niches. I’d even go so far as to say that almost every content we have on the Gentleman’s Gazette has some element of education about quality.
Yes, you have to be cautious. Should you trust all the Amazon reviews or a site that is just full of affiliate links? Probably not. Tons of review sites out there actually have never really tested a product. So, if someone just has a picture on a white background versus someone else who had an entire video showing you how they tested it, what their conclusion was, I know who I would trust more.
4. Read Labels & Seek Out Natural Materials
The next thing you can do is actually look at the labels and try to generally go for more natural materials rather than, let’s say, polyester. Why? Well, generally, natural fibers are more sustainable. Of course, it depends on the individual fiber, how it’s grown and harvested, but that’s just an overall thing.
For example, cotton uses a lot of water, and it’s not ideal, but things like linen or flax or wool are fantastic, more sustainably produced natural fibers.
Of course, there are always limits to it. Let’s say you go mountain climbing or skiing. Yes, you want a GORE-TEX membrane with a sturdy nylon shell. There’s nothing wrong with it. That stuff is breathable, it’s technical, and it’s really nice.
For a classical men’s wardrobe, though, it’s just overkill, and you don’t need them. Also, I found that a nice, heavy woolen overcoat keeps me just as warm and dry as a shell with multiple layers underneath it that I can wear when I snowboard.
That being said, not all artificial fibers are being created equal, and things like nylon, sometimes, can actually have a benefit. Whereas polyester is typically only used to make things cheaper, and if you have something with polyester, it won’t be cleaned as easily, and it will look older much more quickly. So, if you read polyester on your label, typically, I would stay clear of it.
Nylon, on the other hand, can be good. It can be more moisture-wicking. It can last longer than cotton. And there are even subgroups such as Tactel or Tencel and so forth, and they’re all interesting fibers. You should learn what they’re made for, what they’re good for, and some are softer than others, and others are sturdier. So, just educate yourself and know what you buy.
5. Save Up for Versatile Pieces
Save up for something that you truly want that truly fits a gap in your wardrobe rather than just buying the next best thing on sale. In a nutshell, buy less, spend more on individual pieces of clothing that you can then enjoy for longer.
I know it’s really hard sometimes, but the quality is enjoyed long after the price has been forgotten.
6. Consider Cost-per-Wear
If you have a hard time rationalizing it in your head, we’ve said it time and time again, look at the cost per wear. For example, if you buy a jacket in H&M that you wear only 20 times, the cost per wear is $5.
On the flip side, if you buy a high-quality jacket for $1500, but you wear it about once a week for ten years, now your cost is just $2.88 per wear. Obviously, that’s an extreme example. But, I hope you get the point.
7. Evaluate The Entire Customer Experience
Also, when you buy something, don’t just necessarily look at the quality of the product. But, look at the quality of the education that comes with it, look at the quality of the customer service.
For example, we work a lot with natural materials, and sometimes a fine leather skin will rip, and we understand that, but we also know that it generally doesn’t. And if it happens, we’ll just replace the thing for the customer. If we do things wrong, we’re there for them, and we stand behind our products because we believe in them. That’s not necessarily something you get when you just buy at the next best platform.
Can Little Money Buy Quality?
The big question I always get is: “Well, what can I do when I want to buy quality, but I can’t afford it?” And, again, I said it. You can save up for it. And if that’s not an option or if it’s just not within your budget, that’s okay.
If you’re a regular viewer of the Gentleman’s Gazette, you already know that we’re big fans of quality vintage clothing, and you can go that route. It’s really a great way to start a quality-inspired mindset, and that’s the way I started my journey in classic menswear. It was all vintage.
Even today, I still enjoy buying vintage things because I believe in the sense of them and quality. And if I buy something that’s already produced, I’m not utilizing additional resources just to make it new. Of course, the problem is: sometimes, the most sought-after vintage items are only available once, and stuff you don’t want is available over and over again.
In my case, I try to instill this quality-mindset in my daughter. So, I started her young. She loves to wear cardigans just like I do, for example.
8. Take Care of Your Clothes
Last but not least, one thing you can always do is to take care of your existing clothes because they will elongate their lifespan. Whether that’s just letting your shoes rest, not wear them every day, or brushing out your clothes, there are lots of little things that you can do to maintain your wardrobe and enjoy wearing them for longer.