The decline of quality: How did we end up wearing rubbish?

Does it feel like every time you go shopping for new clothes, the quality feels terrible? Unsurprisingly, this is because the quality of much of our clothing today is terrible; many clothes manufactured today are not designed to last, but to fall apart after a few wears so we can buy more. But how did we get to this point? 

Artificial fibres were first developed in the mid 19th century, but their use in modern textile manufacturing did not occur until the 1940s. Nylon was the first commercially available synthetic fibre, developed by the company DuPont in the United States. Interestingly, the company made the decision not to trademark the name nylon, as it hoped to encourage consumers to think of nylon as a generic pre-existing material. The introduction of nylon into the women’s hosiery market in May 1940 was an immediate success. In 1946, 40,000 people lined up outside a store in Pittsburgh to compete for 13,000 pairs of nylon stockings.

Chemical companies continued to develop synthetic materials throughout the 1940s and 50s, by which time synthetic fibres had made their way into the Parisian fashion houses – from Chanel to Dior. In 1965, synthetic fibres made up 63% of the world’s production of textiles. Despite this, the quality of clothing in general still remained high – at least higher than it is today. In the 1970s, 95% of clothing bought in the US was manufactured in the US.  However, in the mid-70s, companies began to shift their production overseas to exploit cheaper labour and materials, so they could invest more in advertisement. As a result, the industry saw a shift to quantity over quality; manufacturers could keep prices lower through the low wages given to garment workers in poorer countries to meet the growing demand of consumers for clothing. This is evidenced by the fact that in the 1970s, the average household in the US would spend around 10% of its annual income on clothing, averaging around 25 pieces per person. Today, the figure sits at 3.5% whereas the average number of garments owned per person is 70. Here, we can see that costs have decreased whilst quantity has increased.

The term ‘fast fashion’ was coined by the New York Times in the 1990s, describing Zara’s goal of getting a design to a store in only two weeks. And it is with the rise of fast fashion that the quality of clothing has rapidly decreased. Why? Because fast fashion means that our clothes have a very short lifespan. To ensure good quality of clothing requires a ‘control mechanism between every step in the production process’ – which, of course, takes time. With the acceleration of the trend cycle in recent years, the most important aspect of production for clothing manufacturers is the speed at which a garment can be produced, rather than in quality control. A recent experiment demonstrates this decline in quality over the last 30 years, through testing Levi’s jeans, whose slogan states (ironically) that ‘Quality never goes out of style’ . Two pairs of Levi’s jeans were put to the test – a pair manufactured between 1985 and 2000, and a pair manufactured between 2017 and 2018. The experiment found that the older jeans were stronger and wore less quickly than the newer ones, even through the fabric was much older.

In recent history, it is arguable that the pandemic also pushed the trend cycle even further, with the development of the microtrend. The increase in the popularity of TikTok over the course of the pandemic facilitated the development of microtrends. From cow print to swirl print, sweater vests to parachute pants and a new style of boot made popular every week: TikTok has altered the way in which we shop and consume. Trends last for a few months, in some cases a few weeks, and are left looking dated extremely quickly. Why do people feel so compelled to buy clothes seen on TikTok? Carolyn Mair in her book The Psychology of Fashion argues that when viewers see a content creator experiencing joy buying and wearing new clothing, they are more likely to desire the same experience, thus buying the same clothes. We are constantly connected to the internet, and so are constantly aware of changing trends which before would have taken a longer time to filter through – through magazines, television and film. Thus, the pace of fashion production has increased further to meet this ever changing and evolving demand. Many of our clothes today are made of extremely poor quality synthetic materials which cannot last more than a couple of washes or wears –  and are not designed to. This therefore creates horrific amounts of textile waste, which ends up in the Global South, destroying local environments. According to Greenpeace, enough textiles to fill a rubbish truck get sent to landfill or burned every second.

In the aftermath of the Black Friday weekend, it is clear that the rate of production is not slowing down – we are ploughing through the earth’s resources at an alarming rate, 1.7 times faster than the resources can regenerate. In order to buy our clothes for the future, we need to return to the quality of the past. 




Image: Kgbo on Wikimedia Commons 


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