Too many clothes?

November 2, 2010 § 7 Comments

An astonishing comparison of modern day wardrobes with early C20th ones:

Material abundance, it turns out, produces economic resilience. Even if today’s recession approached Great Depression levels of unemployment, the hardship wouldn’t be as severe, because today’s consumers aren’t living as close to the edge.

Take clothes. In 2008, Americans owned an average of 92 items of clothing, not counting underwear, bras and pajamas […] Then the economy crashed. Consumers drew down their inventories instead of replacing clothes that wore out or no longer fit. In the 2009 survey, the average wardrobe had shrunk – to a still-abundant 88 items. We may not be shopping like we used to, but we aren’t exactly going threadbare. […]

By contrast, consider a middle-class worker’s wardrobe during the Great Depression. Instead of roughly 90 items, it contained fewer than 15. For the typical white-collar clerk in the San Francisco Bay Area, those garments included three suits, eight shirts (of all types), and one extra pair of pants. A unionized streetcar operator would own a uniform, a suit, six shirts, an extra pair of pants, and a set of overalls. Their wives and children had similarly spare wardrobes. Based on how rarely items were replaced, a 1933 study concluded that this “clothing must have been worn until it was fairly shabby.” Cutting a wardrobe like that by four items—from six shirts to two, for instance—would cause real pain. And these were middle-class wage earners with fairly secure jobs.

Virginia Postrel, via Wall Street Journal

I like to think of myself as a fairly cautious clothes buyer – a collector rather than a consumer if I’m being really precious about it, which I’m usually not. 92 items of clothing strikes me as a hell of a lot of things to own, but if I totted up my own inventory, I’d be astonished if it didn’t come close. Without checking, I can tell you that I’ve got four “occasion” dresses, three denim ones, and four different coats for starters.

What am I doing with all this stuff? Is it time to start my own Little Brown Dress project (artist Alex Martin worn the same brown dress for 365 days, only taking it off to sleep) and purge some of this ravening appetite for stuff? Most of my outfits involve some element of second-handedness, but even that can’t acquit me entirely of greed and waste: I’ve still got too many things, even if they are largely other people’s cast-offs.

What do you think? Is it time to cut back and wear things out before I buy more, or should I see my monthly clothing splurges as a civic duty to save the economy? Leave a comment and help decide my fashion fate.

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§ 7 Responses to Too many clothes?

  • badgermadge says:

    As someone who owns 32 cardis (at the last count anyway) I certainly need a cull and charity shop run. I do like having a rich palette from which to choose, though, and the addict in me will always ‘need’ more pretty things. But the original Uniform Project (who was no-doubt inspired by the LBD Project) is another inspiration and a reminder that we don’t really ‘need’. Instead of wearing the same actual dress every day, she had three dresses made of the same versatile/two-sided pattern, and then challenged herself to create a new look every day for a year, using only donated/found/second hand accessories etc. I slightly fell in love with her (and her now-bulging accessory drawer). http://www.theuniformproject.com/year1/

  • badgermadge says:

    Also, after yet another shoes binge, my boss described me as “a one-woman mission to single-handedly keep our economy afloat,” the other day. Not kidding.

  • dustymink says:

    32? Does that mean you’ve bought four more since the last wardrobe audit? Good God.

    An FT journalist noted my commitment to digging the UK out of recession. Somehow it seemed worse coming from someone who actually understands economics.

  • Joel says:

    You’ll recall I started my own Nonsensically Worded Shannon Sossamyn T-Shirt art project back in the Bath days. Considering that I’m wearing it as I type this, you can regard it as ongoing.

  • badgermadge says:

    remembered three, Mum bought me one. but it’s *lovely* – that ‘old-man’/’i’m a WW2 refugee’ cardi that has been practically glued to my body for the past two weeks? so really, if we look at cost-per-wear it’s more than earned its place in my cardi drawer. **applies for economics degree**

  • […] quite rightly supports thrifty shopping and generally getting the most out of your current wardrobe pallet. I, however, am a bit of a magpie and can’t resist a the new […]

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