They say getting your first suit is a ‘right of passage’ for a young man growing up. Ditto a tailor-made suit if you head into a career that is predominantly office-based. But I’m no longer based in an office.
So why blog about clothing?
Well, it’s one of society’s constants along with food, water and air. (Shelter should also be on there but given the state of our housing problems, I’m refraining from adding it just yet). I also have a love-hate relationship with clothes, as well as a dress sense that has only recently begun to settle in recent years. It’s also one that has made me look far beyond the label and brand of item that I am buying.
In the late 1990s I received a very rude shock when I got to sixth form college and found a very ‘designer labels-driven’ culture around a lot of people. Prior to then, with the exception of sportswear or a new pair of trainers, school uniforms kept a lid on this phenomenon. Ironically it was that culture that has to this day kept me far away from a number of fashion labels because of what I associate them with. In part it was that experience followed by spending 3 years in that alternative hotbed that was Brighton that changed my mindset and attitude towards clothing, labels and brands. In a nutshell brands were evil – every other weekend there would be someone handing out a flier exposing the latest misdemeanours of another multinational. Remember that this was around the time of Naomi Klein’s No Logo flying off the shelves and the peak of the anti-globalisation protests.
For me, my time in Brighton legitimised (in my mindset at least) of the concept of “rethink, reuse, recycle” – opening up the prospect of bargain-hunting for books, clothes and music in a very big way. When you are on a tight budget – where you stay out of your flat for as long as possible just to save on the electricity/heating meter, charity shops are a blessing. It’s in situations like that in which you are thankful for the people who choose to donate items that can be reused by someone else – one of the reasons why I still donate things I no longer want. (Or as is more the case these days, things that I can no longer fit into as my belly says “You’re over 30 now – time for me to expand and time for you to cease fitting into a 32inch waist!”)
Things changed during my civil service days. In part it was because of the nature moving from a ‘student’ mindset to ‘now I have a career’ mindset and felt the desire to dress more formally. I did acquire a number of what I still think are my ‘signature’ items – mainly as a result of targeted bargain-hunting and a level of patience that astonished nearly all of my colleagues – both male and female. That said, if I felt that a specific item of clothing was well-made and made of quality materials (and thus more likely to last), I was prepared to ‘invest’ in that item. My view was – and still is – that these items are going to last.
This is one of the reasons why if I see something I like, I zoom in to look at the label – not the brand, the label. (To the unfamiliar, it’s that little thing that has the washing instructions and origin of manufacture on it). It’s little things like buying the size above if it’s made out of wool (coz it’ll shrink as I’ve found to my cost on too many occasions) to watching out for the ‘dry clean only’ instructions.
I’ve also developed a habit of getting things altered if they don’t fit properly. Sometimes it is out of necessity – especially where the shop deliberately stocks stuff that is too long and announces upon purchase that they charge an extra fee for alterations. (I always take stuff like that to somewhere local because I think that tactic is naughty – it should be included in the sale price). Unless it’s buttons – in which case I source them and sew them on myself. My take is that my late grandfather learnt how to sew and do clothing repairs in the army and he fought in the jungles of Burma – less of the gender stereotyping please! (He could also iron a trouser crease so sharp you could cut a steak with it).
Between my sixth form years and today – a period of about 15 years I have noticed three significant changes in my ‘clothes shopping’ experiences.
- The development of the container ship. This has made it far more affordable for manufacturers to relocate and expand in places that have much cheaper labour costs. This has led to a real price fall in most of the ‘basics’ that I have bought over the years. It has also helped drive society’s ‘consumer disposable’ mindset.
- My increasing disposable income as I progressed through the civil service – which amongst other things also meant stability of income too. However, the only reason why that disposable income increased for many of those years was because I was living with family (parents, grandparents, siblings etc) meaning that high rents were only a factor in a few of those years when I was living in London
- The internet – opening up new retailers (including charity shops and second hand outlets) and leaving the high street in the shade.
Now that I’m out of the civil service – and at the time of writing no longer in full-time paid employment, I expect my habits will evolve further. Not having an office to go to every day means that there is less motivation to dress up in office wear that would have been standard for me just a few months ago. Also, regular swimming means that it’s more convenient to wear looser fitting sportswear – at least until the planned refurbishments of the changing rooms at my local swimming pool.
In terms of the wider outlook?
It’s not really my business to tell people what fashions to follow and which ones to avoid. There are more than enough opinionated glossy magazines full of adverts (that people willingly pay for) around without me needing to add to it.
That said, our ‘disposable’ mindset that we have with clothing is something that disturbs me – not least because of its environmental impact.
Parents will tell you of the impact pester pressure from children can have on families. We also saw the assault a number of clothing and sportswear retailers came under during the recent riots – something which some commentators have noted. We also saw lots of footage of ‘dictator-chic’ with the recent fall of the Gaddafi compound in Libya.
Aside from my own personal observations with my love-hate experiences with clothing, will the recent economic crises that we have had (and the not-so-rosy outlook in the short to medium term) have an impact on the consumer-disposable mindset that has taken hold over large parts of society? What impact will environmental pressures have? Will be be able to afford and sustain our current habits with our consumption of clothes? The other question is one for the brands. To what extent (if any) will these brands be tarred by association with either the rioters or the dictators and their families who showed a preference for those brands through their large scale purchases?