The Fashion Industry's Sneaky Disappearing Act
Posted on 30 March 2014
Things have a way of creeping up on you in life. Take weight, for example, you gain a couple of pounds and then all of a sudden you are 15 pounds over your normal weight.. How did that happen? Maybe it's because those little bags of french fries we used to get with hamburgers in the 70s have been slowly replaced with so many more fries that they now have to come in buckets - literally buckets. What about grammar? When did it become okay to say "Where you at?" or "Where are you going to?" Does anyone remember that prepositions are not supposed to be at the end of sentences or did that rule of grammar become obsolete without anyone telling me? Or consider gray hair; you find one, then overnight you somehow find that 50 popped out up out of nowhere. What?!?
But, have any of you noticed what's been creeping into the fashion world? Have you noticed that fashion quality has slowly been disappearing and replaced with &%$#*@? If you are very young, you might not even know the difference because this new "fast fashion" is all you have ever known. But, if like me, you have experience with vintage clothing, or you have lived long enough to remember what clothing was like in the 20th century, you might wonder what's going on here. And, believe it or not, I'm not even talking about the big box stores or that chains of cheap, disposable clothing, I'm wondering why the clothing at popular department stores, seems .. cheap.
I play a game when I go shopping. It's called - well, actually, I don't really have a name for it. I just feel the clothing on the racks without looking at the labels and try to guess if it was made by a better designer. I can feel quality from a mile away - almost. At re-sale shops, thrift stores, or vintage boutiques, I try to guess the year the garment was made. You have no idea what you will find without looking! It is amazing how much you can tell by touch in terms of quality - kind of shocking actually. Even vintage GAP and vintage Target clothing feels better than it does today. Inevitably, if I feel something particularly nice, it was made before the 21st century.
Peggy Power vintage wedding dress
I first started to notice this sneaky magic act with wedding dresses. Young women will spend thousands of dollars on dresses that are made of polyester, nylon or acrylic, with snaps or nylon zippers instead of buttons, and with unfinished seams and cheap lace. They will look pretty in them, for a day, but these gowns won't be the heirloom pieces that their mothers and grandmothers owned. I wish they knew what they were missing! Pure silk and high quality silk satin wedding dresses are now in a much higher price bracket. Yes, there were always less expensive dresses made of tulle and nylon, but even those, from the 1950s, are better made than some of the more expensive dresses today. Some of the fabrics you find in vintage wedding dresses aren't even available anymore.The vintage wedding dress above was made in a 1950s champagne slipper satin with winged bust and side bow. It comes with a coordinating tulle slip and boning in the bodice. The vintage wedding dress below from the 1960s has gorgeous lace detail and is made of ivory silk satin.
It used to be, and not that long ago, that even mid range clothing was made with certain standards of quality and almost everyone could afford to buy something well made. Most department stores had their own brands that rivaled the quality of the more expensive labels. But it started to become obvious to me that the emperor all of a sudden had no clothes, or if he did, they were made to be worn only a couple of times. Is there a fashion conspiracy increasing the divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" so that quality will soon be dead for the middle class shopper? Maybe clothing is becoming like cell phones, designed to last a second or two so that you'll be forced to replace it sooner rather than later. So what IS going on here? It's called profit - slowly, but surely, the fashion industry has eliminated quality elements to increase profit margins. And the saddest part of all? NO ONE NOTICES! They must be laughing at us all the way to the bank. So, here are just 10 of the many things that are disappearing from modern apparel that only add to my 10,000 reasons why I love to wear vintage!
#1. Construction quality - Clothing is now constructed with as little attention to detail as possible. Crooked seams, usually unfinished, are made from simple cuts with no unique details, and there is very little in terms of structure. Of course, as you would expect, the above vintage Chanel suit is impeccably well made with Chanel's signature chain weights on the jacket, and the fine silk trim on the cuffs of the jacket that matches the coordinating silk blouse. The CC buttons are nice and heavy, and the silk ining is superb. I understand that in the day, this would have been a very expensive suit, so I'm not comparing the quality to Target, but if you buy a vintage designer piece, you are getting quality that is unparalleled. The below hand painted Alfred Shaheen dress from the 1950s is a perfect example of exceptional construction a vintage dress. The fabric is hand painted, the sides are smock pleated, and the shelf bust has built in bra cups with boning in the bodice. Even the halter strap can be adjusted with hand sewn buttons. The result is an exceptional fit and a garment that lasts much longer.
Vintage Harvey Berin Dress with beaded bodice in blue satin
2. Sequins and beading - yes, you will find some beading, and a few sequins, but much of it is either done by machine or poorly done, often by children in underdeveloped countries. The Harvey Berin dress above is a beautiful example of outstanding beading, and the vintage 1950s dress below, by Mollie Stone, is hand beaded over figural black lace. The beading used to include genuine fresh water pearls, heavier high quality rhinestones, Czech glass, stacked sequins, and crystals. It is now usually done with plastic or cheaply made beads or glass.
3. Weight Have you ever tried to lift a cheaply made sofa? You could move it with a finger. Other than high performance, athletic wear, you can use that same standard in many pieces of clothing. Even vintage lighter weight silks have a better "weight" than today's. It might have to do with the thread count or quality of fiber, but whatever it is, it is gone. Suits like the Valentino vintage suit above were made so well, that the sheer weight of the piece tells you that care went into creating it. Not only is the fabric sublime, the lining, buttons, pleats, pockets, and seams are the epitome of perfection. Once again, in its day, this suit would have been purchased by the upper 2 percent, but buying a vintage Valentino dress or suit gives you access to quality that you will never see in modern ready to wear clothing at department stores. The skirt below is an example of weight and outstanding embroidery in a piece that was much more affordable than Valentino at the time. You can tell just by feeling it that it was made well, with care. Not all garments need to be heavy, but they should have a tactile quality that reveals high standards.
#4. Lining,. You rarely see quality lining, or any lining anymore. Now, even coats come unlined sometimes, or if they are lined, the lining is poorly sewn and made of a cheap fabric. You can even see that the lining was often an after thought instead of an integral part off the garment's design. Lining in many vintage pieces is made of higher quality fabrics, like silk and rayon, than some modern day clothing is made of today! It adds a nice weight to the fabric and feels so much better against skin than rough fabric. The suits shown above and below are great examples of sublime lining that is even color coordinated to be as attractive as the outfit itself! Both of these linings are made of pure silk.
1960s vintage tweed suit with silk blouse
5.Hand painted and Hand Dyed Fabrics - There is rarely anything exceptional about fabrics today - they are mass produced in mostly solids, or generic floral prints. The Tina Leser vintage dress above from the 1940s was hand-painted by Tina herself and signed directly on the white pique fabric. The 1970s vintage dress from Ernst Reiko below was hand dyed on silk jersey.
Ernst Reiko vintage dress 1970s hand dyed
6. Quality Pleating - Yes, you will see pleating today, but take a closer look. Incredible ruching and pleating is nowhere to be found on affordable clothing. Once you have seen what good pleating looks like and have actually felt it, you will understand. The incredible Sybil Connely dress above is one of her trademark intricately pleated gowns. Connely used the finest Irish handkerchief linen to create her dresses. Each one required between 72 and 90 yds of fabric! Like designer Mario Fortuny, Ms. Connolly was very secretive about her pleating process and swore to never tell anyone how it was done. It would have been an expensive dress in its day, but even the Lorie Deb dress below has a perfectly pleated skirt that you won't see much today!
7. Quality Fabric Fabric is the foundation of fashion. Madame Gres and Madeleine Vionnet understood that perhaps more than any designers. Imagine how a Vionnet dress would look created out of polyester. Do you wonder why that "cashmere" sweater you bought last year is already pilling and probably won't last another season? My 1950's cashmere sweaters are still in mint condition. Hmmm....how does that work? Today, when I greet a young woman with a hug, I get that "ugh" feeling when I feel the fabric of the garment she is wearing. She looked so great from a distance but I instantly feel the static of man made fibers and want to take her shopping right away to replace it with something "real." Real is the best adjective I can think of to use for natural fibers - they breathe, they respond, and they flow. The Lanz dress above is made of a nubby bright pink wool and perfectly lined with coordinating fabric. Because it was made of such a fine wool, it hangs well and fits like a dream. The silk chiffon formal vintage dress below feels like butter and flows like water.Everything from the pleated bodice to the contrasting lime green satin sash was well planned and well crafted.
8. Leather Accessories Have you ever held a pair of vintage shoes that were made before the 1970s? The soles feel like wood and the leather is strong and supple. Handbags were made to last, and they did. High quality leather was used in even mid range shoes and hand bags. Even the hardware was heavier and more unique. There is a reason why I am still able to sell them today, they were well made so they are still around. To get the same quality of the Ostrich handbag above or Evins Spectator shoes below, you would have to spend substantially more.
9. Unforgettable Prints - I love interesting prints. Some of the novelty print fabrics from the 1940s and 1950s are pieces of art! The above Gilbert Adrian 1940s silk print dress is one of the most outstanding examples of exceptional printed fabric. This one portrays bugs, snakes, wild animals, and birds against a background of what appears to be pages from a book. Yes, even in the day, this dress was very expensive, but if you had bought it then, you could sell it now for almost the same price if not more, with inflation. The dress below was more of a mid-range priced dress from Kay Selig. Take a look at the pattern and consider how complicated it was to center the design. Not only is the bubble shape fabulous, the neckline is outlined with the shape of the edges of the flowers. One of my favorites!
10. The WOW factor - I don't know how to quantify this final disappearing quality. It's just something I rarely see except in the most expensive couture clothing. Those little extra design elements that made fashion seem special. The Karen Stark designed Harvey Berin dress above has sheer bodice with lace on the sweetheart strapless bust-line and pale peach silk lining. The skirt magically twirls and is lined with layers of fluffy tulle. The dress below was custom made in Paris in the 1960s. The back bow adds drama and interest to an otherwise simple jacquard evening gown. It was most likely very expensive in the day, but because we are so label obsessed today, many people won't ever appreciate its quality.
To be fair to the fashion industry, they give us what we want and what we will pay for. If we are not willing to pay more for quality, I guess we won't find it. If we aren't smart about demanding ethically made garments then we might not be able to find them at all. Through the years, I've had fashion interns and customers who have transformed their views about fashion just by holding a beautifully made vintage garment. They have now opened their eyes to the disappearing standard elements of clothing that made a huge difference in quality. I hope that we haven't lost quality forever and that as we become more focused on ethical fashion and sustainable, eco friendly fabrics, we will once again care about how our clothing is made. I'll leave you with a very wise quote from one of my favorite designers:
"For a dress to survive from one era to the next, it must be marked with an extreme purity."
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