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The myth of declining quality

BPL Esq

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In most cases, if you look, you can probably find CM-type clothing items of similar or perhaps better quality than have been available over the past 100 years or so, but you will likely have to pay a good bit for them or have them made bespoke. The overall "decline in quality" is probably less related to poorer raw materials in many cases and more related to cost-cutting by offshoring production and cutting corners, the trend toward "fast fashion" and clothing intended to be in style for a few months and then be discarded, etc.

Some of the decline in quality is a result of people trying to improve their margins, but some of it is certainly a consequence of this:

1620142053277.png


As the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar has decreased since its peak in 1913, fewer and fewer people are able to comfortably purchase well-made items at the prices they command. Having virtually everything made for us in East Asia by people who are barely paid at all, using very low quality materials and cutting all possible corners, is what allows more or less everyone in the US to have access to all sorts of things via Walmart or wherever that they could never hope to afford if made in the US. Manufacturers know that the vast majority of people just want something that's OK for as cheap as possible, so they make stuff that's just passable and keep the price down.

Among SF members, it is well-known that you generally aren't going to find good quality shoes or a good quality suit/sport coat below certain price points that seem outrageous to the average consumer. A secretary at a former workplace of mine asked for my advice about where she and her son should look for his first suit, as he had just graduated and become an engineer. At the time, I suggested a pretty basic navy suit in the $400-something range from SuitSupply, and she was aghast. I was told that the suggestion was ridiculous when there are suits at JCPenney for $100 (not sure why my advice was solicited then). If the dollar had the same purchasing power now as it did in 1913, roughly 25x more, that $100 might have gotten her son a suit we'd pay $2500 for under present circumstances. Throughout the 1930s-60s, more people (at least in the US) are likely to have had the purchasing power necessary to justify the widespread production of quality garments. Once that was no longer the case, the rational economic decision if you wanted to keep selling things to Americans was to figure out how to produce them much more inexpensively.

Similarly, you might sometimes see an old restaurant ad or menu and think, "Wow, I could get a steak dinner with two sides for only $3 in 1955." But that ignores that $3 then is approximately $30 now, and a huge portion of the population thinks that $30 for one person's dinner is crazy when entrees at somewhere like Applebee's or Olive Garden might be $8-10. Less purchasing power now, and changed attitudes as a result.
 
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Loathing

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I think people have argued (and reasonably) that competition shoes shouldn't be compared to regular shoes, as they're not meant to be worn. Same with that recent shoemaking competition where some people made very narrow waists.

@ntempleman used to work as a lastmaker at John Lobb, and they have a large archive of shoes made in the past. Perhaps he can say whether quality in bespoke shoemaking has declined in the last fifty years. Was the average bespoke shoe 50 years ago better than the average one today?
If you go into the main Crocket & Jones shop in Jermyn St, they have some shoes from their archives on display. The stitching is much finer than anything they sell today, and the leather looks somehow nicer too. It’s true these may have been special order or competition shoes or something else, but the staff suggested they were just normal production shoes. They admitted that the quality of was much better. They said that getting access to top quality leather has been harder and harder, and that’s also why their shoe prices have gone up at 5 times the rate of inflation in recent years.

I have heard before that LVMH and Hermès bought all the best leather producers in Europe and have monopolised them so that others can’t access their leather. I’ve also heard that since their acquisitions, quality has declined because LVMH/Hermès’s expectations for profit margins are much higher and so corners have been cut. I don’t know if any of that is true.

It makes sense though. If you compare old Church’s to Church’s post acquisition by Prada, the difference in quality is incredibly stark. Luxury goods conglomerates are not motivated by the same logic as artisanal family companies.
 

ntempleman

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I don’t know if leather has particularly “declined” in quality but it’s certainly changed, like pretty much everything else in the world has to do. The market is different so tanning methods and processes are different, they have to adapt. If we’re talking chrome tanned leathers over the last 50 years then the regulations surrounding what isotopes you’re allowed to use have led to a different product. Everyone speaks about freudenberg leather in these hushed tones, they were using those delicious, but deadly isotopes and didn’t have to worry so much about processing the water run off before it went back to nature.

In terms of the old exhibition work with 600 stitches to the inch, a child’s lock of hair as a bristle etc, then there’s not a lot stopping you from veg tanning a similar leather as was used then, but: it takes a long time to make, so it costs more. It’s harder to work with in a factory setting, so you won’t sell much. You’ll have to charge a large amount per skin in order to make it worthwhile.

you have to remember that shoemakers in those good old days didn’t live the glamourous lifestyles we do now, no one was photographed on their beautiful yacht with their beautiful wife wearing matching timepieces and aviator sunglasses. They worked 18 hour days, 6.5 days a week in some dingy basement, stitching those fine stitches just in the hope it’ll win your employer a gold medal and you keep your job.
 

Son Of Saphir

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I hear Italian tailors are generally operating at a higher quality level because the skills were preserved in Naples because industrialisation didn’t occur as rapidly or thoroughly in that relatively poor region. I don’t know if this is true but I have seen photos comparing Savile Row to Neapolitan tailors and it does look like it’s at least arguable.
yes,
many of the italian shoemaker too poor to buy machines so they make them by hand.
They keep the cordwainer skills.

me could be wrong,
maybe me forget,
My shoemaker say In 1950's the poor people in italy bought hand made shoes.
The rich people bought machine made shoes when they first come (they expensive at first) out because it was different and exciting.
Machines were new to italian shoemaking and many man want clean looking neat stitched shoes.

he say the thread no good now.
 

BPL Esq

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Some say leather quality has been declining since the Neolithic era of Otzi the Iceman. Fortunately it can still be replicated as a DIY project:

Are they even GYW? Oetzi was a pleb.
 

mak1277

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In most cases, if you look, you can probably find CM-type clothing items of similar or perhaps better quality than have been available over the past 100 years or so, but you will likely have to pay a good bit for them or have them made bespoke. The overall "decline in quality" is probably less related to poorer raw materials in many cases and more related to cost-cutting by offshoring production and cutting corners, the trend toward "fast fashion" and clothing intended to be in style for a few months and then be discarded, etc.
Is this really true, though? I mean, I don't have enough knowledge to comment on bespoke, but it seems like there are more and more small makers who produce quality goods at reasonable prices. I've certainly seen plenty of commentary from smart people talking about the quality of Spier & Mackay's stuff, just as one example. It just seems like we're in a sweet spot as consumers if you want good (but not necessarily the tip top of the line) clothing at reasonable prices (thanks to offshore production, technology, etc.).
 

dieworkwear

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I think along with a possible decline in quality, there's also just a decline in retailing. In most cities outside of New York City, you would struggle to find a good store nowadays that sells high-quality suits and shoes. Oftentimes, people who are enthusiasts about this stuff have to shop online. But that means they don't get the kind of service that comes with brick-and-mortar retailing, such as an experienced person telling you whether something fits. Also, I have to think the quality of sales associates has declined, as I can't imagine it being any worse than it is today. Most sales associates at your average mid-tier suit place just aren't very good at telling you whether something fits.

So then, if you want this stuff as RTW, you mostly have to shop online. But this takes more work in figuring stuff out. Good stuff has become less accessible in this regard.

I don't know much about anything outside of clothing. But I know a little about fountain pens. I think it's the same with pens. Pre-war, fountain pens were the norm. Then they were replaced with ballpoints.

If you're not into pens and writing, then ballpoints excel every way. They're more convenient, cheaper, and less messy. They simply function.

But if you're really into pens and writing, then fountain pens are better because you get line variation, a more interesting writing experience, and the fiddling that comes with refilling inks. For people who are into pens, this is a feature and not a bug -- it's fun to have to fix nibs, refill inks, figure out pen-and-paper combinations, etc.

As ballpoints have overtaken fountain pens, there are fewer stores for fountain pens. So you have to hunt online to buy pens. This adds inconvenience, as you can't always try out a pen before buying (as you would be able to in a store).

My impression is that tailored clothing is the same. Most people don't want to deal with the hassle (hand pressing, brushing, maintenance, etc). They prefer the wash-and-wearability of t-shirts and jeans. Enthusiasts like learning about all these details, so these "hassles" are features and not bugs.

Not sure about the @BPL Esq's point above about spending power. I think people are able to purchase more things nowadays. As a percentage of their annual income, Americans spend less on clothing today than they did fifty years ago. Yet, closets are bursting. It's just that mass manufacturing has allowed people to spend money in the ways they want, and most people don't want to buy the stuff discussed on this board, just as most people don't want to buy fountain pens. It may be rational for their preferences, just as I don't want to spend money on high-end sound systems, cars, exercise equipment, or any of the billion things that don't interest me.
 

BPL Esq

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Is this really true, though? I mean, I don't have enough knowledge to comment on bespoke, but it seems like there are more and more small makers who produce quality goods at reasonable prices. I've certainly seen plenty of commentary from smart people talking about the quality of Spier & Mackay's stuff, just as one example. It just seems like we're in a sweet spot as consumers if you want good (but not necessarily the tip top of the line) clothing at reasonable prices (thanks to offshore production, technology, etc.).
Sure, but $400+ for a suit or jacket is "a good bit" for the vast majority of people, and the vast majority of people are who drive things like the "decline in quality" at issue. In 1935, a good quality MiUSA 100% worsted wool suit with some handwork could be had for $10-12, which is around $280 now. A chambray shirt could be had for less than 50 cents.
 

JFWR

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I think along with a possible decline in quality, there's also just a decline in retailing. In most cities outside of New York City, you would struggle to find a good store nowadays that sells high-quality suits and shoes. Oftentimes, people who are enthusiasts about this stuff have to shop online. But that means they don't get the kind of service that comes with brick-and-mortar retailing, such as an experienced person telling you whether something fits. Also, I have to think the quality of sales associates has declined, as I can't imagine it being any worse than it is today. Most sales associates at your average mid-tier suit place just aren't very good at telling you whether something fits.

So then, if you want this stuff as RTW, you mostly have to shop online. But this takes more work in figuring stuff out. Good stuff has become less accessible in this regard.

I don't know much about anything outside of clothing. But I know a little about fountain pens. I think it's the same with pens. Pre-war, fountain pens were the norm. Then they were replaced with ballpoints.

If you're not into pens and writing, then ballpoints excel every way. They're more convenient, cheaper, and less messy. They simply function.

But if you're really into pens and writing, then fountain pens are better because you get line variation, a more interesting writing experience, and the fiddling that comes with refilling inks. For people who are into pens, this is a feature and not a bug -- it's fun to have to fix nibs, refill inks, figure out pen-and-paper combinations, etc.

As ballpoints have overtaken fountain pens, there are fewer stores for fountain pens. So you have to hunt online to buy pens. This adds inconvenience, as you can't always try out a pen before buying (as you would be able to in a store).

My impression is that tailored clothing is the same. Most people don't want to deal with the hassle (hand pressing, brushing, maintenance, etc). They prefer the wash-and-wearability of t-shirts and jeans. Enthusiasts like learning about all these details, so these "hassles" are features and not bugs.

Not sure about the @BPL Esq's point above about spending power. I think people are able to purchase more things nowadays. As a percentage of their annual income, Americans spend less on clothing today than they did fifty years ago. Yet, closets are bursting. It's just that mass manufacturing has allowed people to spend money in the ways they want, and most people don't want to buy the stuff discussed on this board, just as most people don't want to buy fountain pens. It may be rational for their preferences, just as I don't want to spend money on high-end sound systems, cars, exercise equipment, or any of the billion things that don't interest me.
This is an interesting point.

When I'm living in Illinois, my options to purchase in-person, high quality clothing is basically non-existent. We have JC Penney and Macy's, but you know, that isn't close to high-end, though it is servicable for most people. We likewise have no quality shoe store in town, nor a cobbler. The closest place to go to shop would be Chicago, 120 miles away.

I was quite spoiled to live in NYC my entire life and have in-person access to whatever I wanted, pretty much whenever I wanted.

It's difficult to shop for something good if you can't feel or see it yourself.
 

BPL Esq

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Not sure about the @BPL Esq's point above about spending power. I think people are able to purchase more things nowadays.
Yes, which I think I acknowledged. We're able to purchase more things because they can be made very cheaply, be shipped here on a giant ship, and still cost way less than what they'd cost if we made them ourselves to a higher standard as we did before. Closets are bursting with cheaply made Asian garments that cost pennies to produce. As purchasing power declined, people were less willing/able to pay for things made by what we'd call craftspeople (like tailors) and not produced in factories under slavery-adjacent conditions.

You are right about the retail aspect. The men's stores of yesteryear are almost all gone, and even places like Sears can't stay afloat trying to sell appliances, electronics, tools, etc., in a physical store.
 

dieworkwear

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Yes, which I think I acknowledged. We're able to purchase more things because they can be made very cheaply, be shipped here on a giant ship, and still cost way less than what they'd cost if we made them ourselves to a higher standard as we did before. Closets are bursting with cheaply made Asian garments that cost pennies to produce. As purchasing power declined, people were less willing/able to pay for things made by what we'd call craftspeople (like tailors) and not produced in factories under slavery-adjacent conditions.

You are right about the retail aspect. The men's stores of yesteryear are almost all gone, and even places like Sears can't stay afloat trying to sell appliances, electronics, tools, etc., in a physical store.
Personally think it's an overly broad characterization to say that everything made domestic was high end and everything made abroad is low-end and produced in sweatshop conditions. But that's another story.

But I agree that globalization has allowed people to purchase more things and that competition has lowered prices.
 

BPL Esq

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Personally think it's an overly broad characterization to say that everything made domestic was high end and everything made abroad is low-end and produced in sweatshop conditions. But that's another story.
I didn't intend to give the impression that I believed that. If I did, my apologies. Certainly, there was (and is) a range in quality of domestic products, from bad to excellent. I think it's fair to say that the average MiUSA product was (and is) higher quality than the average product made in China, the average English leather shoe is of higher quality than the average Bangladeshi leather shoe, etc., but that's certainly not to say that you can't find high quality items made in those places. Similarly, I'm sure there are factories in East Asia that are very nice and rewarding places to work, and there are places here that are pretty miserable workplaces (relatively speaking).
 

standaloneprotein

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There really isn’t any evidence to support this statement, but there is plentiful evidence to the contrary.

An excerpt from WHO data on physical activity, including changes over the past 20 years:
  • More than a quarter of the world’s adult population (1.4 billion adults) are insufficiently active
  • Worldwide, around 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men do not do enough physical activity to stay healthy.
  • Levels of inactivity are twice as high in high-income countries compared to low-income countries,
  • There has been no improvement in global levels of physical activity since 2001
  • Insufficient activity increased by 5% (from 31.6% to 36.8%) in high-income countries between 2001 and 2016.
A wealth of information about the health benefits of physical activity unfortunately doesn’t translate into actual physical activity.

Again, it doesn’t detract from your broader question about changes in clothing quality over time, but it’s not a position worth defending.
I think one reason men and women (insert any people-kind gender here) don't do enough physical activity could be related to job automation (work landscape in general) but there is certainly more awareness about the matter than 20 years ago.

I remember having to keep copies of patient's documents: I had to print the copy, grab the document, label it, store it and send it to Iron Mountain. Now I just click a button :)
 
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ntempleman

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There’s less customer awareness for a lot of things today, so there’s less need for manufacturers to buy the difficult, niche materials. When someone’s buying a handbag they know Hermes make a good one right, the Kelly is nice. Not many people buying them know exactly why beyond the marketing blurb. You might prefer those Louis Vuitton ones with the checkerboard pattern, that’s another good handbag, expensive. Except those ones aren’t actually leather, they just look like it. Who cares though right, it’s a handbag, it looks good, everyone sees you carrying it and know you spent a lot of cash on it
 

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