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Fashion in the Fast Lane

clothing in a store

I hope you are not disappointed to learn this present-day fact of the clothing industry: not all apparel designers and manufacturers genuinely care about your exquisite sense of style. In fact, many care solely about your wallet—and they want what is in it.

The mindset of today’s fashion industry has reshaped the way we perceive fashion, the way we shop, our options for clothing purchases, and in fact, our whole clothing culture. The term “fast fashion” is used to describe the quickly manufactured, cheap clothing created by mass-market retailers.

Once upon a time, with each new season, fashionistas flocked to fashion shows in New York, Paris, and Milan to be the first to see avant-garde fabrics, colors, and silhouettes. The majority of us waited for our favorite fashion magazine to arrive in snail mail before getting a glimpse of the newest trends.

Now, thanks to the Internet, we have immediate access to new runway fashions, and many of us want to be the first lady on the block seen wearing those hot new designs.

To accommodate our desires (and their bank accounts) imitations of catwalk designs are hurriedly mass produced. In an effort to produce these garments as swiftly as possible, shortcuts are taken. In an effort to produce them as cheaply as possible, poor quality materials are used.

The low-quality, poorly constructed garments are then quickly shipped to stores to sell to the mass market while images of skinny, sexy models are fresh on consumer’s minds.

Fast-fashion chain stores receive new shipments each week, some several times each week, and they need to sell their inventory as quickly as possible. To meet their goals, they conspire to convince consumers that the blouse purchased last week is already out-of-fashion and needs to be replaced.

If that strategy doesn’t work, their next tactic will. The cheaply made clothing is literally designed to fall apart, often within one or two washings. This makes it necessary to buy more clothing . . . which will fall apart, or pill, or tear . . . making it necessary to buy more clothing . . . and so the circle of cheap fashion continues.

While fast fashion may seem frivolous, it doesn’t appear to be detrimental—until you learn a few facts. To begin, these low-quality garments are typically worn less than five times and only kept for one month before they are discarded.

The average American contributes over 60 pounds of clothing to landfills each year. Many of the fabrics used to make these clothes are petroleum-based polyester, acrylic, spandex, and nylon which take hundreds of years to decompose.

Cotton can be a wise fabric choice but you must be a savvy shopper to discern high quality from low quality. Every cotton boll contains approximately 250,000 cotton fibers or staples. Short cotton staples are 1 1/8 inches long, long staples are 1 1/4 inches long, and extra-long staples are 2 inches long.

This small difference in length makes a big difference in the softness, durability, and strength of cotton products; the longer the staple, the higher the quality. Cheap clothing uses the less expensive short cotton staple making it susceptible to quickly pill, tear, and lose its shape.

Cotton plants also require large amounts of water and pesticides in order to produce the abundance of cotton necessary to make enormous amounts of clothing. The negative environmental impact of fast fashion affects our water, air, and land.

This fast-paced industry employees workers, mostly women, who are often paid extremely low wages and work in degrading environments. Their poor working conditions may not equal the NYC Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 where 146 workers died, but it’s sad to think that after 108 years, garment workers are still not valued.

Jerseys and other elasticized materials are the fabrics of choice for fast fashion because the garments easily stretch to fit more shapes and sizes. These “one-size-fits-most” styles often require fewer design pieces frequently consisting of only a front, back, and maybe a sleeve.

Sewing two or three simple pieces together can be done quickly and cheaply. These stretchy, knitted fabrics don’t always require hemming to keep the edges from unraveling—saving the designer time in construction, and money in thread.

This ultracasual style influences our society in ways not immediately obvious. The term “enclothed cognition,” addresses the influence our clothing has on how we think, act, and are treated. It’s been observed that we actually take on the characteristics of our clothing, which affects our demeanor, mindset, and success. All too often, the lackadaisical, don’t-care attitude about clothing transfers into a don’t-care attitude about work ethics, dignity, and life.

“Slow fashion” is a new movement in which garments are designed and created for quality and longevity. The emphasis is quality over quantity. Slow fashion advocates a smaller carbon footprint, a clean environment, and fairness to both workers and consumers. Most slow fashion fabrics are natural fibers of cotton, linen, wool, cashmere, silk, and rayon.*

To recognize quality clothing, look for finished seams and small, strong stitches that aren’t loose and don’t unravel, pucker, or pull apart. Clothing constructed with darts, tucks, and pleats indicate a design that doesn’t aim for the one-size-fits-all mass market.

women looking at clothes

Metal zippers will last longer than plastic zippers. When extra thread and buttons are included with a garment, you know the designer expects the piece to last longer than two wearings. Buttonholes should be neat with no loose threads. Buttons should be sewn on securely, slide into the buttonhole easily, and remain there without unintentionally slipping out.

Patterns such as checks or stripes should line up at the seam. Attention to detail can be found in quality garments.

Woven fabric is created with threads interlaced in lengthwise and crosswise directions. When garments are cut out correctly, they are cut “on-grain” meaning the straight line of the threads are lined up with the straight lines of the garment pieces. When a garment pattern is laid on the fabric crooked, it will be cut “off-grain.”

If you have ever owned a pair of pants where a pant leg kept twisting around your leg despite your repeatedly straightening it out, you bought a garment that was cut off-grain. In the push to mass produce, attentiveness is not always taken to cut out the clothing pieces correctly. Another short cut is that pant legs and sleeves are often cut just a bit too short. When shopping for quality, look for clothing that hangs straight on your body with adequate lengths.

I’m a passionate supporter of home sewing. I believe we made a big mistake when home economics was removed from high school curriculums. Many adults now don’t know how to hem a pair of pants or sew on a button.

Fortunately, these skills are making a comeback. Hobby stores and quilt shops are influencing a new generation by offering classes that teach basic sewing skills. With this skill set, you can choose quality fabrics and create your own slow fashion designs.

Learning to appreciate the process of cutting fabric, measuring carefully, pressing seams, and sewing straight stitches will not only give you quality clothing, you will have garments you can be proud of, all while expressing your unique style.

You may have noticed that your clothes don’t seem to last as long as they did just a few years ago. Now you know why. I like fast fashion as much as I like fast food, which is not at all.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of buying clothes you don’t need because they are often so cheaply priced. Whether you buy your clothing, or you buy fabric to make your clothing, it just makes sense to buy high quality, keep your items longer, and in the long run buy less.

Choosing well-made clothing is an investment in your appearance, bank account, and our planet. Why wear clothing designed to fall apart? Slow fashion is smart fashion.

*Rayon is manufactured from wood pulp and not considered to be a synthetic.


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