Thoughts on Why We Don’t Understand Quality

This I Wear | Why We Don't Understand Quality

Your mother may have had a sewing machine; but if she didn’t, her mother definitely did. It wasn’t that long ago that home economics classes still existed in schools and sewing your own formal dress for your high school dance was the norm.

But today, the only peers I know with sewing machines went to fashion school, and even they complain of their poor sewing skills. However, they have one up on the rest of us, because regardless of their ability to sew a suit from scratch, they can tell a quality garment from one of lesser quality. They’ve seen and touched it firsthand.

The majority of us have no idea what quality looks or feels like in clothes. I think I audibly sighed when reading a section in “Overdressed” when a young woman touched a dress from Forever 21 and said the fabric felt nice. This is not a good sign.

To me, this is the equivalent of kids not knowing that oranges grow on trees and potatoes grow in the ground. It is the equivalent of eating Taco Bell and thinking you’ve experienced real Mexican food.

We are totally and utterly separated from where our clothes come from. And many of us are only slightly aware of this ignorance.

And because of this, in just the last few decades as the vast majority of sewing jobs moved overseas and fabric stores shuttered in our local communities as demand plummeted, we don’t know how our clothes are made.

And just to clarify, we don’t know where the fiber comes from (the farm vs. the lab), how the fabric is made, and how (and by whom) the clothes themselves are constructed. Though to give us some credit, the system is so complicated that many in the industry might not be able to tell you either.

This is a problem for many reasons, but namely that (1) we are buying cheap poorly made clothes because we don’t know better and (2) we won’t pay higher prices for quality clothes because we can’t understand the skill and better materials that make them more expensive now but guarantee that they will last and fit us well.

So how do we start to understand quality?

One reason I personally advocate for “Made in the USA” is that perhaps more local production will help us understand our clothes again. Local production means local skill development. Bring back exposure to sewing skills and the materials that go into a garment, and you bring back understanding of what quality is and how much quality costs. And then maybe consumers will start questioning how a pair of jeans could be $10, and just maybe they’ll start telling companies that poorly made fashion isn’t good enough anymore – whether vocally or through their changed shopping habits.

How can we learn the difference between cotton and polyester or how to tell the strength of a seam? In order to change, we need information, and proximity to information is a huge help. Like many of the clothing designers I know, we don’t need to have professional level sewing skills to begin to understand what we buy and wear everyday. But just as urban farms have taught kids that a potato grows in the dirt, bringing back local clothing production to our communities could spark a revival of these skills and a demand for knowledge. And that’s where change can start.

Do you feel like you know where your clothes come from? Share your stories in the comments below or tweet @ThisIWear.

Book Review: You Are What You Wear

This I Wear | Book Review: You Are What You Wear

I realize it is now the middle of September, and I’m just getting through the first book on my summer reading list: Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner’s “You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You.” But better late than never. And well, I have another confession: I made it to page 120…out of 233 pages. So let’s be honest, this is not a full book review, but merely a chance for me to say that given the title and the subject matter (clothing meets psychology), I was extremely excited about this book. In fact, I thought this might even solve some of my own wardrobe dilemmas or help me to understand those of others so I could be more helpful. But the excitement was short-lived.

Here’s where I totally agree with Dr. Baumgartner: Our closets reveal a lot about who we are, for better or worse. After reading on page one that she believes “clothing is an extension of who we are,” I thought we were going to be best friends as we obviously think alike.

In each of the chapters, Dr. Baumgartner focuses on a case study of a “closet therapy” client whom she helped to dig deeper into personal issues that were revealed through wardrobe shortcomings. From the woman who spends beyond her means and doesn’t wear the nice things she buys to the women who reveal too much or cover up entirely to hide themselves, the case studies are of real women with real issues. And it’s pretty clear that they are wearing their weaknesses.

The chapter that may most closely resemble my own problems might be the “Somnambulist” chapter, but as I am anything but bored with my life (only my clothes), even that example didn’t make sense for me. Yet it was enough that I started to wonder what story I’ve been telling lately with my clothing choices. Probably tired. Maybe confused or in transition.

But I totally lost interest in the author’s theories as her strategies for overcoming these closet (and personal) ills became apparent. I am possibly exaggerating but chapter after chapter, I felt like she kept encouraging her clients to throw out everything (where are the strategies for donating or making sure your clothes are given away responsibly?) and continually shop! At a certain point, though she wasn’t advocating for indulging in trends, all I heard was shopping, shopping, shopping.

I wanted it to be more personal. And going to the mall doesn’t feel personal anymore.

So while the book was made up of a fantastic introduction followed by a disappointing episode of “What Not To Wear” hosted by a therapist, I had hoped it would be something different. I wanted her to pull out the personalities of the people she focused on. To Sarah with the stagnated life and wardrobe, I didn’t want her wardrobe just to be freshened up so she could create space for new things to happen in her life. I wanted her wardrobe to become a biography of sorts (“I’m Sarah. I’m from Vermont and I like book clubs.” Or whatever she’s into…). I wanted to learn how to share the positive stories of who we are through our wardrobes.

To wrap things up, I don’t know that I’m recommending you read the book, though there is definite value in the overall theory as well as the “Wardrobe Analysis” section that helps each reader look at her own closet with new perspective.

But that said, it has inspired me to ask myself how the person I want to become would dress – a good question for anyone similarly going through a big transition. Why? Because we truly do get to decide what story is told through our clothes, and that is where me and Dr. Baumgartner are on the same page.

Find yourself telling an unintentional story with what you’re wearing? Comment below or tweet @ThisIWear to share your story.

Another Day, Another Closet Clean

This I Wear | Another Day, Another Closet Clean
The wait is over. Two weeks ago, I picked up 12 boxes – all of my belongings that have been patiently waiting in storage for me – to move and unpack in my new lovely apartment with an unheard of walk-in closet. Three of these boxes, plus the one suitcase I’ve been living out of, were filled with clothes. The last time these things hung in my closet range from 11 to 20 months ago!

Here was the ultimate test: do I really need THAT much clothing? And secondly, did I ever really need those clothes in the first place? And finally, how do I have any clothes left after all of the closet cleanings I’ve done over the last two years?

Looking at the boxes, I felt a little quiver of disgust. I let the boxes sit there, opened and overflowing, for days as I was overcome by exhaustion just at the sight of them. On the other hand, unpacking my suitcase – the relatively small amount of clothes that I’ve successfully lived in for the past four to eight months – was easy. I quickly hung them up on hangers in the closet, happy to continue wearing these pieces daily.

My boyfriend, clearly a minimalist at heart, urged me to get rid of all the boxes. “Don’t even go through them,” he said. But I was truly delighted to be reunited with some of the pieces.

Others elicited more unexpected, and more irrational, reactions. The Zara blouse that I’m in one too many Facebook photos wearing is the victim of a noticeable laundry error; and though I’m slightly embarrassed to wear it, whenever I try it on to re-determine its fate, I can’t help but feel pretty cute in it. Dilemma! And all of the worn-down, hole-ridden tank tops, knit dresses, and other “can’t-wear-it-outside” wear from Forever21, H&M, and Gap suddenly felt precious; I no longer shop at those stores, and so I know there will be no replacements for these items. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. I certainly didn’t miss these pieces, but I feel simultaneously foolish nostalgia for them and a responsibility, since I know they are headed for the rag pile at the textile recycling center, never to be worn in their current state again after they leave my care.

Of the three boxes that came into the apartment, already one full box is ready to go back out. I still have a stack of “maybe” clothes that I’m not sure what to do with yet. And I would still feel more comfortable if half of my “toss out” pile went to friends (perhaps a swap party is on the horizon?).

All of this ties into changes of who I am – clothing size-wise, but also where I am in my life – not just the major changes I’ve committed to when it comes to shopping. In some ways, the change is natural: I don’t want a lot but instead want fewer pieces of higher quality (isn’t this what every late 20-something says?). But it is bringing up issues of my current style identity crisis: what DO I feel comfortable wearing these days? How can I only wear things that make me feel like my best self? What story am I telling about myself with what I wear? (Questions that led to an intentionally hidden Pinterest board as I tried to collect what I think I would like to wear – call it my closeted “Closet Crisis”?)

Is anyone else feeling this way? Raise your hand if you’re in your mid 20s to early 30s, hate your closet, but can’t figure things out enough to know how to move forward with your style while applying your shopping values (whether of ethics or even of quality). Better yet, comment below or tweet @ThisIWear and remind me that I’m not alone in what I’m going to continue to call my #closetcrisis. But now, I guess, the closet door is open.

(And if you too feel this way, you might like Jess Lively’s recent three-part post on creating “an intentional wardrobe.”)

Guest Post on Idealist!

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In my former work life, I spent my days working at nonprofits. But in the last several months, as you can probably hint from my posts, I made the move to a new and exciting job in the field I’ve been interested in for so long: sustainable fashion.

When I’m not writing here, I’m working full-time on the social responsibility team for an international women’s fashion brand. And while my personal and professional interests overlap a lot, I have been trying to keep what I do during my day job and what I write about here as separate as I can.

So, please pardon this brief exception.

I wrote a post on about how I transitioned from the nonprofit to the for-profit world and how I found my current job. It’s a little bit sustainable fashion and a lot a bit career advice. Read the post here.

It took a lot of focus and a lot of letting people think I was being crazy to get to where I am. And since I’ve talked to many other young people interested in similar work or just on the search for a meaningful career, I’m hoping my story is helpful. Please let me know if you like the article, and perhaps I will share more on the topic of careers in Corporate Social Responsibility, particularly in the apparel industry.

Summer Packing 101: A Weekend Getaway in Nashville

This I Wear | Nashville Getaway
Suki Mulberg Altamirano wears many hats (including one very adorable straw one featured below!), but one of her coolest hats is as co-founder of STYLEVISA, which features the perfect home and personal accessories from designers and makers all over the world (I love the “shop by country” feature!). If our closets reveal a lot about us, I figured our suitcases are an even more concentrated story of who we are. I invited Suki to share what’s in her travel bag this summer to learn a little bit more about her style but also to pick up a few packing tips from a seasoned traveler. Below, she highlights her must-haves and gives us a little insight into the stories in her suitcase.

I’m always up for a good road trip, and summer is one of my favorite times of the year to explore new places. Next weekend, I’ll be heading on a quick getaway to Nashville, a city I can’t wait to check out. I’m a big fan of The Black Keys, which initially enticed me to learn more about Nashville’s new wave music scene. Besides heading out for some live music, a few items on my to-do list are exploring Nashville’s diverse neighborhoods and the local arts scene and just enjoying the unique vibe! Here’s a look at what I’m packing, a mixture of easy pieces for laidback summer days and year-round travel staples.

My Trusty Ray-Ban Sunglasses
I’ve had these classic Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses for years and rarely leave home without them. They really do make every outfit look cooler. From carrying them during daily life in New York City, San Francisco and now Louisville to packing them for trips to Mexico City and the beaches of Bermuda, I’m always impressed by how long they’ve lasted!

Quick Fix Sticks for Speedy Solutions
These are from a clever brand, Solutions That Stick, which invents all kinds of fashion first aid products. This fashion tape is great when you’re on the road. It packs flat and has a ton of uses, especially if you’re in a pinch. I use it to mend hemlines, keep shirts in place, fix buttons, hide rips or stop slipping straps.

Artisan-Made Nakate Songa Necklace
I really like how this necklace mixes a bold, ethnic shape with a soft pastel color palette. It’s a new handmade design that we just introduced on STYLEVISA from a brand called Nakate. They connect Ugandan professionals and artisans with women in rural villages, using local talent to cultivate African growth and development. When I wear their designs, it feels special knowing they originated in a small Ugandan village.

Summer-Perfect Straw Fedora Hat
This is my second season with this hat, and I love it! The natural straw material keeps it lightweight, and it cures a bad hair day instantly. I really like using hats year-round because they serve a double purpose: adding a unique style while protecting you from the elements. This fedora is my summer favorite, because it looks great and also provides sun protection – perfect to use while touring Nashville neighborhoods in the warm summer weather.

Lightweight Drapey Shirt
I tend to stick to neutral colors in summer and have an affinity for drapey, feminine shirts. For Nashville, I’m packing this ivory shirt with delicate details that has an artsy vibe reminiscent of the city. I like its simple, natural style and the lightweight fabric is great for keeping cool.

AYRES Beauty Miniatures
My mother started me on the habit of collecting miniature beauty products and saving them for travels. AYRES’ Pampas Sunrise mini body products will be coming with me next week. Their body butter has an amazing texture and a light citrusy aroma with essential oils like lime, mandarin and lemongrass. It puts me in a summer mood.

A Travel-Ready Handmade Leather Journal
I think it’s handy to have a place to jot down favorite spots and things you want to remember to do when you’re on the road. I use this leather journal to keep notes like these and also a list of recommendations I’ve received from friends. I like the rugged look of this leather journal, which is handmade the old fashioned way by experienced leather artisans in Los Angeles.

Suki Mulberg AltamiranoSuki Mulberg Altamirano lives in Louisville, KY. She is co-founder of STYLEVISA (along with her husband Eduardo) and Founder of Lexington PR. When she’s not planning her next trip, she can be found exploring the Louisville food scene, visiting local distilleries on the Bourbon Trail and if the season is right, at a horse race or two! Follow her @STYLEVISA or @SukiMulberg (and on Instagram too). Thanks, Suki!

[Photos by Suki Mulberg Altamirano]

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