I recently read an article saying that millennials are doing less shopping at stores like H&M, and are instead showing a preference for clothes that are well-made and that will last for longer than a few wears. While I don’t see fast fashion giants like Forever 21 toppling anytime soon, it’s certainly welcome news. Often, what is good for our bank accounts is also good for the earth, and cycling through 52 micro-seasons worth of fashion is treacherous to both.
During the last few years, I’ve done significantly less shopping overall, instead focusing on items of quality that will take me through multiple fashion seasons. This means seeking out items that are made of great materials, are constructed well, and most importantly, are designed in a classic style that I won’t hate in just a few months. I’ve gathered together some of my best tips for anyone interested in building a wardrobe of items that they can wear for years to come.
In my opinion, this is the most underrated component of building a wardrobe you love and can wear for years to come. When I think of all of the clothes I’ve gotten rid of over the years, it’s because they were no longer in style, not because they were laden with holes or somehow unwearable. Really, even if you take good care of “poorly made” clothes, they should last for years. When we throw clothes out, it’s usually because we no longer like the way that they look.
To buy items that you’ll like forever, it’s important to mentally separate yourself from what’s trendy and spend some time thinking about what you really, truly like. A good place to start is your own closet. Which items do you pick out to wear over and again? Don’t ignore the stylistic decisions you’ve made up until now, they’re important. If you always find yourself gravitating towards black, build a wardrobe of black sweaters, pants, and shoes. If you love colors, find garments in colors that aren’t trendy (ahem, millennial pink) and that you’ve always loved. Same idea goes for types for clothing, patterns, fit and style, and so on. I have a few simple, silk button-down shirts that have been in my closet for close to a decade and I haven’t tired of them yet!
Try to avoid buying clothes that are aspirational in nature. Don’t buy pants a size too small in hopes that you’ll lose ten pounds. Don’t buy something super trendy or outrageous because you saw a celebrity wear it. Don’t buy something in a style that you wish you could pull off, but that you know just isn’t your best look or is something that in reality you’d rarely attempt to wear. (For me, this is heels to “go out” in. I hate wearing heels and when I buy them, I never end up wearing them.)
Fabrics and Construction
I tend to believe that the overwhelming demand for fast fashion and its dominance in the fashion marketplace is making it harder, especially for younger generations, to know what constitutes a quality garment. This wasn't always the case; clothing used to be made to last. Now, it's meant to be tossed after a handful of wears, which is far from economical for the wearer. Cheaper styles aren't without any purpose, though; they can help you develop that initial sense of style (or take you through a pregnancy). Once you've spent some time developing your own sense of style, it's time to start looking for well-made goods.
First, let's think about fabrics. In general, natural fabrics feel nicer, softer, more breathable, and more durable than synthetic fabrics. If I have the option to buy cotton, wool, leather, or silk, I usually take it. Most of my clothes are made from cotton because it’s comfy, is great to layer, and is by far the easiest fabric to care for. (And I ain't trying to spend my life doing laundry.)
The technology for manmade, synthetic fibers such as acrylic, nylon, rayon, and spandex is certainly getting more advanced and feels and looks better, and some folks might even prefer the way they feel for say, clothing to work or work out in. This will largely be a matter of preference, but be leery how these fabrics hold up over time. Even blends (like a cotton acrylic blend for example) may misshape as the cotton and acrylic fibers will wash, dry, and wear differently over time.
Even within each category of fabric, there will be differences in quality. For example, nicer wool uses a thin but sturdy fiber and is densely made—ultrafine merino wool should be the softest. (Don't buy scratchy wool!! You won't wear it.) Thicker silk will last longer than flimsy silk. Full-grain leather is the best, then top-grain leather and last is bonded leather, which is essentially leather scraps bonded together. Higher quality cashmere is made with longer fibers, which means there are fewer fibers that’ll be poking at you. A 100% cotton garment can be both high and low quality. Within fabric categories you often get what you pay for; better materials do cost more money.
Still, don’t assume you’re getting the best silk because a shirt’s selling for $400. Sometimes, brands sell clothes at a markup simply because their brand is desirable, not because of their superior craftsmanship. The best way to test the quality of a fabric is by touching it. (I learned this tip and many of my clothing quality tips from the fabulous money blogger, The Luxe Strategist.) Stretch the fabric and see if it retains its shape. If it stretches out when you’re just playing around with it, imagine what it will do when you’re actually wearing it. This is also where the construction of a fabric comes in. Look at the seams; it doesn’t take training in clothing design to know what looks like a quick stitch job and what looks like it could last for a hundred wears.
If you're dealing with a natural fabric garment and still unsure of its quality, your final test is to hold it up to the light. Whether a garment is meant to be lightweight or heavy, the fabric should be substantial. A garment that is lightweight can still be densely spun so that light doesn't easily pass through. This is especially important for an article of clothing that is meant to be lightweight but designed for a lot of use, such as a work shirt or a cotton t-shirt.
Additionally, the shape and drape of the piece matters. How does the fabric hang on you when you try it on? If the fabric doesn’t look smooth around the seams or pooches at a weird spot, less effort was taken in the piece’s design and construction. Don’t buy something that doesn’t fall right on your body; you'll be adding another article to your closet that’ll never make it back out. As an example here, I'm reminded of dress shirts for men. More affordable stores (including mid-range stores) will only offer dress shirts in one cut, which is pretty preposterous when you think about all the different bodies out there in the world. A more expensive shirt will offer several cuts or can even be tailored to your body's measurements. This will cost more, of course, but will be absolutely worth it if the shirt makes you feel great and gets more use.
Contrary to what some clothing quality diehards tell you, natural fabrics aren’t a necessity to making clothing last a long time. It’s more a matter of what feels genuinely comfortable on your skin; if it’s not comfortable, you’re not going to want to put it on again and again. Especially when I’m working, I’m constantly reaching for my softest sweaters and comfiest pants.
Getting clothing in a fabric that you really want to wear is important, but I have clothing that’s made in less desirable fabrics that have lasted me a long time. This is because I take good care of them. Now, I wasn’t always this way! I used to toss everything in the dryer no matter what, but after seeing my clothing dismantle quickly, I changed my nefarious ways. Nowadays, I hang dry most everything. If you’re not air drying your clothes, you really should. Some fabrics, like acrylic knit, are best laid flat while drying to retain their shape. Read and respect the instructions on the label for both drying and washing.
I also don’t feel the need to wash my clothes that often, which is good for my clothes, the environment, and my leisure time. A small spot doesn’t mean you have to wash the entire garment. Oftentimes, water works to treat a spot just fine, or I’ll use a Tide pen. I’ll simply rinse the spot under the sink before wearing again. And when I do wash clothes, it’s always according to their instructions. This means dry cleaning or hand-washing more delicate fabrics. (And if you don’t want to dry clean clothes, don’t buy clothes that require dry cleaning.)
Learn some basic sewing skills. Fixing seams, repairing holes, and replacing buttons are skills that every person should know how to do. Even if you need to take a piece of clothing to a tailor for something more complicated, like a zipper replacement, it’s often cheaper than buying a new jacket (and you avoid turning otherwise-good clothing into textile waste).
Taking a little extra time to make your shoes last will likely be worth the cost and effort. For nice leather shoes, invest in a polish and a natural brush. When they get a spot, clean them. Even occasionally wiping with a slightly damp cloth will help keep the dust from cracking the leather. You might even consider taking the shoes to a cobbler and adding thin rubber soles for pretty cheap. You can’t tell they’re there, but it should extend the life of your shoes; leather soles are much more expensive to replace. Suede shoes are kind of high-maintenance, so I don’t own any. With canvas shoes, you shouldn’t throw them in the washing machine; instead, wash them with fabric shampoo and let them air dry. I’m only giving you high-level tips here; investigate proper care and take advice from the maker of the shoe and adhere to their instructions.
Learn your style, avoid impulse buys, buy clothes that meet your own personal standards of quality, and take care of them. You got this! What are your favorite methods for buying and caring for clothing that lasts you for years?
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