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On valuing clothes

I bought this cardigan in the sales. It’s Orla Keily for People Tree, prices £84, reduced from £140 (It’s now down to £70, but that’s my own stupid fault for not waiting). I had to do some major agonising over whether I should get it of not – if you follow me on Twitter you may have been party to some of this. While I completely understand why that cardigan costs what it costs (It’s the usual fair-trade and organic, but most of all handknit. I knit and it would take me literally months to make a jumper), and I appreciate that that price is within many people’s normal spending limits, it is expensive for me. I wouldn’t usually spend that much on one item, let alone a cardie. But I did in the end. I had been eyeing it up for ages when it was full price and there was some pretty hardcore enabling going on from Dave as well as the ladies of the internet.

But what I thought was quite interesting was that lots of people said to me: ‘get it if you really like it, you’ll wear it lots’ or even just ‘You’ll wear it lots’. To which my truthful response was, well, maybe I’ll wear it lots, maybe I won’t. I can’t completely know that until I actually have it.

This got me thinking more widely about why we value particular clothes. Kate Fletcher, an academic who writes about sustainability in fashion argues that this is the way out of the fast fashion mess we’re in – clothes must mean something to people and we have to value them and have an emotional investment in them. And I like that idea.

In Lucy Siegle’s To Die For (I promise that is the last post I will talk about a book that no one except me has read) she goes on about buying a very expensive item of clothing – I can’t quite remember what it was, but it was several hundred pounds, and it was wool, maybe it was a cardigan too – but it was fine because she would value it and wear it for years and decades and care for it. And actually it was sort of implied that she’ll value it more because it’s expensive. But as ever, I think it’s a bit more complex than that.

Here’s a list of things why you might value an item of clothing:

  • It was expensive. If you had to think about it for a long time and/or save up to buy it, you must have known you really liked it
  • It was cheap. There’s a pride in getting something dirt cheap and making it shine
  • You bought it at a particular time in your life and it reminds you of that time
  • It was inherited and reminds you of the previous owner
  • It goes with everything and is ‘classic’
  • It’s really out there and noticeable and represents your personality
  • It’s really good quality
  • You made it
  • It’s handmade

And loads of other reasons, probably!

For me, it changes. There’s really cheap stuff I love, there’s expensive stuff I love, there’s old, there’s new, with history and without. Some things I’ve made I really value, but in other cases the fact that I’ve made them makes me almost value them less because I can always make another one easily. Overall, I’d probably say that whether I value something depends more on how the thing looks now than anything to do with where it came from, but there are always exceptions.

Thinking about what actual items I value most, I came up with these two, very different dresses:

favourite dresses

1950s day dress

I bought this in 2009 in an Edinburgh vintage shop. I recall the label said 50s day dress, which made me wonder if people really wore this kind of thing to do the hoovering. I remember it being quite expensive at the time (£50, which seems reasonable now). I love it because it fits so well, because of the quality of both the fabric and the finishing and because it’s dressy without being too fancy (it’s cotton). I don’t wear it much, mainly I’ve worn it to weddings and special nights out, but it immediately sprang to mind when I thought of my most valued clothes.

Shirt dress

This is from H&M, I bought it probably around 2002 for maybe 20 Euros while home in Luxembourg. I remember my sister saying that it was the kind of thing many Turkish girls in her college class would wear, but with trousers underneath. The reason I value it is because it’s easy to care for and very versatile. I wear it to work a lot. Every two months or I run training courses for work, and I’ll often wear this dress. It feels formal enough (shirt collar, tame colour), but still quite accessible and not too dressed up. It fits in anywhere and makes me feel just a little bit more confident.

Even just those two things are so different that it makes me realise that I can’t predict these things in advance. What makes you value clothes?

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  • Kristen 23 January 2012, 11:41 am

    This is very true. I have an Old Navy polka-dot dress that I will never get rid of. It was, I’m sure, not the most ethically-made garment, but the fact that I have had it for 5 years, wear it on a weekly basis, and cannot envision ever getting rid of it gives it just as much meaning and value to the garments I hand-knit or sew.
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  • Leia 23 January 2012, 12:53 pm

    This really made me think! I don’t know what makes me value clothes… I think their versatility and comfort top my list.
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  • jonas 23 January 2012, 1:33 pm

    Great post! The items I value most are the ones I have a personal connection to (made by somebody I know) and/or the ones that are made from quality fabrics. This is especially true if both items are satisfied. I bought a hat this year at the one of a kind show from http://wildhagenwear.com/. The hats are made by a local shop from local wool. I have worn it almost everyday since I bought it.

  • poet 23 January 2012, 5:05 pm

    Absolutely! This is actually a bit of a problem for me: Almost anything I own is deeply meaningful because I either made it, or refashioned it, or at least inherited it (sometimes both of the latter)… or I got it as an absolute bargain which means, guess what, that I’m very proud of it. So I can’t throw anything away – but I will eventually have to because I don’t have that much closet space!
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  • poet 23 January 2012, 5:07 pm

    PS: I just read on your twitter that you are looking for a free & mac-compatible photo editing software. I use Gimp (it carried over from my Linux days) – it does all of the things you mention pretty well, though it may take time getting used to the controls. http://www.gimp.org/macintosh/
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  • Scruffybadger 23 January 2012, 6:49 pm

    Hi Franca
    It was so lovely to meet you & I love your use of colour! Perfect. I’ve been peeping around your blog & it is such a lovely read with some amazing pictures. This post is interesting too & it’s nice to take a step out to work out something’s real value (for money). I’m sitting here in a cardigan I bought reduced but still far more than I’d normally spend & in the three years I’ve had it, it gets worn so much & with so many different things it has really paid for its keep. Interesting!

  • jesse.anne.o 23 January 2012, 7:45 pm

    I think it’s easy to see what I value after I’ve already owned the item. Like you, there are some special vintage pieces that are not daily wear and then the uniform/easy wear items that fulfill a specific role (also typically “comfortable and appropriate for presenting to groups”). There are items where the fit is great and it’s a staple, or it carries a look I like better than other items I have (a studded t-shirt comes to mind).

    What is most enigmatic to me is how to discern this before buying. There never seems to be a good rhyme or reason and I seem to need the “experience” of having the item over time before I can make this call. Which is really unfortunate – it’d save me a lot of heartache in the long run to know I am only buying things I love.
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  • jesse.anne.o 23 January 2012, 7:46 pm

    Also, I meant to mention that I think this is a great topic and thanks for posting! I struggle with this and I appreciate seeing your thoughts on it and reading the other comments, too.
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  • Kimberlee 23 January 2012, 10:39 pm

    Oh man I was pretty bad at buying overhauls of stuff at H&M but when you’re broke in college, you don’t have many options. I would definitely love a piece that’s been passed down and has some significant meaning but a) it’s hard to know the story and b) I don’t have anything passed down in my family. So clothes for me now are more if they make me feel good or provide some kind of function (like sweaters keeping me warm in the winter). Yes I’ll occasionally buy a “fast” fashion piece from H&M just to wear a trend that’s more in my price range before investing. I also love a piece because I saved up my money to pay for it, it might seem silly or trivial but I like knowing that I bought myself something of quality. Now I need to save up for a Birkin 😉
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  • Terri 24 January 2012, 1:08 am

    My most valuable clothes are pieces that I’ve inherited. I don’t even wear them most of the time–I just sniff them for the essence of the departed person! Weird? Price is actually fairly meaningless to me in terms of value. Fit and versatility tend to make the pieces most valuable to me.

    I fear that if I had too many higher-end things I would think them so special that I would rarely wear them.
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  • Sara 24 January 2012, 1:19 am

    This was a really cool post! I know that I bought a lot of clothes when I first started blogging, and two of my favorite items are from that time in my life. A dress from Forever 21 that was pretty cheap, and a really cheap vintage top I thrifted. I love how both fit me, and I do love that they were so cheap. I think you are right and we do sort of make ourselves love something and want to wear it more if we are lusting after it.
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  • Anne @ The Frump Factor 24 January 2012, 3:07 am

    You are so right when you say that you never know how much you’ll value something until you start wearing it. For me, versatility is number 1. If I can wear something a bunch of different ways, that item is gold to me. I also value items that instantly upgrade any outfit. I don’t know a word for that quality, but it is truly a joy when you find it.
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  • Alana Mary (@MerryAlana) 24 January 2012, 5:00 pm

    I value clothes in a couple of different ways.

    First – if it’s something expensive, before I buy it I think about how often I will likely wear it, basically breaking it down to a cost per wear. If it’s something I’m going to wear over and over and over again so the cost per wear is less than $1 or $2, then I go for it for sure.

    Second – I have an H&M shirtdress that i ADORE. I’ve worn it probably 100 times since I bought it a few years ago, because it’s simple, black and can be remixed in different ways. It’s valuable because of its versatility. The cost per wear argument doesn’t apply because it was only about $30 to begin with.
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  • Sunjo 24 January 2012, 6:37 pm

    I love that 50’s dress! You look so cute in it. Pretty much anything vintage and 50’s is wardrobe favorite for me 🙂

  • Ashe @ Ash in Fashion 24 January 2012, 10:43 pm

    This is really hard, because when I think of clothes I value, I can’t think of many that I currently can wear. Many of the ones I value are Trashy Diva dresses, which may be to small. The reason I value them is for the quality, fit–and especially the way that they make me feel. I don’t have many pieces I wear actively now that re-create that feeling…
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  • madam0wl 25 January 2012, 9:43 pm

    Expensive clothing holds little to no value for me at all, unless say, it was a custom piece or extremely high quality. I own neither of those, and have very few pieces of clothing that cost more that $20, but much of my wardrobe holds a ton of sentimental value. The vintage pieces, even ones that only get worn once or twice a year, would definitely be hard to lose, especially those passed down from my grandma.

    Then there are several pieces that fall under the “cheap thrifted score” variety, either vintage that fits me but also has resale value, or modern wardrobe classics, like tall black boots.

    I’m starting my 5th year of not buying any newly manufactured clothes, but I do sometimes thrift more recent mass produced items that catch my fancy, either due to color or comfort. I place very little value on those pieces, however they have ended up getting worn frequently (caramel colored Levi’s boot cut low rise corduroy pants are a new favorite). Plus I have always liked the concept of “today’s trendy pieces are the future’s vintage pieces” – so it is likely I’ll hang on to a few canvas sneakers, printed hoodies and logo t-shirts- for sentimental and “investment” reasons.

    All that said, I really need to weed out my clothes, and am going to have to face the harsh truth of letting go of things with sentimental value. And giving up on vintage pieces that I might have thought had resale value, but just aren’t selling.
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  • Andi B. Goode 26 January 2012, 3:05 am

    What makes me value clothes? That’s a very interesting and thought provoking question. I think I might be more precious or delicate with some of my expensive clothes…but I don’t think I value them more. Sometimes I think I resent them for having cost so much! Yet, there was still part of me that felt I needed that particular item (I’m finding this especially with vintage, right now – it’s becoming less and less accessible for me as prices get higher…the pieces I can afford tend to be very ordinary or in not particularly good condition) and so I bought it. Maybe my resentment is tied up in the guilt I feel whenever I buy anything (fairly certain this is related to being, for lack of a better word, poor) but I haven’t thought too deeply about it. I definitely value vintage & secondhand items far more than new and the cheaper ones even more. It’s the thrill of the hunt and the feeling of accomplishment and pride at being able to find something so special and, even better, at a low cost!

    I should probably say that expensive for me is probably anything over $80AU because I’m on a very low income and the most expensive pieces in my wardrobe wouldn’t be anywhere over $160AU, if that. There are definitely some dresses that were right near that price that I just can’t part with (even though they no longer fit me) because they’re so unique and beautiful.

    I’m not sure how to wrap up my comment but this has definitely made me think!

    -Andi x
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  • Style Eyes 26 January 2012, 7:35 am

    Another great post on sustainable fashion. I have made so many mistakes with what i buy in the past, that now I am really careful to buy only what I think I will really value and wear. If the fit or the fabric isn’t quite right, it has to go back. I agree though it is the attitude to clothes (and many other items) as throw away items that causes the sustainability problem.

    I have the same problem with sales. If I like something I will usually just go and buy it for fear of it selling out. Often it is then reduced the following week. I love that People Tree collection.
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  • Samantha 27 January 2012, 2:11 am

    I love that you have really thought about what you are writing- so many blogs just spout crap for the sake of it! Really clever writing.
    Also, I am all for having a small wardrobe with lots of versatile pieces that won’t fall apart. I hate shopping at stores that churn out synthetic garbage calling it fashion!
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  • The Waves 27 January 2012, 9:52 pm

    I don’t know how I missed this post earlier in the week – luckily Sal provided a link for it! 🙂

    Anyway, I am so with you on this topic! I keep trying to figure out how to invest in my wardrobe – and by investing I mean not spending a lot, but just buying clothes that I will end up wearing. For me, that’s where the value is: wearability. If something is really expensive, I am more likely to “save it” (ie not wear it much, which is stupid), but then again, if I have to spend money on something, I usually make sure that the fit is right and that the item works for me. So who knows if there is a golden rule to all of this, maybe there isn’t. Maybe it’s all hit and miss.
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  • Courtney 28 January 2012, 12:50 am

    What a great post! I find on fashion blogs it’s not often you see people thinking of the worth of their clothes {except the price tag}.
    I have read Segal’s book as well and I think your onto something. I think if people only purchased clothes that meant something to them then we would stop spending all our hard earned cash on cheap clothing.
    Ha, I have had my little rant now. Thanks for the post!
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  • lyn 29 January 2012, 5:15 am

    There’s a store I’ve stopped shopping at because I realized although I often fine great deals on nice clothing, I don’t become attached to those clothes they make (even if it is a $50 shirt for $9.95). I don’t know why, but I now buy very little there.

    I find that when I use the ‘it’s a great deal’ reason I’m less likely to fall in love with it. Sentimental is the #1 reason I use for my all time favourites. But there are some things I stop wearing because of the memories they bring.

    Such an interesting post! Really has me thinking about what makes each item significant to me. I’d add ‘clothes you love so much you bought multiples’ (I hope I’m not the only one who does this!).

    Gorgeous cardigan. I hope you wear it lots!

  • Carol 29 January 2012, 5:27 am

    Awesome! The clothes I value the most are the ones that fit well, make me look great, and fabric or quality of how it was made. Price probably plays in there somewhere too. Thanks for this well thought out and researched post. I must now go and check out that book you referenced. Thanks! I came in via the Links a la Mode.
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  • sarah 29 January 2012, 6:23 am

    what an interesting question, Franca! It’s funny, as I started to think about an answer, I realized that I don’t think that I consider much of my wardrobe in terms of “value,” except in the case of real necessities – I “value” my heavy winter coat – because it fulfills an absolutely necessary function of keeping me warm and dry while also looking fab (I think I consider this a luxury, when it comes to heavy winter coats) and my knockabout everyday blush-pink brogues because I need shoes that I can wear on an everyday basis, that not only are sturdy for all my long walks, but which also feel very “me” and which I will never feel awkward wearing (even if they don’t really go with my outfit that day).

    But value is such an economically-laden term that I don’t think I can really apply it to the rest of my wardrobe and come up with an answer. Part of that is probably because I consider my wardrobe a luxury – and maybe a little frivolous, in that it’s quite a bit larger than I absolutely need – and because I’ve always been a bargain hunter: even when shopping at expensive shops like anthropologie, I am on the hunt for a $20 (USD) dress or a $40 pair of lined wool trousers, and since I’ve gained weight, I’ve been even more loathe to invest, so I’ve been culling the racks at our local thrift shop for $6 skirts and $10 coats.

    As a rule, I don’t buy fast fashion, and I always check construction (looking for well-made pieces), care (I have to be able to machine or hand-wash it) and fabric content (natural fibers only) before purchasing – but you’re right, you can never know which pieces will become the absolute staples until you’ve lived with them for a while. And do you find that those staples shift every few years? I sure do. I will say that now, in my 30s, I’m seeing the looks I loved as a 1990s teenager coming back into vogue and it’s giving me a bit of a better idea about which pieces I really will wear the most (which is probably how I translate value), which silhouettes I’ve consistently favoured in the last 15 years – and I think that’s very useful.
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  • sarah 29 January 2012, 6:36 am

    oh, and Franca – I’m reading your sustainable fashion posts now and really enjoying them. I have a book recommendation for you – it’s not about fashion, per se, but it’s about capitalism and reenvisioning capitalism so that the drive for consumption is less destructive to the natural environment. It’s called “Cradle to Cradle,” and I must confess, I haven’t read it yet myself – my husband read it as part of an architecture design studio when he was in graduate school; the principles contained therein were part of the final designs of sustainable houses that the students had to dream up. Just in case you want to add it to your list. I think there are bigger problems with capitalism, myself, and I do *not* believe that people are inherently greedy/acquisitive (I think this is an interpellation of a particular capitalist-friendly cultural ideology, to bring Althusser into it – check out his piece “ideology” if you are interested, and I’ll leave off the academic theory stuff now), but if we ARE going to remain in this capitalist mode of economics, I do believe that any efforts made to turn consumption into a less destructive process are probably a good thing!
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  • Shophopper 2 February 2012, 4:09 pm

    Hey Franca, I discovered your post through Links à la Mode and am enthralled to read it. I recently read Lucy Siegle’s book as well, and it completely changed the way I think about fashion, style and shopping. I’m determined to spend more money on less items, and pay attention to both ecological and social consequences of my spending habits. How I value my clothes really depends. As you indicated, there is a plethora of reasons to grow emotionally attached to them. I think the clothes I value most are the ones that make me feel like they were worth what I paid for them. I bought one of my favorite dresses for 2 euros in a vintage shop sale, and I love it and wear it all the time. I also have a silk shirt from Surface To Air, found on ebay for $150, that I rarely wear, but I still value it because of its intrinsic beauty and originality. On the other hand, I have some items that cost me quite a bit of money, but started falling apart the moment I started wearing them. Even though they’re beautiful, I don’t value them all that much, because I feel let down by their quality.

    So I guess it all depends on the way we buy our clothes, and what exactly we expect from them. (I wrote a tongue in cheek bit about that here: http://theshophopper.blogspot.com/2011/11/how-we-fall-in-love-with-clothes.html)

    Anyway, I am very glad to have found your blog and instantly added you on bloglovin. I think I have an article that will interest you in relation to what you write about Kate Fletcher. Hadn’t heard of her, but I look forward to reading more! I’ll send it to you after reading your sustainability posts. 🙂
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  • Benjina 13 March 2012, 2:12 pm

    I like 50’s dress and vintage dress. It is a value and classic fashion and clothes are really good quality. I LOVE it.
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  • Jill 19 March 2012, 5:09 pm

    Very interesting post – I agree that it is a very difficult thing to estimate the value of a piece pre-purchase. I do find that my mind will linger on an item for quite a while, and I will mourn a missed opportunity if I think for too long and an item sells in my size. Even then, though, I can’t be sure that I would have loved the item in day-to-day life.

    A quick mental recap of my closet tells me that my most valued items (aside from ones my mother wore when she was a young woman that I inherited) are simply ones that make me look fabulous and feel comfortable. Bonus points for unique items that fit this description. I wish I had the foresight to know how valued they are — I should and could have bought multiples of some of these items. Some have been *very* basic – a black t-shirt with the neckline, fit, arm length, and torso length just so. Often they’ve been relatively inexpensive, which makes me kick myself even harder for not putting money on multiples. I’ve been haunting my local RW&Co for a simple sleeveless top that I feel must be destined to make a reappearance some season. I’m now rationing the one that I did buy to make sure it’s not threadbare before I find a suitable replacement.

  • Fruitful 20 March 2012, 9:40 pm

    I love that you posted about this, because I have the same problem – I have to live with the garment for a while to discover my relationship to it. I do try my hardest to buy things that I’ll love and use a lot, but I just don’t know that in advance. Some of the clothes I’ve become most emotionally invested in were bought on impulse while others were planned; some were a few dollars, others were expensive; some were within my style and colour palette while others were outside it.

    My clothes meaning something to me, bringing me closer to my sense of self, and anchoring me in time as well as travelling through it with me – these are my primary style goals.

    I do think having a relatively smaller wardrobe is crucial in giving oneself the chance to get to know and love one’s garments in this way.

  • angie 21 June 2012, 5:03 am

    I’ve been doing slow fashion ,only I didn’t know the term.It’s an idea that I feel so comfortable with since I love clothes but I don’t like the hype and frivolity of fashion industry. I’ve spend 150 euros on a leather bag and that’s the most I’ve ever spend on an item…but it’s the bag that puts a smile on my face everytime I hold (almost everyday)and the one that got me the most compliments.
    So I think it’s about time I saved for just one special item once a year!
    I really like your blog. I’m Greek and although I live in a tourist area in Crete I’ve yet to meet someone from Luxembourg!
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