Though I admire those who have completely sworn off clothing consumption, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t want to stop buying altogether. I like possibility, the playfulness that a wardrobe entails. I enjoy seeing how things come together, both in constructing garments and constructing outfits. Most of the time I’ll play a part in this construction, and sometimes I’ll buy it. Problem is, I live in a culture that treats any level of purchasing restraint as (to be flip about it) “one giant step for man.”
Which is why I think I’ve a lot to learn from purchasing behavior of the 1940s. From the 1950s forward, the landscape of consumption changed, creating a culture that frequently feels inextricable from my own idea of “normal.” I often resist getting mired in the political, what a joykill when it’s so much fun to dream of pretty little dresses!
But when you sew, you can’t ignore how cheap ready-to-wear is. Really, even just the price of the pattern, fabric and notions will often and easily outrank its ready-to-wear counterpart, not even taking into account all the labor. (And sewing is hard!) It was sewing that introduced me to quality, skilled labor, a burgeoning sense of the true value of things.
Before I lose you entirely, here are some examples:
First, a dip into the 1940s. Here are women in the UK getting their stockings painted on their legs during the war years. It doesn’t use any coupons, and by the end of the war, there were hardly any to use at all. The price of a man's coat, as one person put it, could use a whole year's coupons.
- We consume twice as much as we did 50 years ago
- Americans devote 3-4 times the time to shopping then our European counterparts
- Shopping is a primary leisure activity
- Consumers in the US spend more on clothes than any other country
- Since the 1950s, material goods have been increasingly designed for the dump or to fall out of favor within a matter of months
So how do I reconcile this contemporary behavior with the 1940s? I can see that a skirt, say, in the 1940s, may have cost $70 in today’s dollars, but is there a “real” price that takes into account this cultural shift?
As I said in the comments, when I first saw the price thresholds for second-hand during the ration, I thought I’d use them. But the more I thought of my buying behavior and options where I live, I though I’d better have a system in place. Whenever I face a new transition (the seasons, for example), I am full of the desire for new-to-me things.
So I’ll continue to mull it over, but my as-of-now thresholds will be 1/3 of the 1940s threshold. I’ve just ordered the book, per hearthandmade’s suggestion, Sucking Eggs: What Your Wartime Granny Could Teach You About Diet, Thrift and Going Green by Patricia Nicol. And for anyone interested with consumption, check out the convos Zoe’s beginning on So, Zo….
Finally, if you haven’t seen the documentary, The Story of Stuff, I’d highly recommend it. It's the source of many of my points above and is a bit sobering. It's all available online, and here’s the “Consumption” chapter.
I could go on and on (remember my obsessive behavior?), but I’d like to show you some finished objects, so I’m off to sew. :)
But I’d love your thoughts. Do you think we consume more than generations before us? And has this been a boon or a sacrifice or both? And should we care?