Category Archives: Made in USA

2013: Accentuate the Positive: A Year in Ethical Fashion

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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis at a Thrift Shop

 Maybe it’s the New Year’s Eve champagne talking, but I must admit that I feel somewhat hopeful about the direction discussions about fashion and clothing production have taken this past year. For New Year’s, a list seems appropriate. Here are some stories from 2013 that have given me reason to hope that the fashion industry and our own patterns of consumption are changing as we head into 2014.

1. Trendsetter of 2013? Goodwill.  I appreciate Guy Trebay’s insight about the relationship between secondhand shopping and internet culture from his end-of-the-year assessment of pop culture in fashion, “We live in a thrift shop culture, compelled by daily, hourly and constantly refreshed trips to the Goodwill outlet that is the web. There we find all the stuff for assembling the “curated” selves who experts say are the new American trendsetters, D.I.Y. solipsists. Like Macklemore, we repurpose, we mash up, we grab things off the sale rack and try it on for size.” Trebay is referring, of course, to the Thrift Shop by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the music video that celebrates secondhand culture.

Trebay goes onto say, “It was as though, in the past year, beleaguered consumers decided to take back fashion, to follow Macklemore’s lead and scour the cultural sale rack for what’s already hanging around. In the process they rediscovered the durable qualities of Made in U.S.A. labels like Filson and also only-in-America garments like Daisy Dukes.” And what’s great is the more we satisfy the shopping craving with secondhand, the less that goes into the landfill.

Pie chart of country-of-origin of my students' clothing

Pie chart of country-of-origin of my students’ clothing

I observed this tendency of appreciating secondhand and re-discovering clothing made in the USA in the project we conducted in my Introduction to Human Society course of counting our clothing. Here’s a pie chart of the country-of-origin for where my students’ clothing comes from. We weren’t surprised by China (in purple) taking up the largest wedge, but we were surprised that USA (in granny-smith apple green) was the second largest piece of the pie. The reason, we discovered, is that most of us were not participating in the fast fashion trend of impulse purchases and quick disposal. We were holding onto our clothing, including older items that were made in the USA, purchased when retailers like Urban Outfitters had more such options.

2.         Clothing Production Returning to the United States. In 2012, the story that the US. Olympic team uniforms were outsourced made news (for the 2014 Winter Olympics, they will be made in the USA). In 2013, the New York Times has been reporting that at least some clothing production – even if it remains priced at the luxury end – is returning to the U.S.

In fact, here in Minnesota, there are not quite enough trained garment workers to meet the new demand as a wave of sewing jobs pile up at U.S. factories. Why I find this hopeful is not really a matter of patriotism– I’m happy to see clothing production return to wherever its home consumers live. What matters to me is that this should mean clothing is being produced in better working conditions and for higher wages.

3.         Planet Money’s T-Shirt Project.  National Public Radio’s Planet Money produced a short video series that tracked the production of a Planet Money t-shirt from start to finish. The series begins with the harvesting of cotton in Mississippi to the weaving of cotton into fabric to the sewing of the t-shirts in Bangladesh and Columbia to shipping the t-shirts back to the U.S. I found the chapter on those who sew our t-shirts most compelling, and was intrigued to learn that some believe garment industry wages can only go up because Bangladesh is as low as a company can go in trying to attain well-enough-made cheap clothing. Planet Money also reports that no one – not even Bangladeshi workers’ rights advocates – want the garment industry to leave Bangladesh.

4.         H & M commits to more sustainably produced fashion. It’s great that small producers and luxury brands are able to return production to the U.S. But as I noted in The Conscientious Consumer and the Guilty Closet, it’s difficult for most people to have a completely fair-trade closet. That’s why it’s so important that the big brands of fast fashion get on the sustainability path. I’m sure H & M has a long way to go, but I appreciate that they’ve started the journey.

5.         I’ll end with a wish for 2014. My wish is that fashion brands become more accountable to their workers in terms of paying livable wages and requiring them to work in safe conditions, wherever their brands are produced. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that companies are dodging responsibility for their contribution to the fast pace that led to safety concerns being ignored before the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Here in the U.S. there is talk about raising the minimum wage  and providing workers with more livable wages– whether they are those sewing the clothing or those selling it in the malls. My wish for 2014 is a tall one – that higher wages and safer working conditions becomes a reality, worldwide.

Happy New Year!

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Taking A Count of What We Already Have

 

fiber labeled

I’m not a big fan of Black Friday. I’ve never been one to get up in the morning and take part in a shopping frenzy. In fact, I’m not a fan of early morning at all, so perhaps my aversion to Black Friday reveals that I believe retailers should give me expensive electronics and cash to get me out of bed on a holiday weekend before the sun is shining. That still might not be enough of an incentive to leave my cozy warm bed for vicious crowds and over-the-top consumerism.

Here’s what I did instead for Black Friday (after a late brunch, of course). I counted my clothes.

I’m taking part in an assignment I also gave my Intro to Sociology students. We are reading Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The High Cost of Cheap Fashion, where Cline begins her exploration of the fast fashion industry by counting her own clothes that she had accumulated through years of bargain-hunting. She had 354 items of clothing, most of it cheaply-made fast fashion produced in Asia.

In order to not make the clothes-counting task overly burdensome for my students on Thanksgiving weekend, we are only counting our clothes that are currently in circulation – if it’s in a drawer, hanging in a closet, piled on the floor or hiding in a laundry basket, it gets counted. If it’s in a storage bin, it doesn’t get counted. Ditto for underwear, accessories, shoes, scarves, mittens, hats. That means our clothing counts are conservative. Besides just the total count of clothing items, we are also keeping track of what country of origin each item came from, for the sake of appreciating the laborers who made the shirts we wear on our backs. For my own personal interest, I also recorded brand, fiber content, whether I purchased the item locally or from a national retailer, and whether it was vintage or non-vintage.

Part of my motivation for giving this assignment over Thanksgiving weekend is I proposed it could be a fun family activity if my students could convince parents, siblings or cousins to help with the count.  So with my honey filling out an Excel spreadsheet while I went through drawers, closet, and laundry basket, the count began. The results were interesting.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I’ll present my results with pie charts. Pie charts are like little festive Christmas ornaments for sociologists. Feel free to print them, cut them out, and hang them on the tree!

Here is a pie chart illustrating the different types of clothing items in my closet, the grand total of which was 186 items of clothing (and that’s a conservative number, given I didn’t count storage).

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I was curious to see what proportion of my clothes were vintage. I have a passion for vintage, yet my vintage garments have to compete with the many t-shirts, jeans and skirts that form the staples of daily dressing. Indeed, I found that the non-vintage items dominated my wardrobe.

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A breakdown of my closet by brand and/or origin of purchase reveals why non-vintage makes up the largest proportion of my closet (by the way, this would be the prettiest of the festive pie-chart Christmas ornaments if I were judging purely on an aesthetic basis).

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I also checked the proportion of garments I had purchases locally, in non-chain shops. I thought my results were respectable, though non-local purchases did dominate.

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What I found most interesting was the breakdown of my wardrobe by country of origin.

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The largest proportion of my clothes were made in the U.S.A., followed by China, and Scotland (huh, Scotland? Yes, Scotland).This is where my wardrobe tells a story about the U.S. fashion industry that Cline details in her book. The high proportion of USA-made items in my closet mostly comes from garments that were made before 1990. Combined with new clothes I sewed, and a few pairs of USA-made jeans and leggings, this explains the strong showing for USA. Made before 1990 also explains the curious position of Scotland in third place. I live in a cold place, and I have a thing for vintage cashmere sweaters, almost all of which were originally made in Scotland.

But all my new t-shirts with their various sleeve lengths, in a rainbow of  colors, my cheap pants and dresses from various fast fashion retailers were produced in Asia or Latin America. Embedded in this data is a historical story of how the fashion industry moved from being located primarily in the Northern Hemisphere before 1990, to moving into the Southern Hemisphere due to companies outsourcing for the sake of finding cheap labor and lax regulations on working conditions. Recoding country by Northern or Southern  hemisphere in my closet, here’s the proportion:

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I’ll be curious to see what the results of my students are for this same exercise. I am guessing that China and other Asian countries will account for a larger proportion of clothing in their closets. And I am sure it will generate a discussion about the labor conditions in the countries where most of our clothing is produced, as this is an compelling theme in Cline’s Overdressed.

And I also hope that by counting clothes over Thanksgiving weekend, everyone felt thankful for what they had and maybe Black Friday held less enticement than in previous years.

– Nancy L. Fischer

All pie charts created on SPSS by Lars D. Christiansen. Thanks!

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History of Hip: A Recap

History of Hip January 8 2013 prezi opening

On a rather temperate Tuesday night (for January in Saint Paul), the Clown Lounge at the Turf Club was filled with a fashionable audience interested in hearing about vintage clothing. As part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s History of Hip Series, Hayley Bush (owner of Lula Vintage) and I talked about how vintage style became a trend, and how the vintage clothing business has changed over time.  Since the event sold out (thanks to the great publicity from the City Pages A-list and Vita’mn), I thought I’d give a brief recap of a fun and engaging night at the Turf Club.

History of Hip January 8 2013 sold out

We started out the evening by talking about the difference between clothing that is secondhand, vintage and retro.  Although these are categories that overlap in popular usage, there are useful reasons to make distinctions between them. When most people say “secondhand clothing,” they are probably thinking about contemporary clothes (just a few years old) that happened to have been previously used. Vintage garments are a type of secondhand clothing, but they are usually 25 years old or more and have a definite look that suggests, stylistically, an earlier decade. Retro clothing is usually new clothing that looks vintage – like mod dresses with peter pan collars from Mod Cloth or the fab 50s dresses from Bettie Page.

Since this was a history talk, I discussed the history of wearing secondhand clothing and how wearing vintage eventually moves from being a counter-cultural fashion statement to mainstream street style.

Wearing secondhand clothing, of course, goes back centuries. Outdoor flea markets that sell secondhand clothing like Petticoat Lane in London have been around since the 1600s. While the uppermost economic classes shunned the secondhand markets, other classes sought the cast-offs of those in the class above them for the potential higher quality. Like today’s secondhand shopper, most probably sought clothing that was still in style rather than obviously from decades past. Buying secondhand did not necessarily have a stigma attached to it until the late 1800s when ready-to-wear styles were becoming more affordable. This meant that by the 1890s, secondhand clothing was mostly available through charity shops and was associated with poverty. [For a more complete history of the trade in secondhand clothing, see Beverly Lemire’s 1988 article “Consumerism in Preindustrial and Early Industrial England: The Trade in Secondhand Clothes,” in The Journal of British Studies]

The idea that secondhand clothing was only a sign of poverty was challenged in the 1950s, as various subcultural groups started using anachronistic looks to sartorially distinguish themselves and to provide a visual critique of mainstream American consumerist values. The Beatniks of the 1950s and 1960s, the Hippies and Yippies of the 1960s and 1970s and the Punks in the 1970s and 1980s all used clothing that was recognizable from the past, like Hippies’ Edwardian coats or Punks wearing ripped 1950s tulle petticoats as skirts. [See Tove Hermanson’s insightful post “Poverty and Power: Secondhand Clothes as Protest” on her blog Thread for Thought for a more thorough description].

The decades when anachronistic, thrifted looks were associated with protest made me wonder:  When did wearing decades-old secondhand clothing move to the mainstream?

The short answer to my research question is that in the late 1970s, mainstream fashion magazines began to feature photo spreads and small articles about wearing vintage, though they didn’t refer to it as “vintage” in the beginning. The long answer will require a future post!

It was at this point in the evening that I announced that the next phase of my research will involve a survey of vintage clothing wearers about why they wear vintage clothes.  What does it mean to us when we put on a dress that’s 20+ years old? Stay tuned for that – I’ll be posting a link to the survey on this site soon.

Hayley Bush then swung into action, talking about how she entered the vintage clothing business. Lula Vintage, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Hayley talked about how she got started in the vintage retail business and what changes she has seen since Lula opened.

Wearing vintage clothing must have taken a little while to catch on in the Twin Cities. When Hayley first opened, people would come into the store, look around, and ask, “Do people buy things here?” Fortunately, the answer was yes, and Lula became a Twin Cities go-to for vintage apparel.

In terms of trends in the vintage clothing business, Hayley regularly witnesses how television shows and film shape what customers want to see in the store. Downton Abbey and Gangster Squad lead to requests for clothing from the 1920s, and Mad Men for the 1950s and 1960s.

During a lively Q & A, the topic of “heritage wear” and whether the recent interest in high-quality USA-made menswear has a relationship to vintage clothing.

In case you haven’t heard of heritage wear, I think of “heritage wear” as sturdy, classically-styled clothing and footwear made in the United States, like Levi’s Made in the USA line, scarves from Faribault Woolen Mills, or boots from Redwing Shoes. You can spend a pretty penny for contemporary clothing that is made in the U.S., so that means those who like the trend are also seeking the older versions in the vintage shops.  For more information, see my previous post on menswear.

Other changes in the clothing industry are helping vintage remain a trend. Both Hayley and I discussed how the quality of contemporary clothing is changing in terms of whether natural fibers (cotton, wool, silk) are used and whether a garment in constructed in a way that allows for years of use and re-use. When a new shirt has a gap at the seams after a couple of washings or a new winter coat pills after two months, it is an incentive to see what’s “new” at the vintage shop. Thus, there are many reasons that people seek vintage clothes and visit the many great shops like Lula.

Hayley Bush and Nancy Fischer at The History of Hip

Hayley Bush and Nancy Fischer at The History of Hip

I was honored to be with Hayley for 2013’s first installment of the History of Hip series at the Turf Club. A big thanks the Minnesota Historical Society’s Aleah Vinnick for making all the arrangements.

Please check out the next installment of the History of Hip series is “The New Nordic?” featuring food blogger Patrice Johnson and Fika’s Michael Fitzgerald’s (the new restaurant at The American Swedish Institute) talking about the resurgence in popularity of Nordic cuisine. The event is again at the Turf Club on Tuesday Feb. 5 from 7:30 to 9:00pm; purchase the $5 tickets from the MNHS website before they sell out!

By Nancy L. Fischer

Photos by Lars Christiansen

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Made in America: Menswear

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Allen Edmonds brogues with This Humble Abode tie

 

My partner bought new shoes. Approximately every three to five years, he wears out a pair beyond what our local shoe repair shop can fix. And the search begins. As someone who is keenly attuned to labor issues (low pay, sub-par working conditions), the idea of going to the mall and buying the latest styles that were made in China just isn’t his thing.

This time, it is his brogues that have given out and he is taking up the challenge to buy made in the USA. Fortunately, for men, there are a number of choices for high-quality men’s shoes.

A friend recently sent me an article from CNN Living about pop-up menswear markets that feature items that have been made in the U.S. The featured market was NorthernGRADE Chicago – an expansion of our own Twin Cities NorthernGRADE.  The annual market features companies like neck-tie maker Pierrepont Hicks, leather goods by J.W. Hulme, sportswear from Alial Fital and Nonnie Threads which makes both men’s and women’s wear.

As the CNN Living article reports, NorthernGRADE is not the only pop-up market that focuses on American-made menswear. New York has Pop-Up Flea, Boston has American Field and NorthernGrade itself will be having additional pop-ups in Denver, Nashville and Moscow. Here in the Twin Cities, there are also bricks-and-mortar menswear shops that emphasize American-made brands such as Martin Patrick3 in Minneapolis and Black Blue in Saint Paul.

My partner and I attended the first NorthernGRADE market which took place in a Minneapolis antiques / architectural salvage store in Northeast Minneapolis. Not really knowing what to expect, when we walked in, we learned that a prize would be awarded on the basis of how many articles of U.S.-made clothing we were wearing. I remember taking off layers, looking at labels, discreetly trying to find the manufacturer labels in skirts and jeans. It was a fun exercise in raising our consumer consciousness about whether (and how often) we wore American-made clothing on a daily basis. We did respectably on our American-made apparel, but only because we are both vintage shoppers and had on a few garments that were forty+ years old.

What I also remember from that first NorthernGRADE menswear market is that we left empty-handed. Everything on display was beautifully crafted and classically stylish, and correspondingly, pricey.

There’s the rub. U.S-made is relatively expensive. In fact, Made in the USA as a “brand” is associated with luxury. When browsing the shops that feature American menswear, I’ll admit to appreciating a beautifully-made shirt and then looking at the price tag and thinking “Well, that’s out of reach.”

My initial thought as to why this is so was that American-made apparel just cannot compete, price-wise, with that made in China. But then I realized that’s not necessarily the case. The price of an American-made shirt in fact might be comparable to the full-price merchandise sold in stores like J. Crew or Banana Republic.

Full-price is the key phrase here. As Elizabeth Cline asserts in Overdressed, we, as American consumers, have become accustomed to sales and never paying full retail price. And so we regard full retail price as outrageously marked up.  And, in comparison to what the outsourced garment workers were actually paid (as opposed to what they should have been paid), the mark-up may indeed seem unreasonable.

And that logic that a high-priced garment means that we as consumers are somehow being cheated seeps into the evaluation of U.S. made shoes and garments. A friend recently complained that made in the USA seems like a “rip-off.” Yet Made in the USA is not exponentially marked up – the prices reflect that a worker perhaps had health care benefits or at least hourly wages that didn’t need to be supplemented by government social programs. Perhaps that is the realization that we all need to make if we really want to support companies who are making high-quality apparel in the U.S.

But then, changing how one thinks about prices is a limited strategy. As a sociologist I am very aware that “making an investment” in shoes, jeans or other U.S.-made apparel just is not a possibility for most Americans. For the middle-class, having a few American-made items in the closet is an investment and a way of supporting what few companies remain. But it is simply out of reach (unless one finds items secondhand) for most Americans. Indeed, the CNN article reports that U.S. apparel manufacturing has been mostly in decline (despite the trendy interest in the “made in America” brand). If these companies are to remain vibrant and relevant, we as consumers (if were are financially able) need to make the changes of mindset that will support these companies.

Which brings me back to my partner’s shoes. He decided to stomach the bigger price tag and make the shoe investment – both for the sake of his feet and for the American companies that make the shoes. Here in the Midwest, he found two potential sources.

There was the home-state favorite, Redwing Shoes out of Redwing, Minnesota. This is where my father purchased work boots about every 10 years. I still remember the boot box from Redwing arriving in the mail, and being surprised at the stiffness of the rich brown leather of his new boots when they sat next to his older pair that was scuffed, muddy, scrunched down, and completely molded to his feet after years of hard wear.

For brogues with a little more stylish flair, my partner ultimately decided on Wisconsin shoe-maker Allen Edmonds.  The Port Washington, Wisconsin shoe company manufactures an extensive line of men’s dress shoes. After trying on a flashy orange and maroon pair, an olive green pair, and a smoky gray pair, he settled on navy brogues with red laces. He’s had them a week and every day he has said “I’m so glad I got these shoes!” The sturdy leather broke in lightning-fast and he now wears them everyday.  It was an investment (that for now he could make) that was worth making.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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Can America Really Make the Suits that China Makes?

Team USA at Olympics opening ceremonies. Photo by Reuters.

On July 16th, the U.S. House of Representatives announced legislation which would, if passed, ensure that future U.S. Olympic team uniforms are made in the United. States. However, Li Guilian, the owner of the Chinese company that manufactured Team USA’s opening ceremonies uniforms asked in a Los Angeles Times story, “Can America really make the suits we make?”

Guilian asks a fair question. If Congress passes the bill requiring that uniforms be made here, will the United States still have enough of a viable garment industry to produce them?

I have been reading Elizabeth Cline’s excellent new book on the manufacture of contemporary fashion: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. In chapter 2, “How America Lost Its Shirts” she explains just how dire American clothing manufacture has become. In 1965, 95% of clothing worn in the United States was made here. By the 1970s, that number had fallen to 75%. Today, according to ABC News, just 2% of clothing purchased in this country is now made here. Moreover, the U.S. lost 650,000 apparel jobs between 1997-2007.

Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline

In a previous post I explored what Team USA’s uniforms might have looked like if they were made by some of the better-known clothing companies that still make clothing within U.S. borders.  It turns out that not just any clothing manufacturer can handle making structured, fitted garments like a blazer. American Apparel seldom includes fitted blazers (they do have loose-fitting ones in outerwear) in their seasonal looks. Given the proposed legislation and the Chinese owner’s question of whether America can still make a suit,  it’s worth exploring which companies could master the task of a blazer.  Karen Kane company now manufactures 80% of their garments in the U.S. and blazers (for women at least) are regularly in the line.

 

Karen Kane Indigo Linen Jacket, Made in the USA, from KarenCane.com

But since we’re talking about Ralph Lauren as the  contracted designer for 2014, where is he likely to go? Would he use the same factory as Karen Kane? One would think it is likely he will return to Dalma Dress in New York since that is where Ralph Lauren apparel that was made in the USA was once produced.  According to Elizabeth Cline, Dalma Dress is known for producing garments that require skilled labor, such as suits. And hopefully, Dalma Dress will still be a viable company if Lauren returns. Just this week, Ecouterre.com asked “Are the Days of New York City’s Historic Garment District Numbered?” in an article discussing how the Garment District is likely to be re-named since so few garment manufacturers remain there.

To have a U.S. industry that can produce uniforms (and more importantly, clothing for everyday use by Americans), we need more than just a bill which stipulates that the uniforms be made here. Members of Congress who would like to bring back U.S. clothing manufacture need to explore other types of legislation that would re-seed the industry through providing companies with tax incentives to run such businesses, training, equipment financing so that the newest technology in clothing manufacture can be purchased (see an earlier post that discusses LiaMolly’s efforts to bring a modern knitting machine to the U.S.), and other types of support. Consumer education efforts about why garments made here cost more and hopefully are worth more (reading Cline’s book Overdressed is an excellent place to start in terms of self-education about this) is also necessary part of the package.

The controversy over Team USA’s uniforms comes at what is hopefully a key moment when change is possible. In the last chapters of Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline discusses how the days of fast, cheap fashion from China may be ending – the price of Chinese-made clothing is increasing while quality from many factories is mediocre at best, leading some companies (such as Karen Kane) to bring back production to the U.S. So, perhaps we should be thanking Ralph Lauren for providing us with a chance to have a timely conversation about the current state of the U.S. garment industry and what it would take to make it viable, once more.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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Chinese Maker of Team USA Uniforms Disparages American Manufacturing

Ecouterre and the Los Angeles Times report that the owner of the Chinese clothing company that made Team USA’s uniforms asks, “Can America really make the suits we make?”

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July 31, 2012 · 10:59 am

Team USA Past: Made in North America

Check out this story from Ecouterre. Team USA uniforms have been made offshore since 1998, though “offshore” isn’t literal. Before Ralph Lauren got the contract in 2008, they were made in Canada, which, I suppose, is a version of “Made in America.”
Also, notice the Chinese News Agency’s response to Congress – “ban your own Chinese-made clothes.”

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