A Sparkling Vintage Life

Quality, when applied to clothes, is another of those words that can sound fusty and outdated to a modern ear. In an age of fast fashion, cheap materials, and instant everything, who has time to bother about quality? I’ve certainly worn my share of “great deals” that faded or fell apart after two or three washings, or shoes that looked fabulous only on the shoe rack and were sheer torture to wear.

In Ain’t Misbehavin’, Dot Rodgers experiences something similar: “Dot caught the bride glancing her way and lifted her rouged lips in what she hoped was a brilliant smile, all the while striving to rise above the scratchy lace trim torturing her collarbone. This gown is the absolute limit. The dainty shoes, too, that had looked so scrumptious in the footwear display at Marshall Field’s, proved no match for the length of Pastor Rooney’s droning remarks about the blessings of holy matrimony and whatnot.”

The question of high quality vs. cheap is not a new one. In The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance (1943) Grace Margaret Morton wrote, “The importance of good fabrics cannot be overemphasized, as good lines cannot be achieved in cheap or shoddy materials. As fabrics play an important role in style, so do fit and workmanship; cheap workmanship and poor fit can never be concealed.”

Veronica Dengle (1946) says it more colorfully: “Do not buy clothes of such poor material that they are ‘sleazy looking’ and out of shape after a few wearings. Cheap materials come back from the cleaner with crooked hems, shrunken sleeves, and gaping necklines. Learn the difference between ‘cheap’ and ‘inexpensive.’ ”

Money doesn’t necessarily equal quality, though. There’s plenty of high-priced schlock out there, as well as sturdy, well-crafted bargains. Genevieve Dariaux (1964) reminds us, “A dress marked down to half price and worn only once is sheer extravagance, while a perfect little custom-made suit costing six times as much and worn with confidence day in and day out during eight months a year for several years is an outstanding bargain.”

(If you’re interested in looking more deeply into cheap fashion and its surprising impact on our closets, our economy, and our world, pick up the excellent book Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline.)

With a practiced eye, it’s possible to find well-made clothes at less-than-vertigo-inducing prices. Just be patient, watch for sales, and learn to recognize signs of quality when you shop, such as straight seams and hems, securely sewn buttons, easy-gliding zippers, no weird gaps or puckers in the construction. When you find yourself reaching for your favorite garments week after week, you’ll be glad you did.