One of the big selling points of vintage clothing is that it is perceived as being of higher quality than clothing made today.  It is true that a visit to your local vintage store will produce item after item of clothes of a quality that today would make them prohibitively expensive to produce for the average consumer.

So, were all clothes in the past just made better of superior fabrics using sophisticated techniques?  The short answer is no.

Since the dawn of ready-to-wear part of the market has been for people who are poor.  My latest reading (A Cultural History of Fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries, by Bonnie English) indicates that probably the first ready-to-wear clothing was manufactured for the very poor in England in the late 18th century.

I’ve seen some really poorly made garments, dating back to the 1920s, but the truth is, that most things that have survived do seem to be of a higher quality.  My guess is that this is due to  several things.  First, clothing made of poor quality fabric couldn’t stand up to the wear.  And if poorer people were wearing these clothes, then they had to be worn until the fabric was either fit only for rags or for projects such as quilts.  Part of it might have to do with the things people tend to save.  Even out of style garments that cost the wearer a lot to buy end up hanging on in the deep dark corners of the closet for years.

I bought this early 1950s camp shirt despite the obvious poor quality.  It was interesting as the type of thing a woman might wear while touring with the husband and kids in their new station wagon.  Yes, I know this a stereotypical 1950s  family, but the vision  is there and I had to share it.

The interior of the shirt is a mess.  All the loose ends were just left hanging,  and I can’t imagine why the wearer didn’t take the time to tie them off herself.

This is one wonky little pocket.  Note how the right side is off at both the bottom and the top.

All the interior seams are flat felled, which is good, but they were stitched by a machine that did a chain stitch which is very easy to pull out.  And notice that some of the edges did not get turned under properly.

While the center front does sort of match, there was no attempt to match the check at the side seams.  It takes more fabric to properly match, and so is more expensive.

The shirt is nicely shaped with tucks and darts at the waist, but again, there was no attempt to make the two sides of the back look symmetrical.

There are some nice features, like this button at the collar and the elastic loop.  And while the fabric is not really of a good quality, the color has held up quite well.

I do really like the fun, casual look of the shirt.  It reminds me of a picnic cloth.




Filed under Uncategorized, Viewpoint, Vintage Clothing

13 responses to “Quality

  1. Great analysis of a really badly made shirt! And indeed, I have seen some bad vintage clothing, both cheap ready-mades and homemade stuff made by people clearly in over their heads.

    That said, I think that a much greater percentage of vintage clothing was decently made than it is now. Middle-class and above people tended to buy much fewer and better pieces than they do now. It actually mattered whether your clothing was well-made or not, not just to yourself but to the way other people perceived you. That’s much less true than it used to be, unless you’re a high-powered lawyer or something.


  2. Richard

    Interesting proposition. I agree that today’s costs would be prohibitive when producing yesterday’s clothing. Take a look at the comeback of GANT. Their shirts were 5.00 when Arrow was 2.75-3.00. They went to 6.50, then 7.50, and then 10.00 pretty quickly during the mid to late ’60s. Today a GANT that is basically identical to the cotton ones from then runs over 150.00 with American labor and quality.

    Another variable involves the turnover in companies. For example, we all know that Ballantyne was purchased by an Asian group. In collecting, I favor the older items as I have seen that the newer ones do not reflect all the quality steps and content that newer items do. I really don’t care why…probably a bunch of boring business jargon ending with someone being very greedy. My collection will go to my daughter with her understanding that if she takes care of these items, they will last her forever, and she may even be able to give them to her children. She will also understand that even if she could afford it, she would have a difficult time finding the same level of quality in items available today and in the future. The hand, weight, ply thickness, and weaving characteristics found in Ballantyne, Hadley, some Dalton, etc., is difficult too repeat. If so, one will pay Loro Piana dollars for those items when I am able to purchase on EBAY and ETSY slightly used items from these manufacturers at a fraction of their original prices.

    Not everything made today and in the future will be worse than what we used to have; look at all the miracle sports clothing around today! But, a Gordon-Ford/Gordon of Philadelphia perfect wool skirt that I pay 6.00 for on ETSY is something that you would be hard pressed to replace today for less than 100.00 if you could find one that maintained the quality of the piece goods and construction.


  3. Great point. The every day family wore homemade clothes for daily wear and if they did shell out precious pennies for RTW clothing, I’ll bet they wanted to make those threads last for years. Maybe that’s why we generally see more formal men’s and women’s wear in vintage stores etc … the clothing was rarely worn so that’s why it’s lasted until today. Same goes for ladies nightwear and lingerie for “best”. The old cotton step-ins ended up as rags, while the honeymoon gear is still around. Maybe that’s why people today think that folks swanned about in silk knickers, furs and embroidered gowns all day in times gone by? Great post and I can imagine the family going out on a camping trip in that lovely checked shirt. xo


  4. So true, Desiree. I have a friend who proposes that the reason some much of the vintage clothing we see today is so small in size is because it was special occasion clothing. And much of these types of clothes were worn by teens and young adults when they were small. You know, proms and dances and weddings and such.

    I love your vision of “swanning about in silk knickers…”


  5. vastlycurious.com

    I really liked the details and your use of the word wonky : )


  6. Ultrawoman

    Yes, this camp shirt is cheesy. It’s the kind of thing I may have worn in the Eighties. I would have loved it to death over a summer. Was there a label in it to indicate who made it? Could it have been homemade? I don’t see a label under the collar.

    I think people tended to save the higher quality stuff.


    • No sign of a label, but Lynn (comment below) is right about the stitching. It is a sign of an industrial machine, especially since the double rows are perfectly straight.


  7. At first my thought was that this was a home made shirt by a beginner–but the chain stitch says otherwise. I don’t think I have ever seen such a badly made shirt for sale!


    • And I didn’t even show all of its short-comings!

      A few years ago I had the good luck to help inventory a small town general store that closed in the 1970s. The deal was that I’d be paid in clothing from the store. Well, it was all so horribly made that I didn’t want any of it. The price tags from the 50s and 60s were like 99 cents for a blouse and $1.50 for a skirt. The only good stuff was a stack of 1960s Converse shoes and piles of great old jeans. I did get paid, however, with two mannequin heads, one 1920s, and the other 1930s.


  8. Pingback: Quality, Part II | The Vintage Traveler

  9. I suspect that this was worn by a teenager rather than a mom, more tolerance for poor quality in order to acheive a certain “look”, maybe. Doesn’t seem to have been worn very much, either. I know I went through more clothes as a teenager (14-16) than any other time in my life!


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