Quick guide: shopping for high-quality clothes.
Shopping has evolved from an occasional endeavor to a perpetual scroll on our phones for clothes that we select, imagine on ourselves, add to cart, and check out. It’s become increasingly harder to assess what has decent quality and what doesn’t through online shopping; I’ve found I’m more comfortable touching clothes before buying, but sometimes that isn’t always possible.
As of the day I’m writing this, my closet isn’t too large, and is constantly changing as I continue to explore my personal style. When I think about what I have in the line-up, though, everything I own falls into three categories:
What I wear to work, which is the dominant activity I dress for;
What I wear outside of work, when going out to eat or hanging out with friends;
What I wear at home, to the gym, or to sleep.
There’s a smaller category of clothes that are geared solely toward major holidays, weddings, or events, but I don’t touch those on a regular basis.
Shopping is an activity I participate in sparingly; I deliberate on most choices to the nth degree, and I’m cautious about spending money outside of things I enjoy professionally, personally, or experientially. But clothes matter. And the way one looks matters – we should certainly care about the way we present ourselves to the world. In refining my palate on what I like to wear, and learning more about fabrics, structure, and quality, I’ve learned to abide by several principles when I’m shopping.
Rule 1: Focus on fabric.
When I’m looking at blouses and trousers, one of the most important deciding factors to buy/not buy is what the item is made of.
Natural fibers (think cottons, bamboos, wools, linens, silks, cashmeres) can be a better investment in quality over the long-term, for a myriad of reasons. They sit better on the skin and absorb sweat more easily than synthetic counterparts (polyesters, acrylics, etc). There’s an environmental factor to it, as well; natural fibers can be more sustainable than their synthetic counterparts. The fibers come from either an animal or a plant, decompose more quickly, and can be recycled, and the high energy output, oils, and chemicals required to make synthetic fabrics doesn’t happen at the same scale. Natural fibers also last longer in the sense that they survive more wash and dry-cleaning cycles than synthetic clothing, before the clothing begins to thread or fray.
But fabrics vary widely, and a sweater that is 100% wool may not be the same quality as another with the exact same composition, when looking at fiber and weave quality. For this reason, blends and combinations are worth paying attention to, as well. Some high-quality wools have nylon fibers to keep the fabric together; the same thing with cotton blends. Though it can be argued that both natural and synthetic fibers have their negative impacts on the environment (animals are being used, releasing methane/etc into the atmosphere, or microplastics released from polyester into water sources, etc), I tend to err on the side of natural fabrics anyway. They just feel better and last longer, and that’s enough for me in deciding where to put my money toward.
Rule 2: Pay close attention to construction and fit.
I love vintage and thrift shops, and the treasures of fashion that they hold from decades past. It’s true that clothes are not made today as they used to be; with a focus on mass production and margin, it’s safe to say quality has gone down as price, convenience, and quantity have exponentially risen.
There’s a certain weight to older clothes — the roughness of tweed, the heaviness of wool, the coolness of silk — that are testament to the standards clothes used to be held to. Fit was important, too; getting clothes tailored was a way to show that one cared about the way their clothing looked on their body. When thinking about the way clothes are constructed and the way that they fit, there’s a lot of questions I ask before I’m ready to invest.
Evaluate the seams. There’s many types of seams that work with specific fabrics or products. Here’s a good guide from Eileen Fisher on quality seams.
Are there loose threads, or frayed edges on any external part of the fabric?
Loose threads are a dead giveaway that this item was made quickly, haphazardly, and without too much care with how the consumer would perceive it.
If it’s a blouse, how does it sit on your shoulders? Assuming we’re looking at the right sizing, do the shoulders of the blouse line up with yours?
Are the buttons lined up? Are any additions to construction (zippers, pockets, etc) aligned, and sewn on tight?
In pants, is there additional loose fabric at the waist or hem that can’t be attributed to potential tailoring accommodations?
When you pull on the fabric, can you see between the seams?
Rule 3: Where is the product made?
Not all fabrics are weighted the same. There’s a lot of discretion to this depending on how you want to approach certain fabrics – I’m typically satiated by knowing I’m wearing fabrics that are natural and light as opposed to researching through the various grades of fabrics. But in some circumstances, that may be something to look deeper into, particularly with silks, cashmeres, and leathers (and it goes deep, momme and grain). A good frame of reference is typically where a product is made.
I’m not going to go into where a product is finished and packaged (and thus where it can say it is made). There are many loopholes in the process that leave fault on both the company and the consumer - we need to be more aware of where our clothing is coming from. But we’re not going to go into that in this post.
A Made in Italy (when it comes to leathers) or Made in France (when it comes to silks) often denotes quality and luxury, particularly when it comes to brand name wear. Egypt is known for its cottons, Peru for its wools, and America for trying to bring it all back to the USA. Made in China has built a reputation for lower-quality, fast-fashion clothing, but here’s the thing about China. Just because it says Made in China does not mean it’s immediately lower quality; you receive from China what you pay China to make.
Rule 4: Brand names are secondary to the product.
From a fashion, financial, and feasibility perspective, different people value different things. Brand names can mean something to someone more deeply ingrained in style and fashion than I can dream to be, whereas to others, it means nothing.
Brands are often known for the quality of their work, this much is true. But these days, a brand name does not necessarily mean the product it is representing is high quality, and it isn’t unheard of to pay a premium solely on the brand itself as opposed to the actual product. Price points are a mix of product and perceived brand value, and depending on the brand, a strong percentage of your dollars could be going to the name itself.
And there’s no guarantee that a brand one would consider to be high quality will stay that way. With a strong percentage of clothing production residing overseas, and companies cutting costs in all measures to up their margins, there’s really no way outside of personal experience to pin a brand to a certain standard of quality over a period of time.
In my perspective, quality supersedes brand when brand isn’t cutting it. I define quality by the product itself; what it’s made of, what I have it for, and how long I intend to keep it. Most times, the brand name is the cherry on top on a standard of quality I know it delivers; other times, I couldn’t care less.
Rule 5: Don’t fall for sale prices…
… unless you truly want or need what is for sale. Quality items tend to be pricier than others because of the fabric and workmanship, so when there’s a sale on anything you deem to be of high quality, jump on it sensibly. It could very well be on sale because it’s been decided that it’s not selling well, there’s something wrong with it, or it’s not the best quality to begin with.
I’ve found so much of my confusion on what to wear is a result of having too many things I feel neutral about. Stepping back from any individual clothing item, your closet’s quality is determined by what you put into it. Fill your closet with clothes that, to Marie Kondo’s principles, bring you joy (or, at the least, will make you feel and look great for as long as you want).
And those are my quick tips for you. How do you shop for quality clothes? What are the things you look for?