Unmentionables and other clothing

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By Barbara Byram

Back in August, I was loading up my backpack for a three-week hike along the North Country National Scenic Trail and discovered my stash of unmentionables a bit shy. So I picked up a packet of ladies’ briefs on my next shopping excursion. I brought them home, ripped open the pack, and let loose a wailing, “Oh, no!” I checked the packaging: my usual brand; my usual size; but they looked wrong. I tried on a pair only to find that they wouldn’t go all the way on without more than a little shimmy action on my part.

I imagine there are plenty of women out there who would welcome the slimming effect of these briefs, but I’m not one of them. I tend to like my drawers a little on the droopy side—especially when I’m hiking 12 or more miles each day with up to 45 pounds strapped to my back. Clambering up slick, moss-covered boulders is not an opportune time to find the brief’s elastic creeping into an area that it’s not meant to be in, if you follow my drift.

So what’s going on with these new briefs? I peeled them off and checked the label, and—lo and behold—they were made in Nepal. Aha! A land of skinny-hipped women. This brand used to be made in the U.S., though I can’t say for certain when that changed. Then it was made in Mexico, which worked well enough for me in terms of being the end user (ahem), as I share a similar body shape with many women from that country—namely, broad through the hips and deep through the stride—fashion-industry speak for having a big butt.

I decided to check other clothing to see where it’s made, and—since I make most of my own clothing—I headed for my sister’s closet. Sure enough, she doesn’t have one item of clothing labeled “made in the U.S.”—excepting t-shirts and those things that I’ve made for her. I found labels listing country of origin as India, Guatemala, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal. And what I also noticed is that the newer items in her closet are made in the poorest countries—presumably those countries where wages would be lowest.

The living conditions and wages for people in those countries is not what concerns me at the moment—though it would make for interesting reading. My concern is with the death of the clothing industry in this country.

When I hit my teens—four decades ago—I was allowed to make my own decisions, for the most part, and purchase—or make—my own clothing from an allowance. At that time, just about everything on the racks was made in the U.S.—95 per cent of it. Even the fabrics I bought for sewing my own outfits were made here. But over the years, that gradually changed. Today only 5 per cent of the clothing sold in this country is made here—a whopping 95 per cent is imported. I don’t really understand this—or perhaps I do but don’t want to accept the facts.

It seems that most folks these days have large closets filled with lots and lots of clothing—more than they can reasonably wear, in my opinion. The proof of this is visible on Saturday mornings—just drive around and look at all of the yard sales and the most commonly offered item at them: clothing. In order to amass all this clothing, prices must be “affordable,” which I take to mean low enough to allow folks to buy more than they need. I checked prices at a clothing store, recently, and was amazed to find dresses selling for $36 to $40—all imported, of course. As someone who makes clothing, I checked the workmanship and found it lacking, both in terms of the integrity of the fabric and the quality of the stitching.

A dress at this price isn’t going to hold up very long, but most folks seem to balk at paying more than that, despite the fact that a higher-priced, higher-quality garment is going to last longer. And this is the part that I don’t understand. A woman will fill her closet with $36 dresses that last only a few washes or a few months, but she’ll complain about spending $80 on a dress that would last for two years. The $80 dress is clearly a better value for the money—but the price tag is all the woman can think about.

We are a nation of consumers—but we are not rational about how and what we buy. When we started importing goods with the excuse that they’re more “affordable,” we also started the death process of everything “made in the U.S.A.”

(Part Two will appear in December.)