Most of us are very experienced in shopping for clothes, but few of us really know what to look for in the clothes we buy outside of fashion and trends. Through trial and error, countless disappointments and wasted money, I have come up with this handy guide to ensure you will always be buying quality clothes – no matter what your budget is.
As a disclaimer, I have no background in the garment industry. These are simply lessons learned by a consumer who is tired of being sold junk.
The three words to remember are: fabric, cut, and craftsmanship.
Cut, which determines how the garment will fit, is very important. Too tight or too loose is never flattering. For women, you want your t-shirts to barely skim the body, to look soft and comfortable, yet flatter your curves. You want your expensive silk shirts to be loose and work appropriate, but still have a sense of femininity so you can feel confident and attractive. Same goes for men, if we can see the outline of your six-pack, your shirt is too tight. I know loose shirts are comfy, but if you can fit a family of three under there, you might want to reconsider what signals you are transmitting here. Are you an aspiring teenage rapper? To achieve a great fit you need expert designers and, of course, craftsmanship.
There is no way to get around the fact that most clothes today are made by low skilled workers in developing countries. It works because it keeps the prices down and factories can churn out massive amounts of simple, basic clothing. It has become a disposable industry, both the products and the producers of it. Learn more about this here. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the price the more experience the tailor behind it has. However, this is definitely not always true so don’t use prices as an indication of quality. A lot of so-called ‘designer clothes’ are made in the same factories as your throwaways from H&M, Forever 21 and Zara.
The easiest way to assess quality is to look at the fabric of the garment. Here is a list that breaks down the most commonly used fabrics and how they will behave when turned into clothes.
Silk, the ultimate sign of luxury. Sometimes I will buy a dress just because it’s made from silk. I love the way silk feels and the way it cascades and skims your body in movement. But silk is a very high maintenance fabric. It is a natural fabric, spun by silk worms, and it has no natural elasticity. If your dress is short, it will rise up a lot when you sit down. It creases very easily, and it can’t be washed in water so it needs to be steamed or dry cleaned. If you stain it, the stain will most likely never come out. This applies to sweat stains, too. So buy with caution, wear with joy, and take good care of it.
Cotton, the most common fabric. Cotton comes in so many forms that it is almost impossible to generalize but there are definitely things you can look for. Cheap 100% cotton T-shirts that we all know tend to be made of very thick cotton. This can be useful if you live in cold climates but for hot, humid weather, these can be heavy and uncomfortable. Also, this heavy type of cotton is not very flattering as it is too stiff and just hangs from your body. Sweaters and flannel shirts tend to be made of softer spun cotton and can be very comfortable and flattering. I’ve noticed a trend in women’s higher end labels that it is now common to sell plain cotton T-shirts for up to $100. That’s pretty crazy, but they sell like hot cakes because cut and fabric are taken into consideration which makes the shirts universally flattering for pretty much everyone. As a luxury version of cotton you can look for shirts made from ‘pima cotton‘ will have an ultra soft feel and a fit that is formfitting but never clingy (the ultimate triumph of a T-shirt!) Bamboo and hemp are great, and also more sustainable, alternatives to cotton. (The cotton industry uses about 25% of all pesticide – toxic for our skin and the environment!)
On the left: 100% cotton shirt. On the right: Vince T-shirt: 50% modal 50% pima cotton
Modal has become my secret weapon when shopping for clothes. Like pima cotton, it feels like a softer version of cotton but it is actually cellulose from beech trees. The wear of my modal clothes has so far been extraordinary. I have a navy blue T-shirt from Vince that I bought almost 3 years ago, and I have literally worn it 500 times or three times week since then, and it still looks good. It set me back $50 but I can’t think of a better return of my investment. It has saved me from buying dozens of other cheap shirts, which eventually would amount to a lot more money. One of the advantages of modal over cotton is its resistance to shrinkage, a notorious problem with cotton. It is also less likely to fade or to form pills as a result of friction. If I am shopping and I spot something I like, I always check the label to see what fabric was used. If it is modal, I am much more likely to buy it because there is a bigger chance it will be both flattering and long lasting.
Rayon and Viscose are two types of fabric very similar to modal but instead of being pure wood pulp, it is often infused with polyester, making it a mixed fabric. They both tend to be more flattering than 100% cotton, but less soft than modal. You can especially tell when you wash them and the fabrics are wet. They will seem heavy and thick compared modal, which is so fine that it comes out of the washer pretty much dry and only requires light air drying.
Linen is rough-spun cotton, most commonly associated with beach and safari attire. It’s a breezey fabric and can be both flattering and casual. It is pretty easy to maintain but because of its distinct ‘roughness’ I only recommend owning a couple of this particular fabric. Unless, of course, you really like the style! Gauze is a softer version of linen and is great for beach coverups and dresses.
Ah, Polyester. You have gotten such a bad reputation over the past ten years, but why? Polyester is 100% synthetic, and is actually derived from petroleum. It doesn’t absorb moisture so it’s very resistant to stains, shrinking and stretching, making it a very handy fabric. Designers have gotten very good at creating a variety of textures from polyester, like Satin and Chiffon, so most of the clothing we see that are not cotton are usually polyester. The thing about polyester that gets me is that I don’t really love my polyester clothes. And I like to love my clothes. They just kind of hang around my closet like forgotten step-children. I love draping, soft and flattering clothes and while polyester can imitate all three, it just never fully gets there. My advice is to buy polyester sparingly. If there is a design you find that you are crazy about, don’t let the fact that it is polyester stop you, but don’t buy too many basic staples in polyester. They are the ultimate throwaway clothes, and to add insult to injury, you can’t really recycle them either.
On the left: Example of chiffon. On the right: example of satin.
Nylon is that silky, slinky material that nice underwear is made of. It is manmade and was actually created in the 50’s to imitate silk when silk was very expensive. It’s usually infused with spandex which makes it elastic and comfortable. Great for comfortable undies, but it can easily look cheap when used in party dresses and tight tops. Tread carefully here.
I hope you found this guide useful! Next time you go shopping spend some time with the clothes before you buy. Note the fabric and make sure the seams are even and nicely done. Remember the three magic words: fabric, cut and craftsmanship. And if all else fails, modal is my safest bet!