The One Dollar Question

by jennine on December 3, 2008

Every now and then, I’ll make a stop in a H&M or a Zara. Just to have a peek, I don’t know… I gave up on them in August 2007 for I was spending WAY too much money for clothes that fell apart in two minutes. But I still like to go in there to see what I’m “missing” Sure, I’ve relapsed a few times. I bought a pair of knee-high socks, that got a hole in them the second time I wore them, some bracelets which the paint chipped off and broke. Earrings that sting my ears. But I haven’t found anything that’s sent me back to them begging for forgiveness for my (not so) quiet boycott.

All this got me to thinking what’s the real cost of cheap clothes? On one hand, I am in no position to buy luxury clothes, and on the other hand… well… I can barely afford H&M right now.

Certainly, I’m not the only one out there, in this awkward position between reality and doing the right thing. Yes, I’m sure buying recycled clothes helps… but what about those things you really can’t buy recycled?

Last Friday I stopped in, just to have a peek. Mostly to see what kind of winter accessories they had in stock,  maybe they had something cute and gimmicky like bright yellow leather (or PVC) opera gloves, or gold lamé ear muffs (thank god I’m not a designer). But no, I saw a bunch of floppy hats, and I already have one, vintage and half the price, some crochet berets made with synthetic fibers. There was this one 1930’s style fuzzy hat… but it was already losing it’s shape and it cost 14Euros.

All this got me to thinking what’s the real cost of cheap clothes? On one hand, I am in no position to buy luxury clothes, and on the other hand… well… I can barely afford H&M right now. A few months ago I read an article about how the rise of cheap chic is creating problems because the charity shops can’t sell off the volumes that are being donated, which is probably how they end up in the 1Euro bins at the flea market. The ones that aren’t sold there end up in color-coded mounds of clothes in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

I went home thinking I was going to crochet me a wool beret (since there is so many great free crochet patterns). Then I remembered the flea market was the next day… and low and behold, I found a similar hat, made with better materials and it was 1Euro. Had I been in a different mood, I would have also snagged the white fur hat, and a couple of 80’s style berets but I didn’t want to be greedy, and my office is already starting to look like the color-coded mounds of Africa.

Certainly, I’m not the only one out there, in this awkward position between reality and doing the right thing. Yes, I’m sure buying second hand clothes helps… but what about those things you really can’t buy recycled, like um, lingerie? Basics, like leggings and t-shirts? Should I go out and only buy the best quality possible?

Questions, questions… either way, I really like my new $1 hat.

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This is not a post about Eco Fashion | THE COVETED
April 22, 2009 at 8:28 am

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1 Rae December 3, 2008 at 10:45 am

Near where I live in Cali there are swap meets almost every day of the year… so probably 80% of my closet is made up of $1 items. I even find more expensive brands like Free People, Calvin Klein, Ellie Tahari, etc. for $1.

My favorite swap meet is my favorite place on Earth. Obviously.

I guess my answer to the lingerie and shapewear question is T.J. Maxx.


2 Kimberly December 3, 2008 at 10:54 am

I try to be very careful with H&M, Forever21 and Zara but sometimes you can find a nice piece that will hold up well. Most of the jewelry and accessories will not hold up so I avoid a lot in that department. I tend to spend the most money on lingerie (which is my love) shoes, a few key pieces of jewelry, jackets and bags, things that are worn day in and day out. Leggings and t-shirts are mostly home wear and end up covered in pug fur so I don’t spend a lot there (American Apparel is fine).


3 Tierra M Wilson December 3, 2008 at 11:21 am

I’m the same exact way. My bff and I actually got into a little argument at the mall about this when I refused to go in Forever 21. She was like “you too good for Forever 21 now”? No, I’m not too good but I’ve wasted so much money in here and have nothing to show for it. With my Express or New York and Co. splurges I’ve been wearing for some of those pieces for years and have gotten my money’s worth.. even my vintage clothes are standing strong. Great post!


4 grechen December 3, 2008 at 11:22 am

great article! every time i purchase something “cheap” or not my usual t-shirt brand, i’m disappointed. a $4.99 gap t-shirt i really loved started falling apart after the first wash. isn’t that a waste of $4.99? on the other hand, i’ve had a james perse plain white t-shirt that i paid $35 3 years ago that still looks new, it’s not falling apart, and i wear it constantly. so for me - i wait until i can buy my “holy grail” designers - at least for basics - because i wear them all the time, and i want them to hold up for years.


5 Amy December 3, 2008 at 11:24 am

American Apparel is good for basics and at least you know they pay their workers responsibly(even if I don’t agree with all the shennaigans the marketing director gets up to!)

I’ve been so broke lately that buying anything has been a rare occurence. I’m trying to wean myself off of Primark, which is terrible ethically and great for (really cheap) trends. Spending money responsibly is becoming more and more important to me, so I have been avoiding those places in general.

I’m jealous of allo f Rae’s swap meets! I have to find something lke that in London. We have loads of great vintage, but less pot-luck dirt cheap second hand.


6 jennine December 3, 2008 at 11:52 am

❤ Wow.. I’m so jealous, You’ll have to let me know which swap meet you’re talking about for my next trip to cali!

❤ Kimberley…hehe pug fur! Yeah, i think that’s what my achillies heel was, accessories. I would just think, oh, $5? No problem, and three didgits later, I’d have a load of junk an no cash.
❤ Tierra…no kidding! EVERYTHING from F21 i’ve bought has fallen apart. Except this tunic, that’s completely covered in pills, so I can only wear it to bed. And the worst part about F21 is they don’t do refunds, so it’s best to steer clear in case you enter and have an impulse splurge.
❤ gretchen, ooh that’s a great strategy! even american apparel t’s fall apart within the year, and they ain’t that cheap.
❤ amy… oooh yeah i’m jealous too… but it’s true, it’s realy hard when you are broke to wean off the cheap as chips clothing.


7 Ruthie December 3, 2008 at 12:22 pm

It’s a tough issue. I agree with Amy above about Primark. I feel so guilty shopping there, but it’s great for trends that you won’t wear for too long. Apart from that I can’t afford much at all at the moment either, but in an ideal world I would want most of my clothes to be great quality and from a more ethical source.


8 Jesspgh December 3, 2008 at 12:37 pm

I really enjoyed this post and love your blog! I’ve also given up on fast fashion for similar reasons like quality, sustainability, and politics. I realize that on some level, it is a privilege to choose to no longer shop at places like H&M or Forever21. But the same can be argued about shopping for “wants” and not needs, in general. Although I am uncomfortable with the notion of voting with one’s dollars (because it links intrinsically the capacity for democracy with one’s class privilege), I have been trying to be more conscious of what I consume and where I spend. It is a struggle that I grapple with all too often.


9 Sonja December 3, 2008 at 12:50 pm

You make a really good point about the real cost of stuff from those shops. I got some cool earrings from H&M in Paris that have held up well. But the sweater I got has not fared so well. My husband and I have always enjoyed going to thrift shops to find unusual items at really good prices. I know there’s good stuff, because I also donate many things that are still in good condition, like when I lost 40 pounds! over the last year. But I had no idea that they were hurting, because of low-price merchants. That’s good to keep in mind.


10 Stickers and Donuts December 3, 2008 at 1:28 pm

I find myself buying cheap leggings and socks, because I don’t see the point in investing in nice ones. Even when I do get nice tights and socks, they ultimately tear and get holey, so I ultimately end up terribly upset. I stopped buying clothes from forever 21, because the fabrics are horrible and don’t last. For me, Forever 21 is still a perfect place to get accessories (like headbands!!!), because I end up losing little knick-knacks anyways. Now I find myself choosing to invest in nice sweaters from Anthropologie, because I know I’ll wear them for years and they’re well-made.


11 szaza December 3, 2008 at 1:28 pm

Great post!
Most of the clothing I buy is either vintage or second-hand. I am a frequent eBay shopper and fortunately SF has some glorious second-hand stores. I do however, put my money into good bras and shoes. At this point, About 87% of my shoes are Fluevogs, which are made so incredibly well and with such style, that I feel no temptation by cheap shoes anymore.

I have this pair of three year old Fluevog booties that still look new-ish— I’ve only had them resoled once and replaced the rubber heel caps a couple times. And I wear them several times a week, walking for miles in them. There are just some things I don’t feel guilty spending lots on, and when I reflect on all the cheap bras and shoes I have gone through in the past, I believe it’s more cost-effective in the long run to spend on quality. I recently bought a nighty at H&M, and I looked the garment up and down before I bought it to make certain there were no holes or loose threads, and what do you know, holes after the first wash! I bought some cute corduroys there a couple years ago, and they only lasted several months.

There seems to be this guilt in American culture, and perhaps in other cultures as well, for spending— if you’re not being frugal, then you (as Tierra mentioned earlier) think you’re “too good” for something. Which is ridiculous. Buying clothing, shoes and accessories that fall apart quickly is wasteful. It wastes money and resources. You don’t have to buy top designers to get quality either, and I’m sure there are a few items at H&M, The Gap et al, that will hold up, but you really have to scrutinise the garment. I spend time in the dressing room inspecting seams and fabric. Thank you for this post, I think it’s quite an important topic.


12 Meg December 3, 2008 at 3:21 pm

Forever21 and I have a love-love relationship, but I know what you mean about how cheaply made the clothes are. It seems to be hit or miss for me. I have a t-shirt from there that got a hole in it the first week I bought it, but on the other hand, I got a really great dress there a year ago and I’m still wearing it! I’ve found you just have to be smart about what you buy, what fabric it’s made of, etc.


13 Shay December 3, 2008 at 3:54 pm

the thing that bugs me is that all this poor quality cheapy clothing ends up flooding thrift shops too. It used to be a little easier to find quality items in thrift shops say 5 years ago, but with the rise of the throwaway garment, items that aren’t even worth recycling end up in thrift shops faster than you can blink…


14 Cas Ruffin December 3, 2008 at 3:58 pm

I totally didn’t know that Zara made cheap quality stuff. They looked nice enough, nicer than H&M at least. I just bought a sweater at Zara :( . It was on sale though.


15 Eyeliah December 3, 2008 at 4:34 pm

This is so similar to my thought pattern. I agree that quality is #1 when buying an item, even before fit and price. It is so unfortunate these horrible quality acrylic clothes are being pushed on the masses. I am voting with my dollars and buying chic discounted items, secondhand or ebay only! With the rare embarrassing blip of naughty cheap store purchase.


16 ryder December 3, 2008 at 6:15 pm

i do agree that there is a issue in production of cheap labels. truly when we buy in massive amounts where does it go. is it beeing recicled? i mean, this is actually the first time that this crossed my mind.
im glad that someone finally had enough courag to say that clothes from that type of stores is with low quality. and i think that for that quality they are 2 expensive. but on the otehr hand one of my fav destinations is topshop… and vinatge stores. i found lanvin dress on flea market. im still in shock.


17 Ivania(Love-Aesthetics) December 3, 2008 at 6:35 pm

what an interesting post!
second hand clothing getting cheaper?! oh what a great news! everything I buy including occasional lingerie lace bodystockings (I dont care where theyve been)is “vintage”(and thats a word trying to make SECONDHAND sound chic)

and I totally agree on the H&M boycott, H&M and Zara clothes have almost become a uniform for entire europe!


18 Katie December 3, 2008 at 6:37 pm


I just wanted to say that I am a designer for a very large well known corporate company… and there are always tricks up their sleeves. For one, when you see clothing that is recycled, alot of the time it is not really that amazing. Sometimes, they use 4% recycled fabric (but play up that 4% of course) yet they also print on the fabric which counteracts the idea of it being recycled. It adds chemical processes, etc.

Alot of companies only require things being a small percentage ‘organic’ or ‘recycled’ to pass their standards. Also, many factories question ‘organic’ fabrics anyway since they usually take 4 times the amount of water to make, and most often it is done in countries that don’t even have enough water to drink. So is it really that much better?

And yes, the clothes really are as cheap as people think they might be. a $55 shirt will typically cost a company around $5-7 dollars to produce (Although they do have to add on shipping different countries and stores).

Anyway, I hope this helps or provokes some new thoughts!


19 meli December 3, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Sweet photos! love that first one. I love my money and the more I can get for it, I always chose longevity over price, or whatever I mean. Most my clothes are not fancy at all, but I like them to last for a long time. I can honestly say I haven’t shopped at H+M, zara etc. ever. & Im serious.
Target, not in like 8 years, when it wasn’t all designy-cool.
Again, you look divine!! and as I stand strong that style comes within and not a particular place. It could be a puzzle and if you know what you’re style is, you’ll look marvelous! XOXO-


20 Lara December 3, 2008 at 9:30 pm

Love this post! This is something that’s been on my mind for a while, especially after reading “The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy”. The last section goes into a lot of detail about the charity clothes/Africa issue (which is not a bad thing btw).

I am obsessive with how I care for my clothing. Everything gets washed in cold water on the delicate cycle with gentle detergent, then I hang it all to dry in the shower and fluff it in the dryer after it’s dry to prevent shrinkage and fading and destruction. So, the cheapest things still hold up.

I hate to see my girlfriends buy something expensive and then wash it in hot water and throw it in the dryer. Even the nicest things look worn and faded when you don’t care for them porperly.

Love the blog!


21 szaza December 3, 2008 at 11:10 pm

Also— why would you want to wear the same look as everyone else? I’ve seen originality wane. I really appreciate it when I see someone who has crafted an individual style and doesn’t look like they walked out of an H&M ad. A piece here and there is one thing, but entire outfits made of this mass-marketed stuff?


22 jennine December 4, 2008 at 2:35 am

Oh my goodness, so many great comments here! Thank you so much for leaving them…
❤ Ruthie Oh my, I’ve never been to’s a UK thing? Even when I lived there, I didn’t go… now I’m very curious!
❤ Jess Yes! It’s so hard to differentiate between wants and needs. After all, how much clothes do we ‘need’? It seems like a straightforward question, but really it’s not… I’ll have to think about this…
❤ Sonja…ohh I’ have a few things from these places that’ve held up , but in comparison to the amount that I’ve bought… well… it’s actually very little. Like I have a a few sweaters and a jacket from H&M and I’ve spent thousands, and i do mean thousands of dollars there. As far as Zara…well I only have one dress left and I’ve bought well into the hundreds, i doubt thousands.
❤ Stickers & Donuts…ooh I’ve found a few F21 accessories that I kept for a while, they do have lovely headbands!
❤ szaza…oh thanks for your great comment… i agree that SF has great secondhand and vintage shops, so it’s hard not to check there first! and shoes, it’s great when you can find a shoemaker to connect with,and it’s true that many of the good quality brands aren’t the big names, i was looking at a pair of prada shoes recently and i thought it looked like cheap plastic, where as smaller designers use real wood and strong leather and about half the price.
ah fluevog! i remember when they opened on haight street! they had the wildest shoes, that looked like hoofs way before the hoof shoe came to the mainstream.

❤ meg…yeah, there’s always that one piece that survives, i just haven’t had that luck with f21
❤ ryder…LANVIN AT THE FLEAMARKET!?!?!!?! you are so lucky, the gods smile upon you. i was lucky once to find a ysl vest for $15, and a jil sander skirt for $20…but yeah, you scored.
❤ katie…ooh wow… i didn’t know that they could pass off organic or recycled with such low percentages. but i guess i used the wrong word, because i think of second hand/vintage as recycling. but it’s more re-using.
❤ melli…aww thanks! i’m glad you like the pics! i know, it’s amazing how things changed in san fran once those stores came to town, at first i was delighted because it brought in a european flavor…but then that changed. and target!?!! i can’t go in there unless i plan on spending in the hundreds…and i don’t even buy clothes there. kitty litter, cat accessories, cooking crap, soap, books, you name it….
❤ lara..ooh i’m gong to have to read that book! it sounds interesting! i too think about washing, always use cold, and a drying rack. but even then, stretching between washes is not only good for your clothes, but the environment too.
❤ szaza…oh i agree, i think it’s even more pronounced with blogging. i remember in my h&m days, and first started reading stylebytes, i was delighted that we had some of the same clothes, but i was also creeped out by it.


23 Victoire December 4, 2008 at 9:47 am

I don’t know… I must be the luckiest girl, as I never really had the problem of clothes falling on me. Well, it has happened, but with cheap and “good quality” clothes alike. Still, I am making it a point of honour to get most of my stuff at thrift stores. The clothes are just as good when not better, and they are certainly less expensive. Beside, I like digging.


24 ambika December 4, 2008 at 11:19 am

H&M just opened here in Seattle and I’ve stopped in 4 different times without buying anything.

I do have the rare pair of H&M velvet pants that have held up for 5 years but that’s the exception, not the rule. Even if some of their current stuff was to hold up over time, I just can’t handle how gross the synethetic fibers feel.

I think the real dirty secret that isn’t talked about though, is that a lot of the middle range retailers are often not much better. I’ve had plenty of stuff from J.Crew or Anthropologie that faired not much better after a couple of wears.


25 Fair shopping fairy December 4, 2008 at 3:36 pm

I think it is sad, that the quality of goods has decreased so much during the past decades and also that the value that people attach to the things they own is diminishing. What I mean is that since fashion has become disposible closets are full to overflowing in most homes yet the “need” to own the next trend / hot item is still urgent. I wonder if fast fashion would still sell this well if people were truly satisfied with what they own. If one can afford it one should buy the best quality possible. @ Katie: thanks for this “insider” information


26 Fair shopping fairy December 4, 2008 at 3:43 pm

@Lara: I wonder why you say that the charity clothes/Africa issue is not a bad thing. According to the Times “Second-hand clothing exports can damage the local garment trade — from 1985 to 1992, 51 out of 72 Zambian clothing firms closed, partly due to foreign competition.” Maybe you can elaborate on your point of view.


27 Lara December 4, 2008 at 4:08 pm

@Fair shopping fairy: I’m basing my opinion on the book I previously mentioned which elaborated on the purest of free markets which (at the time of publication) was the “matumba” market of used clothing. Used clothing in certain areas of Africa have allowed entrepreneurs to start thier own businesses and has allowed people to have access to stylish clothing (which they are very selective about) that increases pride. There are many different countries in Africa with many forms of governments and laws that don’t allow free trade so the matumba is just sold on the black market since the people want it so badly. In the book, there was also mention of a man who had been selling used clothing for so long that he had saved enough money to buy and refurbish an old textile factory where he planned to create jobs for his community making new clothing.

This is not a matter of exploitation- it’s a matter of free markets at work, healthy competition, small business owners, pride, and giving impoverished people a chance to do something when their industrial and agricultural systems are so far behind everyone else that there is no way they can fairly compete.

Charities are overrun with so much clothing they don’t know what to do with it. This overflow is bought by the pound by privately owned family businesses here in the U.S. These companies employ people to expertly sort through the mountains of clothing (the highly prized vintage clothing is sold to boutiques and vintage stores) and there is a use for everything else. It is the ultimate form of recycling. The African clients develop a real relationship with the American sorting companies and there are pressed bale opening parties in Africa where other start-up sellers get first dibs on the freshly revealed items. It is an enjoyable social aspect of their culture now.

I could go on and on about the vagaries of African economies (and other regions in extreme poverty). Instead, I will reccommend reading “The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy” as well as “Markets and States in Tropical Africa” by Bates and “The Bottom Billion” by Collier.

There are so many side to every story.


28 Songy December 4, 2008 at 8:42 pm

that 1 dollar hat is super. Wish I had a patience to make a hat like that.

I have a skirt, a winter jacket (both three years old) and a black tailored jacket from zara which I paid heaps for and they are holding up nicely. I guess it depends what it is…

I didn’t know that you were kind of in the same boat as I’m. I did spend over $200AUD this week. That was a total exception though. I had to talk my guy into just taking that money out of our xmas gift fund.

It’s damn hard reading/talking/seeing so much fashion and not being able to go out and splurge.

It helps when I just go around taking photos. That way I’m busy taking photos instead of buying.


29 Kezia December 5, 2008 at 12:28 pm

i’ve pretty much given up on F21 — i hate going in their (it’s seizure inducing) and the stuff falls apart. however, i’m also a bit of a diva about picking thru used clothes. i like well-edited vintage, but not the buy-by-the-pound variety. sorry, just dont’ have the patience or the eye. naturally, the more well-edited shops are usually pretty pricey. :-(


30 Fair shopping fairy December 5, 2008 at 1:29 pm

@Lara: wow, that was elaborate ;-) Now I’ll definitely buy the book. Thanks a lot.


31 Prêt à Porter P December 7, 2008 at 11:36 am

no matter where i shop i try to make sure im buying quality. i have things that are from f21 that have really stood the test of time.

i dont have an h&m where i live, but when i was in new york last yr (time flies by the way!!) i was in h&m i wasnt impressed. sometimes i feel like im missing out with the designer collaborations (i was there the day AFTER cavalli dropped) but im not about to camp out overnight for anything or fight over clothes!


32 Mia December 8, 2008 at 10:45 am

The only really good thing about the recession is that people start thinking about the crazyness of buying clothes that doesn´t last longer than the first washing.


33 the escapist December 9, 2008 at 6:55 am

I avoid anything with acrylics, as it is rare that such items stand the test of time (or even a week of use. Instead, I look for sturdy cotton, silk, viscose, and wool. Whether it comes from H&M, Zara or more upmarket high street stores doesn’t really matter. Decent materials, good cuts and fits and proper seams make for long lasting clothes. Your washing machine also makes a difference. US machines are faster, but a lot tougher on your clothing than the European makes.


34 Marte April 23, 2009 at 12:43 am

I think Escapist has the washing machine thing right! I never understood why Americans complain about getting holes in their clothes during washing. Never happened to me.

When my clothes get “old”, it can usually be fixed. Either the stretch in my sweaters wear out, and then I just sew them in at the waist. Or, the colour gets muddy - but that rarely happens if you wash separate colours. Then there’s the white underwear going grey, but they can be coloured, especially if they are of a natural material.


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