Clothing Consumer Expectation vs. Market Reality

This post has been brewing in the deep, dark recesses of my brain for ages. I’d like to say all that brewing means it’s now fully fermented, but that is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, I wanted to open a discussion about consumer expectations and market reality because I hear many of the same complaints and questions from readers, clients, friends, and family. And I’m betting many of you do, too, and have opinions and insights to share! Here are the main concerns I hear voiced:

  • It frustrates me that many of the stores I love don’t make or stock my sizes.
  • The stuff is gorgeous, but it’s just too expensive.
  • So many clothing companies use shady labor and production practices.
  • I want to support my local economy, but it can be so hard to find items that are made in my home country, state, or city.
  • I love how cheap this is, but it falls apart after a few wears.

All valid complaints aligned with certain needs, wants, values, and expectations. And yet the current fashion marketplace cannot deliver on all of them. Not with current economic conditions, not for all of us, not all the time, and especially not if you want more than one of those concerns to be addressed simultaneously. I’ve put together the Venn Diagram that floats through my mind when I hear folks registering these concerns in multiples. I’m using my own knowledge and research to back this up, but will also set you up with some links to helpful resources at the end of this post. Now let’s dig in.

clothing_consumer_expectation_venn

Low price: No one WANTS to pay bales of money for clothing. But the fact is that low price rarely overlaps with other consumer preferences. If it’s made locally, ethically, or extremely well you must expect to pay more. If you shop at big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart, you can expect to find inexpensive clothing in a fairly large range of sizes although petites, talls, and petite plus sizes are rare in these environments.

Available in a variety of sizes: A few mid-market brands – most notably Land’s End and Talbots here in the U.S. – offer a true variety of sizes and relatively low prices. These two manage to offer standard, plus, petite plus, petite, and tall sizes to their shoppers, and very few garments cost more than $200. Most brands cannot or do not follow suit. Although plenty of brands will do petites and talls, these specialty sizes aren’t always available in stores. Some brands like Old Navy create plus sized garments but sell them online only. Although this can be viewed as discrimination – and sometimes it is – there are many factors at play. Brands must balance consumer demand, market segment concerns, stock floor availability, trends, the economic climate, cost of materials, marketing and advertising budgets, and many other factors. And they must choose their market, focus on a specific customer with specific needs and buying power. Aside from department stores, most clothing manufacturers are aiming for a defined group of consumers. You may not be in there. And while it’s true that the company in question could be making money off you if they’d just go to the trouble of including you, they may have determined that expanding their reach into your market segment isn’t a safe enough bet. It’s not fair in the least, but economic systems based on profit margins seldom are.

So how do two retailers manage what all the others fail to accomplish? Actually, I’d love to find that out myself, so I’ll work on getting reps from those two brands to chat with me. My educated guesses are that both are legacy brands with large, loyal followings wielding significant income and buying power. Likely Talbots and Land’s End chose to branch out into specialty size runs after years of building their brands on standard sizes. Somebody has to offer the specialties, and the ones who do it properly will get loads of business. But most retailers choose not to for reasons they may never divulge.

Quality construction: Again, Land’s End and Talbots both deliver well-made garments that are also available in a variety of sizes for relatively cheap. But quality construction doesn’t come cheap terribly often, since design, manufacturing, and materials all play a part and if you want good design, expert manufacturing, and high-quality materials you must expect to pay for them. All of them. Separately, as they exist at separate levels on the production chain. And that means costs will compound as a garment is made better and better. Garments that are made well from great materials may sometimes come in a variety of sizes, and can sometimes be made locally using ethical manufacturing processes. But they will very, VERY seldom be truly cheap for the end consumer to purchase.

Ethical manufacturing processes: Peek at that diagram again. See how “ethical manufacturing processes” has no overlap with “low price” or “available in a variety of sizes”? Current market forces make it virtually impossible for designers and manufacturers who monitor ethical practices all along the supply chain to charge low prices. This is especially true if they start with ethically harvested/created fibers and materials, but even if they compromise there and focus on worker rights, wages, and treatment the garments they produce will just plain cost more than fast fashion sweatshop duds.

I recently worked with Article 23, a tiny emerging company that was transparent and ethical throughout the entire production process. (Post here.) The garments weren’t available in many sizes, but they were darling and relatively affordable with a simple skirt at $46 and a dress at $90. As of this posting, the company appears to have gone under, though, potentially unable to keep up with their own low prices or admirably stringent policies.

In my experience, items that are made locally are frequently made ethically, too, though this is not always the case. If you are local to a major industrial town that houses sweatshops, all bets are off.

Made locally: Local is relative, of course, and finding clothing, shoes, and accessories that are made in your hometown can be virtually impossible unless you live in a large metropolis or seat of industry. But many people who can’t buy at city or state level still prefer to support manufacturers who produce within the borders of their home country. If your home country is the United States, Australia, or most of Europe that means you might be able to get quality construction and/or ethical practices alongside your local production, but you are very unlikely to get low prices or a variety of sizes. Here in the U.S., Karen Kane serves as a fabulous example. This company scores pretty high size wise, as they do stock some plus sizes, but they cannot support petites, talls, or petite plus. The garments are all made in the U.S. and they’re fabulous in quality, but they are relatively expensive based on comparable designs sold at big box stores.

Are there exceptions? OF COURSE. And there are also companies that strive to hit more than three marks at a time, and are working hard to get there. But most brands can’t or won’t. While it would be fabulous to live in a world where ethically made clothing could be obtained cheaply, or where local vendors offered their wares in a huge variety of sizes, we’re not there yet. And may never be.

As shoppers, it is important to understand the forces that drive merchant choices for a number of reasons. For one, it can help make those choices feel less personal. Imogen once told me that one of the most important things she’s learned in all her years working in the fashion industry is that clothing companies just want to make money. That’s it. That’s what’s driving everything they do. You could argue that some brands hint at aspirational marketing, but the cold hard bottom line is that they really couldn’t care less how you feel or who you are or what you want. They are in it for the cash, and will do what they believe is necessary to make that cash consistently.

Understanding these factors can also help manage disappointment and expectation. You may want that talented local designer to make her darling dresses in size 34, and she might do so someday. But to be instantly angry and disappointed and decide that she’s discriminating against and excluding you is discounting her business model, her expenses, and potentially her expertise in sizing/grading garments outside the standard. You may want all of your clothing to have been created ethically, and you may have access to that market someday. But to be incensed that an organic cotton dress made using fair labor practices costs five times as much as a similar dress made from lower quality materials in a sweatshop for Wal-mart is discounting important information about materials, labor, manufacturing, and economics. Again, I’m not saying this is fair or just, and I’m not saying it’s futile to work toward changing market forces and manufacturer policies. Just want the frustrations we feel to be based on relatively complete information.

Supporting materials and recommended reading:

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

Originally posted 2013-11-01 06:14:23.

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55 Responses to “Clothing Consumer Expectation vs. Market Reality”

  1. Marta

    Excellent analysis! I’d like to toss in one more option that hits all of the markers except “cheap”: Sew your clothes, or hire a seamstress/tailor to make them. (Some, though not all, of the materials will likely need to be imported.)

    (Also: The link to Article 23 appears to be broken, and I can’t find a live link through Google. Oh, noes?)

    • Sally

      Shoot Marta, you’re right. Article 23 was up and running within days, but isn’t now. I’ll add a note.

  2. Olivia

    For a national store such as Old Navy, not having plus sizes in the store is discriminatory, period. I would wager far more women are size 14 and above then there are size 6 and below and yet floor space is given to those small sizes. Plus sized women not only have to deal with higher prices for clothing, but they also have to pay for shipping, leaving most women with the only economical option of shopping for cheap apparel. I can’t even consider ethical or local clothing.

    • Aya in Couturgatory

      It’s hard to get numbers on this, since clothing sizes vary so much with height and build, and can sometimes have very little to do with BMI, but I poked around in a CDC document, and adult women (20+) with BMI above 30 in the United States, of all ethnicities, do not outnumber women with BMI below 25. I don’t know about teenagers.

      So if *as a general group* women above size 14 have a BMI of 30+, that is not true.

      That said, I don’t agree with the practice of only selling plus sizes online, but I’m curious about what the sales numbers are, and curious if there are other motivating factors, including social stigma, existing data that points to better sales online for the plus sized demographic, and so on.

      • Marla

        The average size in America IS a 14, meaning many woman fall in the 14 and above range. Part of the problem may be stigma (some rather infamous companies have said as much coughA&Fcough) but part of it is that plus sizes are more difficult to make. More material, bodies are shaped differently, etc.

        Also, just general anecdotal, I am currently a size 14 and a BMI of 24, so extend your numbers. 😉

        • Aya in Couturgatory

          … and I’m a size 2 with a BMI of 28! I’m trying to find data on whether we are outliers in the data set or not.

          I *did* look up the study you mentioned and got the avg size from the SizeUSA study (full info is not available, but the NYTimes piece is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/01/us/sizing-up-america-signs-of-expansion-from-head-to-toe.html). Women’s average was 41-34-43, which does correspond to size L to XL from a few manufacturers I looked up.

          This thing was 10 years ago! I wonder why things have not changed? Is the culture of body shaming so ingrained/pervasive that it’s overriding companies’ supposedly primary desire to make profit? Did this take into account ‘vanity shifting’? (I was a size 8-10 growing up, and my clothes marked 4 now are the same dimensions.) I’ll definitely be poking around. Thanks for the informative article Sally, and for the extra points brought up in discussion, readers!

  3. Jess

    This is a fantastic post, Sally. Especially given the tragic events of last spring of a factory in Bangladesh collapsing and killing 1100 people – making clothing for Joe Fresh (the clothing line sold in Loblaws stores here in Canada) and Wal Mart – this is a very timely issue so thanks for posting.
    One area that is also considered extremely niche-market but just as important in the grand scheme of things is maternity wear. I am expecting my second child right now and have been thrust back into the maddening experience of shopping for maternity clothes. A sweater than would normally cost a non-pregnant woman $30 is now at least $60 or $70 because it’s “maternity wear.” Are you joking?! And don’t even get me started on the limited availability of maternity clothes!
    Every single thing, from jeans to underwear, is way overpriced and not well made. But since women are only in this state and actually require these types of “niche” garments for a limited time, the manufacturers can get away with making their clothes unethically and without quality but charging an arm and a leg. Super frustrating, to say the very least! I actually tried to find maternity clothes made in Canada the other day with absolutely zero results. I have a hard time believing that no one makes maternity clothes IN CANADA but finding them is like searching for a a very specific ant in a very large and complicated ant farm. 🙁

  4. Galena

    This is a fantastically informative post! Thanks for putting this all into perspective!

  5. Karin

    You can have it all…if you sew. Time consuming but also fun.

    Thinking about plus sizes. Talbots and Landsend tend to do classic middle of the road styles. These have a broad appeal (we all need basics!). Trendier, more unique brands already have a smaller market based on taste. If you further subdivide that into larger sizes, it may simply be too small a market to be profitable. I say this as someone on the larger side myself.

    • elizabeth

      So glad you tackled this topic, Sal!
      Karin, Olivia, Marla – I remember there was a media frenzy not long about Lululemon not doing plus size and their response was that it didn’t fit with their business strategy, which we can only presume means that plus size isn’t profitable. Kind of like organic: we as consumers need to create a demand by buying the goods but first companies need to take a leap of faith and sell those goods at affordable prices. So chicken and egg!

  6. Susan In Boston

    Another view into this subject is available from Kathleen Fasanella, who runs fashion-incubator.com. Even if you don’t sew, you can learn a lot about the manufacturing of clothing from her, which will sharpen your eye for quality and detail and give you a greater appreciation for what a clothing entrepreneur has to do before anything shows up on the rack. The book she wrote about how to start a clothing business is worth the $60 she charges for it just to understand what really drives the industry. (Spoiler alert: Fabric comes first.)

    A few years back, she put together another site to make her argument against the position that manufacturers were changing their sizes to flatter the vanity of their customers. Many of the links go to her main site, but this is a good introduction the subject.

    http://www.vanitysizing.com/

    • Marta

      Yes, Kathleen opened my eyes, too! I think she did several posts about the problems with expanding into the plus-size market. IIRC, for a missy-size manufacturer to add plus sizes is far more complex than simply grading up a few sizes. It means creating a whole new series of patterns, testing, marking, etc. It’s more equivalent to a missy-size manufacturer suddenly deciding to add children’s sizes.

  7. Laura

    It is frustrating to have limited options for petites, but I don’t understand the rationale that not offering special sizes is “discriminatory.” It’s a free market, not a regulated service like electricity or water. However, even in a free market, companies want to please their customers and attract new customers. If you wish certain retailors offered special sizes, let them know! The more people they hear from, the more likely they will be to add petites, talls, or plus.

    • Olivia

      “Let them know”. If only it were that simple. Fat people are an “epidemic”, so much so that there is a “war on obesity”, but apparently not enough people are fat to bother offering them the opportunity to try clothes on before buying. I know, I know…”free market” blah, blah, blah.

      • TheRaisinGirl

        It’s an excellent point in some respects, but I’d like to point out that obesity is a medical condition while “plus-sized” is an aesthetic standard. The two have no correlation to one another. If plus sizes are anything over a 14, that will inevitably include a LOT of women who are nowhere near obese. Medically, I’m not considered obese (I had a physical like a month ago and confirmed this with my doctor)…and I’m a size 18!

        I also feel the pain or people who fall into the 14-16 range, because while “regular” stores often don’t consider them small enough to be included (I’ve seen stores that only sell up to 12), plus-sized specialty stores often don’t consider them big enough (starting at 18 or even 20 as the smallest size). Going from a 16 to an 18 when I gained my freshman fifteen (wow, was that really six years ago?!) was actually a relief, because at least then I could shop SOMEWHERE.

        Sidenote because I keep seeing these three letters in other posts: BMI is a ridiculous, unpredictable, and utterly unscientific measurement by which to tell anything about a person’s weight, health, or size. It was developed as a way to measure statistical probabilities for very large, generalized groups and as such is not suitable for predicting anything about single individuals. It isn’t medically sound, it doesn’t take all the necessary variables of individual health into account, and I don’t know why people insist on continuing to use it. I won’t even see doctors who use it anymore, because what that tells me is that a) they don’t know their profession and b) I’m a number to my doctor and will be treated as such.

        • Aya in Couturgatory

          I have major issues with BMI myself, but I think it’s used as a general standard like you said, for large groups. It’s scientific in the sense that the overall trends overlap, but the difficulty of course comes when it’s being used to assess an outlier. I too am one- I’m quite healthy with a BMI of 28ish, depending on how active I am (mine goes up with activity) but that puts me in the danger zone. 😀

          I’m guessing it’s because for large groups it’s so much easier to measure- even skinfold calipers, which have a high standard of error, takes time and another person with some training to do the measuring. Doing a full dunk test and VO2 max test would be even more time intensive, etc. I don’t mean it’s any less frustrating or infuriating not to have one’s size in the shops or to be an outlier to whom the BMI does not apply, but for something like a census, I don’t know of any alternatives for collecting vast amounts of data on a population.

          THAT SAID I’ve heard other folks too getting the BMI talk from personal doctors and that really doesn’t make sense to me. You’re right there! There’s equipment and trained personnel!

    • Aging fashionista

      Agree. They aremt required to offer anything but consumers can weigh in and itmwill evntually have an impact. (from a petite)

  8. Sheila

    I am lucky to live in a city that has several shops dedicated to supporting locally and ethically-made clothing, accessories (even underwear!) and jewelry. I love your diagram, Sal – perfect for those who shop new only. Because of course, you can find ethically-made, amazing quality clothing IF you are willing or able to take the time to shop vintage or second-hand. Or you can at least feel less guilty about a sweat-shop made garment if you buy it second-hand, thereby supporting a local charity.

    • beth

      Finally someone says it. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I get beautiful quality, a variety of sizes and brand named clothes that someone else has spent a lot of money on and I can claim as my own for very little. What I do have to spend is my time and my vision, but it allows me to find what I want for very little.

  9. Diversity

    I wear a petite size and have a wide foot (C/D width). I have to shop online because I can never find anything that fits me in the mall. I think it ***IS*** discriminatory when stores like J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Belk’s, Dillards, etc. have these teeny weeny petite departments stocked with clothes only an old lady tourist would wear. And if it weren’t for online stores like Zappos, I don’t know where I’d find shoes. I’m not hard to fit, either. Most ready-to-wear petite clothing fits me without any alterations needed. I can’t go to the store and try on stuff before I buy. That’s what bothers me. If it weren’t for stores like Coldwater Creek, I don’t know where I’d find anything affordable and stylish to wear.

  10. Keilexandra

    I’ve found my own compromise in the intersections of low price/size variety and size variety/quality construction. That said, I’m lucky to be semi-borderline petite sizes and have gotten away with purchasing regular sizes in many things.

    But I want to add another complaint to the mix: why are high-quality, pricey clothes so often still hand wash or dry clean? Boden and Garnet Hill are the two exceptions I know of to this rule; Boden somehow makes machine washable cashmere, even! I prefer to pay more for breathable fabrics (I’m fine with rayon and viscose but I dislike poly in tops against bare skin), but it’s so hard to find the intersection of cotton/wool fabrication and machine washable care labels. We won’t even get into clothes that permit you to put them in the dryer (I understand why that’s not feasible for wool, but pre-shrunk cotton isn’t that hard if more expensive for the retailer).

    • Eleanorjane

      Yes! I just don’t buy things that are dryclean only (except winter coats) because it means that the garment has substantial ongoing costs (and the bother of actually getting it to and from the drycleaner).

  11. Brenna

    Fascinating post, and timely for me. My sister and I have been discussing our respective wardrobes recently, and both need a major overhaul. We have both been sale shoppers for years, going for low-cost, but recently have started to be a lot more concerned about timelessness off pieces, and following that, their quality. I’m coming to the conclusion I would rather have a lot fewer pieces in my closet, and really love all of them, then a bunch of things I got a great deal on, but don’t really enjoy wearing. So I’ve been ruthless purging my closet, and adding back in only things that meet my criteria. Fortunately for my pocket book, I do know how to sew, and have been doing a lot more of it!

  12. Tabie

    I have scouted out every store in town that could even potentially carry something that doesn’t make me want to gag. Five years ago when I lived in this town and wore a size 16 it was relatively easy to find clothing in my size. Now that I’m back in town and back to a size 16 it seems like everything has changed. A 16 is now impossible to find even stores like JC Penny a lot of their brands have stopped carrying it when they use to go up to an 18. The women in my town…many are much bigger than I am yet they stock mostly smalls and mediums. If they bought an XL top at all, it is gone within moments of hitting the rack it seems. Sizes have also changed I’m now some where between a plus size and a regular size. Most plus sizes are far too big (and not stylish) where as an XL is too small. It’s crazy how much things have changed.

    I also don’t understand why I can find a structured top in an XL but if you move up to a 1X the “same” top is shapeless? Oh well, due to my pickiness and a lack of clothing even that I don’t like, I guess I will keep up with my online shopping and be a bit on the chilly side for the 3rd year in a row lol

  13. Lisa

    Bravo, Sal, for this thought-provoking post and crystallizing the complex intersections into a very concise Venn diagram.

  14. Sue Walker

    As a petite living in Spain, I was so grateful when I discovered Lands End! I had been happily buying trousers on-line from Wallis until they suddenly decided to make their petite trousers longer – why? Who knows! I also buy from Marks and Spencer, who ship internationally and have a good range of sizes. I recently bought a skirt from People Tree, an ethical company whose prices are very reasonable, but so far they don’t stock petite sizes. Where I live, apart from the lack of petite clothes (I have to go to my nearest city to find petite ranges, and they’re not cheap!) I find many shops are aiming at younger women, so don’t have my size or are too skimpy, and the others are aiming at grannies!

  15. Audi

    Another factor in this discussion is the expectation of how many clothes should be in a typical closet. Just a generation or two ago, clothes were uniformly expensive, and people had far fewer of them (more people made their own clothes, too). If you had fit issues, clothes had to be custom made, period. The fashion industry has driven these changing expectations as much as it has had to keep up with them. If all clothes were of high quality and expensive, people would buy fewer, but the fact that fast fashion exists at all has driven consumer hunger for larger and larger wardrobes. People with fit issues are left out in the cold because they develop the same taste for a wide variety of clothing just like everyone else does, but the market just doesn’t support offering them much choice. More and more though, I’m seeing people shift back to at least a middle ground of stocking their wardrobes with affordable basics and then investing in fewer well chosen, high quality pieces that are either the stars of an outfit (say a dress or a really eye-catching top), or else timeless items such as trench coats or riding boots which will last for 10+ years.

    I also want to recommend Etsy as a resource for ethically made, quality clothes in a variety of sizes (or rather, the option to have items custom made). It can be expensive, but it’s generally a more affordable option for custom pieces than a retail vendor would be because you’re buying directly from the maker and there’s no brick-and-mortar overhead.

    • Ellie

      Yes! Thanks for pointing this out. There is a lot of great food for thought in Sally’s post, but I found myself thinking at the end that it is entirely fair and just that well-made, ethically manufactured clothing should cost more. A clothing budget of X might not buy as many items, but a) those items were more likely to be made by workers (often unionized) making a living wage, and b) people did not expect to own so many items of clothng. The increase in the size of wardrobes (and houses and all the other stuff we consume) in the US goes hand in hand with a decrease in working and wages and imports in garment manufacturing. I always love finding union-made, made-in-the-USA labels in thrift stores, but it also always makes me sad that that is virtually the only place I find them.

  16. Kathy

    This is an unrelated issue (for me) about consumer expectations and market realities. I am frustrated by the number of garments that I buy, and love, until they have been laundered or dry cleaned. If I buy a polo shirt I want it to come out of the dryer ready to wear—not needing to have the collar ironed. I want shirt lapels to lie flat etc. Am I the only one who would like to have the manufacturer test their garments for post-laundry performance???

    • Eleanorjane

      I agree. I have an issue with viscose t shirt shirts or tops. They look lovely on the hanger, but come out of the washing machine needing a careful iron to look any good. I don’t have a dryer, but even hanging them on a coat hanger to dry leaves them unacceptably crumpled. I’ve started being really picky with the fabric of tops I buy ‘cos life is too short to iron t shirts! (I foolishly bought a linen-cotton blend t that has the same problem. Never again!)

  17. Amy

    I am consisently amazed by what high quality pieces I find second hand, in good condition for pennies on the dollar by shopping at thrift stores, Larger than 18 can be harder to find ( I am currently about a 14)…and even IF I end up buying clothing that was not ethically produced, I know that MY money didn’t go to the producer,,,it went to a charity. We are so wasteful with clothing in this country,

    • Jen

      Harder to find above 18, yes, but not impossible. I’m a size 22, and I’d say 75% of my wardrobe is thrifted, both do to financial necessity over the last couple of years, wanting to do less with fast fashion, and just the appalling costs of plus size clothing. You want me to pay $20-30 for a plain or lightly embellished t-shirt when I can get it at Goodwill for $3.75? Easy choice. Most people are shocked when I tell them something I’m wearing is thrifted. I buy only those items in good or like new condition, and I do have to hunt through mu-mu crap, but good stuff is there. I only have trouble finding dresses or blazers I like or that fit, and I do rely on places like Ross for those.

      I co-run a home daycare, and we were able to buy each of “our kids” a “new” Goodwill Christmas outfit for a daycare Christmas pic card. Darling stuff that probably cost tons brand new, and most of the moms didn’t realize it was used until we told them. (We washed each item before wearing, of course.)

      Granted, most things I’ve found are not made in the U.S., but it helps my consumer guilt a little to know that I’m not directly supporting the sweatshops when buying used.

  18. Diversity

    I wear a size 6 petite, and almost never have to pay for alterations. When I do, it’s just a simple alteration like having something hemmed up. So why, pray tell, can’t I find anything in the mall? I have to shop online. Is it that American women are getting larger? I know it’s hard to find clothing small enough to fit me, so maybe that’s it. Still, I know women who are shorter and smaller than I. Where on earth do they get their clothes? The children’s department?

  19. Victoria

    Petite issues, petite issues, petite issues!

    Yeah, there are larger women out there. Do they have problems finding clothing? Yes. My friends who are larger than the “norm” have problems, too.

    But here’s what gets me hot under the collar. We have the same issues – stores stock a small range of sizes. I’m 5’0″ and 105 pounds. 27′ inseam. My friend is 5’6″ and closer to 200. Neither of us can find things to purchase in-store.

    Yet… When I complain about this to larger friends, I’m denigrated and told that I shouldn’t complain, because of my size. That I should think about how tough it is for them. Perhaps the tiny of us and the larger of us should come together to force expansion of sizes in bricks-and-mortar stores?

    All I know is, for what I can afford? Well-made clothes mean I can’t afford the alterations needed, and cheap clothes fall apart too easily. Does that mean I should be forced to sew my own? I’d love to, but working 60+ hour weeks means that’s not really an option, either.

    Something has to give, right?

    • Elizabeth Ann

      Agreed. My first thought on reading this was Talbots and Lands End carry a wide range of sizes?! The smallest women’s petite sizes at both of those brands doesn’t fit me. Which is crazy to me because I live and work in an area where I see women even smaller than me all the time. I can’t even begin to guess where they buy their clothes.

  20. Ellie

    I also just wanted to add that geography is another factor to consider when weighing market realities vs. consumer preferences. In my rural area, which is far from the most rural part of North America, there are hardly any options for locally-made, ethically-sourced goods, even for those willing and able to pay for them. There are many places in the US at least where the only choice for in-store shopping is the low price circle of the diagram above, and you don’t even get that much of the size range benefit (much less the full array of available styles).

  21. Ellie

    P.S. Thanks for such a stimulating post! I wish style blogs had more of this kind of discussion of the market forces that play as big as, if not bigger role as cultural forces in fashion.

  22. Cindy M

    A couple of books that explain the finer details of these very points:
    Elizabeth Cline, “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion”
    Teri Agins, “The End of Fashion: The Mass Marketing of the Clothing Business Forever”
    And not exactly on the same subject matter, but in a similar vein:
    “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster” by Dana Thomas

  23. Aging fashionista

    Thanks so much for doing this post. It is a similar issue to the local/organic food issue:balancing cost, ethics, health (in that case) with price, availability, and convenience. No perfect fit. Choose your poison:),altho manufacturers/retailers can be swayed by consumer demand, eventually.

  24. f.

    These are all such great points, Sally, and the comments bring up so much more! Like others, I’ve downsized my wardrobe (I own 5 pairs of shoes, 4 dresses, 2 pairs of pants, 2 sweaters, 4 cardigans, 5 blouses and about 10 t-shirts including longsleeves and tank tops) and try to do a lot of second-hand shopping. Even so I can’t describe myself as a flawless “ethical shopper” or anything like that – a lot of the stuff I buy new is from mid-range brands that belong to the whole H&M conglomerate. And, I invest a lot of time and energy thinking about clothes and budgeting, which – well, I don’t spend much money perhaps, but time is money.

    I also wanted to add that buying second-hand can make it much more justifiable to get a good item tailored so it fits even better! And, if you own fewer items, it’s imperative to be willing to mend, treat stains, handwash, line-dry and/or dry clean them, get shoes resoled, etc. One of my goals for 2014 is to make a thorough accounting of how much money I spend caring for my clothes. Subjectively, I’d guess it is 1/3 or 1/4 of my clothing budget.

  25. Karen

    Really interesting analysis! My top priority is range of sizes. I’m tall (just shy of 6 feet) and on the border of regular/plus sizes. Add to that the fact that my waist to hip ratio is anywhere from 2-3 sizes apart – it is next to impossible to find clothing that fits my tall frame AND my curves without significant tailoring. I am lucky to make enough of a decent living that, although I am budget conscious, I can afford to pay a little more for quality and/or ethically produced garments and feel that it is worth it. But it is so hard to find clothing that fits, I’m thinking investing in some dress-making classes might be more cost-effective and worthwhile!

    • Tabie

      I think you’re my sister lost at birth. You just described me minus the budget haha. I’m not sure your style but I have found stores that tend to identify as having “juniors” plus fit me better than stores with regular plus. Of course, one problem is the clothes can look too young even for me but then there are also more options that aren’t the “standard” poly, floral nonsense. Quality isn’t always the best though but if you can do standard repairs you can keep the clothes longer. 🙂

  26. Elizabeth

    I’m surprised predictability didn’t make it onto the list. I used to shop at lands end until their sizing went haywire. I ended up in a 14 because the 12 was too big and the 16 was too small… It took a ridiculous number of returns to figure that out. And quality is unpredictable. I’d be prepared to pay boatloads of money for something that I knew would fit and last, but that’s not an option. And I think that’s what pushes people towards insisting on cheap; if the $10 shoes at Payless have a better guarantee than the $100 at nordstroms (I asked, they do), how can I justify the extra money on something that will fall apart in a few months?

    • f.

      This is so true! It seems like more and more places are switching to synthetic t-shirts instead of cotton (I’ve heard this is because there have been bad cotton harvests for the last few years, and some crops were wiped out by floods last year). And I hate it when I go in a store expecting to find cotton tees, and suddenly everything’s viscose.

      At least now it’s easier to do Internet research on both brands and specific products. That’s how I picked out my H By Hudson boots – I saw a lot of women saying that they swore by theirs for comfort and the boots still looked great after a year or two. And, I really make a point of never paying retail price for big-ticket items… I stalked Amazon and Ebay till I found someone selling a gently used pair, and saved over 50%. That makes the financial hit hurt a lot less.

  27. Lisa

    I always call this stuff Laws of Physics.

    We may want it but it’s not going to change:).

  28. Jodie Maruska

    Excellent post. To circle back on the demand leadung to supply for retailers to offer pkus sizes (ie lululemon). I worked for a large clothing retailerwho offered plus. We had a strong and loyal customer base but over time, the look if what was being offered declined, the brand eventually folded. I was told that execs felt pkus women did not like to shop and would purchase whatever was offered. Aside from being apalled, i realized that 1. Plus size women need to be involved…we need to be the designers, buyers, merchandisers, retailers….a skinny guy in a suit & tie has no idea or even interest in catering to our needs. 2. We need to be vocal and we need to invest in ourselves and our wardrobes at all sizes. Its two fold….my local bloomingdales had a lovely eileen fisher dept in missy sizes and a couple of tstands of it in plus. The plus was eventually taken out as it didnt sell. There is hesitation from plus women to not spend money on ourselves (ie, im losing weight..or im just not conditioned to even expect or demand lovely items of clothing). Yet..we are expected to jump at what meager options we do have and are quickly punished when we dont by having it taken away. Eloquii is another example… Its so layered and i think the first step is that we have an active role and voice in this industry at all levels.

  29. Diversity

    f. mentioned buying second-hand clothing. I tried that, but couldn’t find anything in my size. Again, I’m a size 6P who can wear just about any ready-made garment in my size without having to make alterations. I’m not hard to fit. I just can’t find my size. Of course, this is because I expect my clothing to fix. Shapeless stuff for women who don’t have a waist are available everywhere. I refuse to wear that frumpy stuff.

    Also, I have been unable to consign my clothing because the consignment shops tell me no one wears my size. Everyone is bigger, so…

  30. LaChina

    I don’t mind shopping online, as a plus size woman who doesn’t LOVE shopping, online is a great option for me. I can never find anything when I thrift and most enviro friendly clothing are not my style. Ideally I’d love to make things myself, I bought a cheap sewing machine but all the sewing classes are given by the sewing machine manufacturers. So no basics.

    I’m pretty happy with the selection and prices of online retailers, plus I can read the reviews before buying. Online is the way to go.

  31. SusanM

    Very interesting and informative post. I haven’t read all the comments yet, but those I’ve read make good points as well. I will look at the resources you list at the end. Another book is Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline. There is a companion website.

  32. alice

    I rarely ever go into brick and mortar stores anymore because it’s usually a huge waste of time. Instead I wait until I get an email about a sale + free shipping going on at one of the two stores I shop at, load up in the smallest size possible and hope for the best. I usually end up returning 90% of the stuff I get, but it’s what I have to do. At least this means I have a very small closet.