Kids Clothing:  How Much is Enough?

With school – Dad, don’t say that word! – rapidly approaching, one of my tasks is to cull through the upcoming Autumn and Winter clothing to see what’s available and what is needed.  This no longer happens with Eldest, who’s through growing and whose female fashion is off-limits to Dad but it does happen with her younger brothers, who are far from finished with their growth.  The process will start with Youngest and after inventorying what’s there and making space, I’ll move on to Middle; what he’s outgrown will then shift downwards to the little brother.  But when I recently glanced at the closet and drawers of one of the boys, I wondered how much does this kid really need?  How much do any of us actually need?

I remember my own father tossing out that rhetorical question decades ago as he watched my mother bringing in the shopping bags with back-to-school clothing for my sister and I.  He was a Depression child and could probably count his items of clothing on two hands and nowadays, I myself don’t recall having so much clothing in my closet and dresser.  But he wanted his children to dress decently and wasn’t going to poach on his wife’s domain as domestic engineer.  Some years ago, I took the kids to the barber/stylist and he chatted about his own childhood in the 1950s with them.  What struck them, I learned afterwards, was that he lived in what he described as a decent neighborhood and shared his bedroom with his brothers and that each of them had a dresser drawer in which to keep all of their clothing.  A single dresser drawer?  They all shared the closet?  Huh?

So what happened between the 1950s, the 1980s and now?  If you think about it, it’s a reflection of what we did to our industrial sector and our fellow citizens as we pursued globalization.

Regardless of what else you might think of the 1950s and 1960s, it was a period of a strong American livable wage.  Families could afford decent housing, transportation and food with money left over for savings and the discretionary items – the items – that made life more enjoyable.  It was also during this period that the American appetite for discretionary items really began to take off, as spending for non-necessities, as a percentage of income rose from 32% in 1950 to 35% in 1960 enroute to 48% in 1985.  While spending was ginning up in the growth of the consumer culture, overseas manufacturing was also ginning up in places ranging from Japan to Indonesia, Korea and ultimately, China.  The push was on, with far lower labor costs, for greater consumption of fashion both in clothing and footwear and retailers provided all manner of sales and advertising.  It’s been in the past two decades that Walmart has become the king of cheap clothing as they’ve flooded the American market with inexpensive clothing.

Business news organs would periodically chronicle the departure of the American textile industry but this was largely unnoticed by most Americans except for the 1970s union commercials.  In these brief ads, women dressed as blue collar factory workers would slowly gather as they sang Look for the Union label…It was a sad and doomed effort to encourage Americans to support their fellow citizens, but against the constant barrage of sales advertising, was as effective as a squirt gun at a three-alarmer.  Now, my son’s closet and drawers are full of clothing and while it’s too late at night to check them, I guarantee that 99% of it is imported.  Yes, it’s cheap and there’s lots of it, we being good Americans, but all of that money has gone to a multinational corporation that pays pennies on the dollar to foreign laborers.  We have effectively gutted ourselves and sold out entire towns in the southern United States and I’ve been part and parcel of that tragedy.

So just how much does he need?  Where does it need to come from?

First, I won’t do to him what I won’t do to myself, so earlier this week, I gutted my own dresser as I downsized from five drawers to two and a half of both summer and winter shirts and short pants.  Tomorrow, I’ll do the same to my own closet as I cull out the weak and the lame, leaving only the survivors.

Second, I anticipate that he’ll be left with probably a half dozen solely-for-play summer shirts and a few more that can be worn for school.  The same will go for winter wear, including one or two sweaters and a pair of good khakis or navy blue dress slacks.

Third, I’ll start searching for clothing in the upcoming sizes that are made in the US and as he outgrows the existing and I have to replace them, I’ll purchase the domestically made.  While the cost per item is liable to be higher, the flip side is that having to purchase fewer items should mean a zero-net difference and the money will go to American labor.  This is provided that I can find it.

The final advantages of this approach will mean smaller loads of laundry and fewer piles of clothing waiting for dispersal to the various drawers.  Likewise, less money will wind up being wasted on clothing that simply takes up drawer or closet space as it loses out to the more favorite articles that are constantly being worn to the point of threadbare.

Our children learn from our own habits as they grow and observe us.  If we’re to make these kinds of changes in our economic habits, then it will be easier for them when they’re older and the reality is that we’re going to have to change. 

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