Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Quality of the Time

With the way I go on about the quality of vintage all of the time you probably think everything was amazing back during the Golden Era.  And that's not true, there were plenty of bad quality pieces, just like there are today.

The reason we don't see those pieces very often nowadays is that they were cheap and didn't survive.  A cheaply made piece isn't going to last as long as a well made piece, especially if it is all the owner can afford and wears it to death.  Not to mention certain materials didn't always behave the way the owner might have wished:


Woolen socks, woolen socks!

Full of color, full of clocks!
Plain and fancy, yellow, blue,
From the counter beam at you.
O golden fleece, O magic flocks!
O irresistible woolen socks!
O happy haberdasher's clerk
Amid that galaxy to work!
And now it festers, now it rankles
Not to have them 'round your ankles;
Now with your conscience do you spar;
They look expensive, and they are;
Now conscience whispers,
You ought not to,
And human nature roars,
You've got to!

Woolen socks, woolen socks!
First you buy them in a box.
You buy them several sizes large,
Fit for Hercules, or a barge.
You buy them thus because you think
These lovely woolen socks may shrink.
At home you don your socks with ease,
You find the heels contain your knees;
You realize with a saddened heart
Their toes and yours are far apart.
You take them off and mutter Bosh,
You up and send them to the wash.
Too soon, too soon the socks return,
Too soon the horrid truth you learn;
Your woolen socks can not be worn
Unless a midget child is born;
And either sockless you must go,
Or buy a sock for every toe.

Woolen socks, woolen socks!
Infuriating paradox!
Hosiery wonderful and terrible,
Heaven to wear, and yet unwearable.
The man enmeshed in such a quandary
Can only hie him to the laundry,
And while his socks are hung to dry,
Wear them once as they're shrinking by.

--Ogden Nash

Some of the worst-made suits (yet highly collectible today) are British 'Demob' suits from the 1940s. As British servicemen were returning from the war the government gave them suits to help them get back on their feet. They were often very crudely made with all sorts of errors: misshapen lapels, funky proportions, low quality materials. 

click images to enlarge

But they were only meant to be worn a short time to allow the owner to get a job and eventually buy new suits.  Demob suits sell for big bucks but beware: not every vintage suit advertised as a Demob suit is really a Demob suit.

A demob suit.  Note the wonky lapels and the poor pattern matching on the back seam.
Photos via Baron Kurtz Vintage.

Now let's once again look at the other side of things: good quality.  While poor quality items did exist they were definitely the exception, not the rule.  Let's face it, people back in the day cared more about quality and were more thrifty, fixing and salvaging and reusing items without tossing them away like we do today. As a result, we're able to find both the high-end and lower-end pieces from 70 years ago, often in perfect condition. And looking at vintage 'mid-level' pieces from run-of-the-mill department stores like Sears, Younkers, and JC Penney, we see that garments from these places that everyday low- to middle-class folks use to buy are often still better quality than higher-end off-the-rack of today. 

I regularly find vintage top quality tailored suits and other pieces from long gone shops that were once found in tiny farming communities. Back 70-100 years ago nearly every decent sized town had one or more men's clothing store and/or one or more tailor shops. They dotted the landscape from coast to coast. My great- great- grandfather owned, in central Iowa, as many as four quality men's clothing shops within 50 miles of each other back in the teens and '20s. The quality was better and people were willing to pay more for that quality.  

Examine the late 1930s/early 1940s drape sports coat shown below.

This sports coat is artful, finely crafted.  It has a gorgeous, subtle herringbone pattern to its wool material.  Add in the attractive leather buttons and the sleek roll of the lapels and you have an incredible piece of vintage.  Here are a couple more views of the sports coat:

For so fine a garment you might expect it to be a high-end custom piece from a custom tailor.  Let's have a look inside at the label:

Younkers is a local, midwestern department store that was founded in 1899 in Des Moines, Iowa.  Below is the original Younkers site from which the above sports coat was sold.

Interesting, that a department store company similar in concept to the more famous J.C. Penney's department store company would sell such a finely made garment.  I think this point demonstrates that quality mattered much more during the Golden Era than it does today.

Just out of curiosity, how much would that Younkers sports coat have cost back in, say, 1940?  Well, here's a comparable sports coat from a Spring and Summer 1940 Montgomery Ward catalog.  The price for this piece is $12.50 in 1940 dollars. 

How much is $12.50 from 1940 in 2013's dollars?  $208.52.  If we were to walk into any of the big name department stores like J.C. Penney's or Younkers and purchase a sports coat at a full price of $200 I think we'd be very disappointed in its quality when compared to its 1940 counterpart.

I think it's pretty safe to say as a rule of thumb, vintage clothing will be better quality than most modern clothing, even much of the higher-end stuff today.  Quality mattered back during the Golden Era, though from time to time junk would make an appearance.



great article and unfortunately, how true.

Carmelo Pugliatti said...

Once Cary Grant say that the ready to wear in USA was the best ready to wear in the world,also better of many European bespoke.
I think that until mid-late 60s this is true.
But i have a question...what was the percentage of MTM and bespoke in America in the golden age?
I suspect that MTM was very high in percentage back then.


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