Something’s happened to high street clothes. I can’t be the only person that has noticed. In the past decade or 15 years, small details that used to be common have become scarce: darts, pockets, proper seams. Shoulders hang strangely and more complex cuts, such as bias cuts, are a rarity. Buttons dangle loosely, as if the items they’re cursorily attached to aren’t worth hanging on to, which they probably aren’t, as most materials are cheap and synthetic, bobbling and fading easily. Everything just feels so … rushed.
No surprises there, perhaps. It’s exactly where you’d expect fast fashion to have ended up. Go to any charity shop these days and it’s a graveyard of unloved, unpretty items from H&M, Primark and Zara, discarded almost as soon as they were bought. Those customers who do bother to use shops’ take-back schemes, which are designed to “close the loop” and ensure less waste, mostly have no idea where their returned items are going. By tagging clothes, the Changing Markets Foundation followed a skirt handed in to H&M in London’s Oxford Street in 2022, and found that it travelled 15,467 miles around the world, through a processing facility in the United Arab Emirates, only to be dumped in Bamako, Mali, five months later.
If that fills you with guilt and horror, perhaps it’s time to reconsider high street shopping. I’ve almost completely eliminated it from my life, and with very little effort. I’ve always tried to buy ethically and, in 2013, the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh underlined that commitment. But the aforementioned decline in quality has also coincided with me entering my 30s. I know what suits me, value quality, and my head is far less likely to be turned by passing trends. Folding up a bunch of Primark floral indie-girl dresses, now destined for a charity shop, it’s striking how their quality would be on a par with some costing £80-100 from a chain these days. Consumers are being fleeced.
When I’ve talked about the tyranny of the high street before, I’ve been accused of being a snob. People on low incomes need cheap clothing outlets, the argument goes. My grandmother, who was always good at economising, believed the opposite. Her saying was: “Poor people can’t afford to buy cheap things.” When I was growing up, my mother always shopped in charity shops and, yes, at times I felt embarrassed in case someone from school saw me in town. This was before vintage was considered cool. So I do know what I’m talking about, and it seems insulting to me to assume that people without a lot of money have no sense of quality.
When I was revising for my A-levels, a courier showed up one day with a large suitcase full of my godmother’s clothes. Beautiful dresses, jackets and skirts, some of them museum pieces. I still have many of them, though heartbreakingly, the 1960s Balmain dress fell prey to moths, and I’m still in mourning. I haven’t thrown it away in the hope that I can afford to mend one hole a year. In the age of fast fashion, decent clothing repair practitioners are becoming scarce.
Moths aside, there is so much joy to be had in pre-worn clothes, and the popularity of Vinted and eBay stands testament to that. You can still find the occasional gem in charity shops, but online is the place to look. Spending £80 on a Zara dress makes no sense to me when you could spend the same and get vintage Dolce & Gabbana (TikTokers can keep their “mob wife aesthetic”; I’ll stick to “mistress at a Sicilian funeral” for my inspiration). I have a wardrobe full of beautiful clothes that are made to last and they haven’t cost the earth. And if there is something on the high street that catches my eye, I simply wait a few months, or even weeks, and it usually turns up on Depop or Vinted.
Once you notice the high street’s decline in quality, it’s hard to unsee. When I was pregnant and nursing, I lived in vintage St Michael buttoned dresses: so much cheaper than fast-fashion maternity wear, but also markedly better made. Clothes carry memories. I recently posted on social media about a pair of vintage boots belonging to my mother that I have finally accepted are irreparable. The things those boots saw and the places they took me! Somehow, a cheap ra-ra skirt smelling faintly of snakebite doesn’t carry the same nostalgia. I had fun in it, yes, but as I toss it into a bin bag I wonder about the person who made it just so I could wear something new on a Friday night out. Even without the bellyful of lager, cider and Ribena, the wastefulness of fast fashion makes me feel very, very sick.