I frequently see people bemoaning how expensive Mod style clothing is — and I admit, the “premier” clothing labels are something that someone barely earning above the minimum wage can justify, barring receiving something as a gift or scoring a once-in-a-lifetime sale. Now think about those of us, no less “Mod” by definition of personal aesthetics, taste in music, literature, films, and so on, but pull in even less income — disability allowance supplemented with freelance writing and Etsy barely makes diddly, and I’ve only recently worked my way up to diddly.
Now, I know I don’t conform to the strictest idea of a Mod fashion aesthetic, but in part cos I’m hard to fit off-the-racks, and in part cos a lot has influenced my own personal style and the idea of sticking to an über-strict interpretation of a Mod look just doesn’t make sense to me, anymore. On the other hand, as I said, I’m broke, and if one can look as well as I do whilst being as broke as I am, obviously I must know something.
So here are some tips I have for the kids, or anyone else who might need them:
Forget About “Lifestyle Brands”, They’ll Get On Just Fine Without You and You Without Them
Here’s something that I’ve suspected a long while, but recently had confirmed by some oldsters on the Mod Generation forum: If you’re on a tight budget, the look is more important than the brand. “The originals” knew this. Sure, it was nice if some-one could score expensive clobber, but even today, there is no shortage of “knock-offs” (and in big coastal cities, plenty of brand forgeries) that look just as good and hold up just as well for a lot less. Yes, sometimes the adage of “you get what you pay for” is true, but I’ll get to that further down.
Just remember that “the originals” didn’t always have THE brands to own, and some of the extreme brand loyalty portrayed as an obsession amongst all the Faces in the ’60s is largely a product of limited oral histories spotlighted by media outlets, and at most, it seemed dependent on who your friends were. And sometimes, THE brands to have varied by location, age, and mates: One gent on The Mod Generation seems very insistent that THE brand of denim jeans he and his friends wore was Lee, and Levis were for dockworkers and rockers —but if you go to other sources, it’s Levi-Strauss that’s the brand for Mods to wear. What we can ultimately take away from these divergent stories is that the look was more important than the brand, especially now, when there are dozens of brands that make perfectly fine clothing for all manner of Mod looks, and not to mention a revolution in home businesses, and surely plenty of people who’d be more than willing to craft bespoke clothing as upstart designers.
Branding Is Not Necessarily Indicative of Quality
This is something that a lot of people just can’t shake, but here’s a secret that I’ve learned from friends who work in small clothing boutiques, in “chain boutiques” at shopping malls, and actually for certain “lifestyle brands” including Retail Slut, Lip Service, Boy London, Griggs (Doc Marten), and others: If you see a “lifestyle brand” at a large chain boutiques in shopping malls, even the middle class department stores, like Macy’s, it’s probably not the same quality item that you could get from a smaller, independent boutique, or better yet, a boutique owned by the brand itself.
This is generally not public knowledge (though many loyalists to certain brands who’re not-necessarily-in-the-know have suspected it for decades), but it’s pretty common for quality brands to make cheaply-made versions of their items —cheaper versions that are otherwise identical— to sell to “big-name” chain stores. The chain store wants to move items at a price that it “competitive with” (less than) the prices offered by other stores or the brand itself. If the brand sold the high-quality items at the price the chain wants them for, bankruptcy would likely ensue. So what’s a high-quality lifestyle brand to do? Offer the chain a cheaper version for the scene tourists and fad whores, and hope the lifers and brand loyalists notice a difference in quality and eventually bypass the chain boutique for the brand’s website.
It’s borderline crooked and arguably wasteful, but that’s how Capitalism, works, kids: the brand has to offer a cheaper product of lesser quality for the sake of exposure, while producing lesser quantities of the quality product that will hopefully preserve the brand’s reputation.
When buying Quality, Less Can Become More
I’ve seen a lot of American fashion rags call this “the European habit”: Buy only one or two high-quality items of clothing a year, and you’ll eventually have a lot of gorgeous, high-quality items without busting your bank account. The key being to focus on buying high-quality items that may be a little more expensive, but are durable and always in style for your look. I don’t see what’s so “European” about this idea, but it’s a great idea for extra holiday or birthday money, tax-return season, and so on —indulge in *one* high-quality shirt or pair of shoes, or a seasonal suit, or so on (after more-necessary expenses are taken care of), and you may not have the most-envied wardrobe, but it’ll be respectable, and within a few years, have some really nice things.
When buying high-quality items, you end up replacing things less frequently —in part because the extra attention has been paid to selection of materials and the quality of the work gone into making and inspecting the items, and one is also more inclined to actually make minor repairs (when possible) than throw away an item with a busted zip or torn seam.
…which reminds me:
Learn the Art of Mending
People don’t do this much anymore, and I don’t understand why. Well, OK, I understand a little — when cheap clothing is so prevalent, it’s far more convenient to replace things than to fix them. This is a really bad habit to get into. For starters, if you can only afford inexpensive items, this can quickly turn into money going right into the ragbox. Secondly, if you’re not in the habit of repairing a cheap polo shirt or darning a pair of dress socks from Target yourself, if you can ever score a quality item (be it a holiday pay bonus or a gift), you’re going to be at a loss when that item finally needs a repair. It’s like oral hygeine: If you don’t start teaching children at a very young age how to brush and floss and use a rinse as soon as they can hold a toothbrush, it’s going to be harder to teach them to make a habit of it when they’re older. Well, it’s like any good sense habit — the sooner you get into it, the better the chance you have of making a lifelong habit of it.
If you have a laundry day, set aside the next day as a “mending day”. It’s easier to make repairs to items that are clean (especially socks, for what should really be obvious reasons), so this works out fine –just examine each item before you fold, and set it aside for mending, if you need to. For shirts, a fine, but strong thread is best, and a finer needle works best. It’s all hand-sewing, and there is no shortage of tutorials on YouTube; eventually, you’ll be able to figure out what stitches work best for which particular kinds of tears, but if you’re ever at a loss, as around to friends or on-line, if you have to. If the crotch of your jeans are rubbing thin, some iron-on patch on the inside will extend the life. Darning socks is relatively easy, as well, and again, there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube —but you’ll need a specialised needle (a proper darning needle is very large for a hand needle, and while there are a few sizes for different thickness knits, they also tend to have duller tips), some thick cotton thread, and it goes by much easier with an “egg” or “mushroom” tool. It’s also completely possible to do it all by hand, but in my experiences, that ends up with a tighter weave that ends up fraying around the edges faster. In a pinch, if you have one, you can use a shot glass.
The cost of mending is naturally very inexpensive, compared to replacement items: A basic needle and thread can repair up to a hundred shirts, maybe more, and will cost between $2 and $7, depending on the thread. Each shirt you replace could cost between $5 (if you’re lucky enough to find something on an extreme clearance or at a rummage sale) and $40, or more. Sure, a standard six-pair bag of athletic crew socks may only cost about $7 at K-Mart or Woolworth’s, and a darning egg between $5 and $15, the cotton up to $5 a spool, and a card of darning needles about $5, but that spool of cotton will easily last dozens of pairs, and will work just as well on darning the rubbed-out heels of most dress socks —it’ll look more obvious, but only when the shoes come off, and in my experiences, the repaired area can last longer than the original weave (at least after I became rather experienced in darning my own socks.
Learn the Art of DIY
Sure, there’s a big difference between mending a shirt and making a shirt, but after you learn the fundamentals of sewing by mending, it’s not a huge task to learn to make whole outfits. True, to make your own clothes, you need a lot of time, patience, and you can’t expect to make your own bespoke winter and summer suits until you’ve cut your teeth on a few shirts (and other, simpler projects), first, but most of the price of a tailored suit is in the labour, and always has been. If you can score quality textiles, and have the patience to do it, you can make your own suit for one third the price of one tailored at a shop or less!
Mary Quant, at work
If you don’t have the patience, another option is to buy something off the racks and have it tailored to fit you perfectly, but depending on the skills of yourself or your tailor, it can look a little awkward.
More Importantly, Take Good Care of Your Things
Did you know that machine washing and tumble drying actually contributes to damaged clothing? It really does. If it says “hand wash”, your machine may have a “hand wash” setting, but it’s really best to get a washboard and learn how to do it yourself. When weather permits, line-drying is always best, and it saves a lot of money in energy, and some things are just best dried flat or on an indoor rack, anyway.
ValetMag, which tends to cater to men’s sartorial interests, has a “Handbook” on clothing care that everyone should learn –especially the decyphering of care labels and hanger use (both of which will make HUGE differences in the life of your clothing — plastic “tubular” hangers should be banned), and their “When to Wash It” guide will also give you a decent guideline on how often certain items need to be washed, at least given normal use and hygiene habits of the wearer. A little bit of an unscented “clothing refresher” (like Febreeze), applied lightly, also helps, depending on the season and any hygienic peculiarities (like maybe you shower twice a day, and use powder and deodorant sticks, and are even a fair size for your height, and you still have issues with sweat). Basically, don’t wash your clothes after every wear, unless it’s a foundation garment (vests, pants, socks, brassieres, etc…), or thin knits (t-shirts or polos). If you change your clothes a couple times a day, for different activities, then you have even less reason to launder clothing after every wear.
If you spilled something on it, you may be able to get by just touching it up with a stain stick at home, letting it set a few minutes, and then hand-rinsing in the sink for another wear; not all stains, of course, but you’ll soon learn which ones are easier to get an extra wear from and which are not.
The really important lesson here is that machine washing and tumble drying after every wear does more damage to the life of your clothing than you can imagine. Certain expensive washer-dryers promise to reduce this, but wouldn’t it make more sense to cut even that amount of potential damage in half? Technology is no excuse for mistreating your clothes.
It may seem a tad skeevy to just come right out and say it, but here’s the truth of the matter: You can’t go dustbin shopping on Carnaby Street or Park Avenue or Rodeo Drive anymore. The high-quality deadstock at vintage clothiers is usually for very tiny people, because it’s the crap that didn’t sell. Furthermore, the prestige of deadstock at vintage shoppes will be reflected in the price; why? By nature, it tends to be more scarce than even things that were purchased and worn only once, or never worn but lack tagging and are technically no longer “deadstock”. You can’t afford these things, the shoppes are no longer giving them away due to a very minor defect, and you want these items. So what are your options? Well, you can whine about it on the internet, or you can make friends.
Whether it’s inexpensive tailoring jobs or or discounts on readymades at the vintage boutique, people are notorious for giving favours to their friends.
Here’s the catch, though: You have to REALLY become friends to these people, and show it. Friendships are based on shared interests and, often, mutually beneficial arrangements between the involved parties. I might give a friend of mine a discount on badges for his band, and in return, he might give me the latest single on 45.
Go to a shoppe, introduce yourself, hang out a bit if you’ve got nothing better to do, and offer to do little jobs to help out — sweep up, help sort things, suggest arrangements for the window mannequins, and so on. If you work on the university paper, offer a discount on an advert, if you can, or just pay a percentage of the advert for the shoppe, if you can’t offer a real discount. Offer to spruce up the shoppe’s Facebook page or take photographs for their website. Seriously, you can do all sorts of little things for local shoppes that will endear you to the kind people running them, and *could* result in discounted merchandise.
Here’s the other catch: This is no guarantee. See, small shop owners will also gladly take any free help they can get, and not every person running a small shop believes in compensating hopeful young people for their time with a measly 10% off that Paraphenilia dress that fits you just perfectly, or that empty Mary Quant compact that would make a great business card case. A lot of shop owners also feel that they can easily sniff out the people who’re just hanging out there looking for free or cheap merch by doing odd jobs —and maybe you’re genuinely interested in the shoppe and were just wrongly accused. Oh well. If a shop owner makes it clear that they can’t or simply won’t give you a discount or freebies, no matter what their reasons are, accept that. Remember, this is best treated as a long shot, and it’s one of those things that, in my own experiences, is most-successful when you’re very young and earnest, or the owners feel they know you very well, and even then, it’s a total crap-shot. They have bills to pay, too, and the store likely doesn’t make much money.
On the other hand, if you are very young, say 13-16 in age, hanging out at the shoppes and doing little tasks around the store is a great way to engage the employees and owners, and learn about the clothes and styles. Most of these stores are owned and run by enthusiasts of vintage and subculture styles, so hanging out after school and doing coffee-runs for the employees can be a great way to learn things, so even if you don’t get a discount on that dress or suit, you’ll get knowledge and meet people. It’s also a great way to actually getting a job there, or at least an employment reference.
Don’t Cheap Out On Shoes
Assuming you’re done growing, this is very important. You really need the best you can afford, even if it means that they’re going to cost more than a similar K-Mart shoe or a forgery you found at a Chinatown shop. Griggs, the company that makes Doc Martens boots, has met people halfway on the little branded habit of expensive but high-quality things at the showcase boutiques, and cheaper things at big chain shops: The “Made In England” line, and their cheaper line produced in a factory in China. Now, while Griggs insists that both lines meet the same standard of quality, I’ve been wearing predominantly (and sometimes ONLY) Doc Martens since I was fourteen years old (and my feet only really went up by a single size at about the age of twenty-five), I have the complimentary book that came with pairs of Docs in 1999, a good five years before they shifted most of their work to a factory in China. There is a clear difference in quality between a Chinese 1460 in leather and an English 1460 (which are only in leather), and the quality is directly reflected in the price.
Shoes can bring the whole outfit together and finalise the statement your clothes are making. Cheap shoes with an otherwise quality outfit might not seem obvious if the shoes are brand new, but it will become more obvious with wear.
Shoes, by their very function, also take more of a beating than the rest of your wardrobe ever will. You’re not going to literally beat 125lbs+ of pressure into your trousers, against the pavement, literally hundreds of times for your twenty minute walk to your bus stop in Hyde Park, Chicago. You’re going to do that to your shoes, though, and a little extra money for a high-quality shoe with a durable sole will be worth its weight in gold, in the long run. And if you end up walking through the soles of your high quality shoes? (I’ve literally walked through the soles of my Docs several times.) Call around, most cobblers can replace the sole for under US$75, so see who has the best reputation and the best price for their quality of work.
A Proper Dandy Can Even Look Smashing in Rags
Later in his life, Andy Warhol, renowned as a Mid Twentieth Century dandy, took to mostly black items, and some people noted that the only reason they could tell his outfits were different was cos otherwise identical items showed crude signs of mending in different places. Now, Warhol, by that time, had built up his own personal style and eccentricities for over thirty years, he had the name and notoriety and accumulated a sense of personal dignity to carry it off well. Maybe this won’t work for you, but if you give a lifetime of building even local notoriety, it might work. Or hell, maybe you could get away with saying that you’re applying the artistic symbolism of Dexys Midnight Runners’ “ragamuffin” phase with the classic Mod aesthetic?
The point is, being a proper stylist is about more than just clothes: You need an attitude, a confidence, and a bit of talent. You need a knowledge of what looks best on you, and a sense of how to maximise it. You also need a personality that makes people remember more than the clothes. You can’t buy any of that with any amount of money.