The History of American-Made Clothing
Did you know that the average American household spends roughly $1,800 on clothing every year? Together, we purchase almost 20 billion items of clothing each year. However, out of all those 20 billion items, the percentage of clothing made in American is only two percent — that’s it.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case. And it’s a much more recent development than you may think. For centuries, Americans bought clothing manufactured on our own shores. Most of us feel vaguely patriotic when we see that “Made With Pride in the USA” sticker or tag that adorns some of the clothing we buy. But the pieces that bear this label are rare. Most of us get the sense that this is bad, but not all of us know why.
So, let’s find out why by talking about the history of how America’s clothing manufacturing industry moved overseas, how this hurts or helps us as a nation and how it affects you.
The History of American-Made Clothes by Decades
Throughout America’s early history, we produced our clothes. Once the 20th century began, however, that started to change, as demonstrated by the timeline below of American-made clothes:
- 1960 — In the year 1960, the average American household spent roughly $500 a year, equal to a little more than $4,300 in today’s money, on clothing and shoes. That was an average of 10.4 percent of the household’s annual budget. And how much of this was manufactured right here in the USA? A whopping 95 percent.
- 1970 — By 1970, the average household was spending just under $600 per year on clothing and shoes, or about $3,600 with inflation. That amount was about 7.8 percent of the average annual budget. And how much of this was manufactured in the U.S.? It was down to 75 percent.
- 1980 — In 1980, the average household clothing budget increased. It was now $1,319, which was more than double what it had been ten years earlier. However, today, that would be equivalent to about $2,955, which means the actual clothing spending percentage decreased. The amount spent was now about six percent of the average budget. American-made clothing manufacturing was now 70 percent.
- 1990 — By 1990, the average American household was spending $1,741 each year on apparel, which is equal to $2,583 in today’s money. That was now about 5.1 percent of the annual household budget. The amount of clothing manufactured in the U.S. had dropped by 20 percent and was now resting at 50 percent.
- 2000 — In 2000, the amount spent by the average household stayed almost the same as it had been in 1990. This amount was $1,749. This was equivalent to about $2,263 in today’s money. That was now 4.3 percent of the annual budget. The amount of clothing manufactured in the U.S. was now down to 29 percent.
- Today — The average household spending on clothing has reached a plateau and is roughly the same at $1,740. This number is now only 3.5 percent of the average household’s annual budget. However, the percentage of clothing manufactured in the U.S. has continued to plummet. Today, this number rests at two percent.
The statistics are impossible to deny. The amount of clothing manufactured in the U.S. has dropped from 95 to two percent. That drastic change has taken place in only 57 years.
And while at first glance the numbers might look like we’ve started spending far more on clothing, don’t be fooled. If you look at the figures for inflation, we — in fact — spend less on clothing today than we did in 1960. We’re spending about two and a half times less on clothing than we were in 1960.
But how did this change come about? Why are our clothes made in other countries, anyway?
The Rise of Overseas Textile Mills
Shifts in manufacturing overseas took place during the 1970s, as huge textile mills started to emerge in developing countries in Latin America and Asia, particularly in China. These operations offered the benefits of cheap labor, plenty of raw materials and the ability to mass produce orders fast.
By the 1980s, even though 70 percent of clothing was still produced at home, some major retail chains had caught on to the idea of outsourcing their manufacturing. They still designed and marketed their clothes, but they began to transition away from manufacturing them. Retail giants, like J.C. Penney and the Gap, were adopters of this new production approach.
By transitioning their production overseas, these retailers could produce enormous quantities of products at only a fraction of the cost to produce them domestically. They began to perfect this process, learning which factories and which countries could complete each step of the manufacturing process for the least amount of money.
That meant producing different items and parts of various products in an assortment of countries and factories — wherever they could do it at the lowest cost. Intricate global supply chains began to develop, funneling cheap, mass-produced clothing into the U.S.
Another step in this process occurred in the 1990s when a succession of liberalized trade policies was set in motion, most notably by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. These policies almost wiped out restrictions and duties on imports and foreign-manufactured clothing. With these barriers removed, American retailers started to rely even more on cheap, overseas production.
When American Factories Couldn’t Compete
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that domestic apparel manufacturers just couldn’t compete with this movement. Overseas manufacturing was too cheap and too convenient. What retailer would choose to pay an American worker when they could just employ a factory worker in China for a fraction of the cost?
Because of this shift, 750,000 clothing manufacturing jobs disappeared from the U.S. between 1990 and 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Any retailers who were still choosing to manufacture in the U.S. were pushed to move their operations overseas, as skilled workers were disappearing in response to the job cuts and outsourcing.
Looking Further Back in History
Given our modern perspective, it might be easy to assume that our country has always been trending in this direction. It can be hard to imagine that we ever acted any other way.
But if you just look back at our country's history, you’ll see that this trend towards outsourcing is recent. For most of our nation’s history, companies have been motivated to manufacture at home, and consumers have also been encouraged to buy products made here.
So where does this trend towards domestic production have its roots? It turns out, this trend goes all the way back to the American Revolution.
The American Revolution and the Birth of American-Made Clothes
During the Revolution, America was trying to establish itself as an independent entity, separate from Great Britain and in no way dependent on it for any goods or services. To do this, it was important to become self-sufficient. Americans were encouraged to buy local products, instead of those imported from Britain.
Even more so than buying American-made clothes, citizens were invited to make their own clothing, using raw materials from America. These actions were a statement of patriotism at the time, and a way to support the American cause for independence. Buying clothes and goods of the U.S. was a statement of resistance against the oppression and taxation by the British government.
As American grew into an independent nation, one of its greatest points of pride was its self-sufficiency. It had access to an abundance of natural resources, and it had a nation full of people working as farmers, artisans and business-owners. Most of what Americans consumed was produced domestically.
The Second World War and the Resurgence of American-Made Clothes
World War II was a complicated era the history of American-made clothing. Apparel manufacturing became much more focused on domestic production for a few reasons:
- German occupation of France: The first reason was that Paris was the undisputed fashion capital of the world. As it was being occupied by German forces, American manufacturers were compelled to look elsewhere for fashion design. So, they focused inward. They turned to American designers, projects and sketches. As such, U.S. manufacturers became more popular.
- S. involvement in World War II: The other reason was that America was at war. Citizens were being called upon to save money and support their country in every way possible. That meant writing letters to soldiers, sticking to allotted rations and collecting scrap metal. But it also meant something we don’t often hear as much about — buying American-made clothes.
During these years, buying apparel designed and manufactured in the U.S. once again became a point of pride and patriotism for many U.S. citizens. The label, “Made in the USA,” was a way to bring people together and unite them in a common cause in support of the war and their country and troops, all through the power of consumer culture.
Consuming American-made goods during World War II was a way Americans identified themselves. It was a way for them to feel good about themselves and their country. And it was a way for them to turn all the uncertainty and fear associated with the war into a patriotic movement.
The Modern Times of Today and the Return of American-Made Clothes
And that brings us to today. The relaxation of trade restrictions and the accessibility of cheap overseas labor have led to an overwhelming shift in apparel manufacturing and a decrease in American-made clothes.
These cheaper production rates have led to the price of clothing falling, meaning we spend far less of our income on clothing. Major retailers, too, are getting a great deal out of this set-up. They can produce far more at a much faster rate, meaning they can sell more and, in theory, rake in a bigger profit. To make things even better for them, they’re also spending far less on manufacturing, making their profits even greater.
How Do Foreign-Manufactured Clothes Hurt the Economy?
While retailers and designers benefit from outsourcing their clothing’s manufacturing, they’re affecting their U.S. consumer base in four areas:
Unemployment is the single largest way foreign-made products hurt our country and is the consequence that most of us are aware of.
The way it works is simple. Clothing companies need someone to produce their clothes. They have the option to an employ an American, or to pay a factory worker overseas. Most companies will choose the factory worker since this is far more cost effective. The result is that the American who would have done the job is now out of work.
The unemployment rate in the U.S. reached 4.3 percent in July of 2017. Of course, many other causes of unemployment other than outsourcing exist, and not all outsourcing is in the clothing industry. But the fact remains that the American clothing market is the largest in the world at 28 percent, and thus comprises a significant portion of the problem.
The challenge with outsourcing is that once these jobs move offshore, they often don’t return. For a company that employs underpaid factory workers overseas, to switch their production back to the U.S. boasts such a high cost that it would be almost impossible. The company would risk bankruptcy.
- Government Spending
Because more people are unemployed, due in part to trends such as outsourcing, this means that more families are struggling to get by and meet the rent and mortgage payments, as well as buy groceries.
These people often find themselves relying on government welfare to survive. That means that our government must increase its budget and spending to keep providing aid to help these people as they try to rejoin the working world.
- Cash Flow
The natural consequence of unemployment is that there is less money flowing into the economy. As people lose their jobs, their budgets naturally constrict. They’re forced to conserve their money on things like food and rent.
That means that these people can’t spend money on new clothes, movie tickets or vacation getaways. Thus, these industries experience a profit loss as their consumer base shrinks, which can impact their overall operation and even lead to the closing of small businesses.
- Closed Businesses
With less money moving in the economy, and with most people’s disposable income being limited, many people can’t afford to contribute to their local and national economy. They can’t spend the afternoon at the mall or a day at an amusement park with their family.
That hurts businesses. It means companies are no longer making the same amount of profits as before. In some cases, businesses aren’t even making enough to offset their cost of operation, meaning they’re forced to close.
Of course, this sequence of events is more complicated as there are many more factors at play, such as the business’ services, product quality and even money management. But the negative impacts of foreign-made clothing on the U.S. economy can’t be dismissed or ignored.
The Made-in-America Revival
Based on all the things we’ve just mentioned, it might be easy to assume that the future is bleak. You may think that clothing will remain an import from foreign markets, and the cycle of economic downturn will continue. But you might be wrong. And that’s because the future of American-made clothes is looking up.
Clothing manufacturing is slowly beginning to return to the U.S. Small, start-up businesses are announcing their commitment to manufacturing in the U.S. More companies are starting to produce clothes with the Made-in-the-USA label or sticker, with customers wearing the items with pride and patriotism.
It’s not a wholesale movement yet, but it’s a start. In 2013, the number of garments produced in the U.S. was six percent higher than it was in 2012. This 2013 figure is almost 35 percent higher than it was in 2009. While it might be too soon to classify this as a landslide movement, it represents a small jump in a positive direction.
What’s motivating companies to either return their manufacturing operations to the U.S. or to begin them here and commit to keeping them here? Three reasons are encouraging companies:
- It’s the Patriotic Thing to Do
The cycle of damage caused by foreign-made clothing, as outlined above, is not a secret. It’s easy to see this cycle playing out all around us. More people now realize its disastrous effects and that a change needs to come and that, like all changes, it starts with one person at a time.
Many people, including those behind small or new businesses, have experienced unemployment. Or they’ve had friends and family who’ve been unemployed. Certainly, they’ve all struggled to find a job at one point or another. While it isn’t the only problem, the outsourcing of manufacturing is a partial cause for a loss of job positions.
Because of this, many small start-ups are committing to making their product right here in the U.S., where it will create jobs for people who otherwise might not have had them.
- It Means Better-Quality Products
When something is being mass-produced in a factory, it’s often not high-quality. It will have been made as fast and at the lowest possible cost. No time is given to quality or details. The focus is on the numbers and producing as many clothes as possible.
And it’s not that the people who make our clothes overseas don’t care about quality. They’re not given the opportunity to demonstrate their skill because the designer is only concerned with maximizing their profit and output.
This lack of quality is what many companies who sell American-made clothes hope to combat. In almost every case, products manufactured in America are higher quality than those that come from mass-retailer factories in another country. These American-made products are given more time, care and individual attention, resulting in a product that is more beautiful and lasts longer.
Manufacturing in the U.S. does mean paying a little bit more. But the benefits of this higher price tag are worth it. You’re receiving a superior product that will serve you better and last longer. And you’ll also be supporting a good cause — that is, manufacturing clothing in the U.S.
Get Involved and Shop Goodwear
Are you wondering how you can get involved in this growing trend? Are you curious how you can make your voice heard on this topic? It’s simple. By purchasing American-made clothes, you’re making a statement. That statement says loud and clear that you support American-made clothing. And that’s a powerful statement to make.
If you’re looking for a company that is committed to selling high-quality American-made clothing, look no further than Goodwear. We’ve been producing clothing in the U.S. for more than 30 years, and we’re committed to creating comfortable, durable clothes that you’ll love to wear.Browse our online catalog today to shop for yourself and find the perfect item you’ve been waiting for.
I found this article by googling American made clothes. I buy a brand called Lafayette 128, carried at Nordstrom. It’s very expensive but I love it. I was shocked when I found out it was made in China. Throughout the pandemic, I tried hard to only buy American made. I sure hope others do the same. Glad I found your company
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