Spending on Clothes

I have written before about “fast fashion” and its costs. Today I mull over how much Americans spend on their clothes.

My American father was raised during the Great Depression by a single father, a man who had been on his own since he was 13 years old.  My Norwegian mother, raised during World War II in German-occupied Norway, came from farming folk who were adept at using every bit of food raised and piece of cloth woven, knit, crocheted, sewn, felted and/or fulled.  My parents were frugal people – a frugality reflected in clothing.  Having “fancy” clothes wasn’t important to either of them.

But having “fancy” or expensive clothes didn’t seem overly important to anyone in my elementary school.  We were from the same neighborhood – working and middle class – and our folks had better things to spend their money on.  One’s clothing revealed much about one’s socio-economic status.  Frugality in clothing marked people of lesser means.

Now we live in the age of off-price department stores where shoppers can buy – at drastically reduced prices – “designer brands” and popular styles.  Here on the West Coast of the U.S., for instance, the landscape is dotted with Ross Dress for Less, Marshall’s and Home Goods.  People count on inexpensive “fast fashion” (ignoring its hidden costs) to easily add to or replenish their wardrobes.  (Of course, you undoubtedly already know that the vast majority of those clothes is cheaply made out of cheap fabric.)  American closets are overflowing with cheap clothes.

So how much do we spend on clothes?  Today I read “How America Spends Money: 100 Years in the Life of the Family Budget,” by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic (April 5, 2012).  To read the original source, go to the full 69-page 2013 report from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Department of Labor, “100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending.”  

As summed up by Thompson, this is how Americans spent their money in 1900, 1950 and 2003:



In 1900, Americans spent 14% of their budget on clothing.

Fifty years later, Americans were spending 12% of their budget on clothing.

Chart2003By 2003, Americans were spending 4% of their budget on clothing.  But this doesn’t mean that people are buying fewer clothes.  Rather:

In the last 50 years, food and apparel’s share of family has fallen from 42% to  17% … as we’ve found cheaper ways to eat and clothe ourselves. Food production got more efficient, and we offshored the making of clothes to other countries with cheaper labor. As a result, apparel’s share of the pie, which hardly changed in the first half of the century, shrank in the second half by two-thirds. (Source; emphasis mine)

I looked up the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer expenditure report for July 2014-June 2015:  Food expenditures have fallen to 10% and apparel expenditures to 3%. 

What percentage of your family budget goes to apparel?

As an aside, did you notice the growth in the orange “Other” category from 13% to 21% to 39%?  Here’s the two-part explanation of the growth in that category explained by Thompson:

  1. Half of that orange “other” is transportation costs: mostly cars, gas, and public transit. A century ago, … 80% of families were renters and nobody owned a car. Today, more than 60% of families are home owners, and practically everybody owns a car.
  2. The other part of that orange pie is health care.  Health-care spending makes up more than 16% of the U.S. economy, but only 6% of family spending, … One reason for the gap is that most medical spending isn’t out of our pockets. Employers pay workers’ premiums and government foots the bill for the elderly and the low-income.   (Source)



About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
This entry was posted in Miscellany and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Spending on Clothes

  1. That seems quite sensible!


  2. Susan says:

    Very throughout research indeed. I spend a bit more than 5% of my annual income on clothes. While I am buying in different places – some clothes like underwear and casual clothing come from discount shops, elegant ones come from good, branded shops. I just don’t see point on spending big lumps on money on things like underwear and t-shirts. I prefer to have more money in my budget for evening dresses and working shoes instead.


  3. kiwiyarns says:

    Thought provoking as always. ‘Progress’ is not always a good thing.


  4. salpal1 says:

    Very interesting! I never would have guessed that people spent that much LESS on clothing now, given that in 1900 most people only had 1-2 outfits, from what I have read. School/work clothes and church clothes. I have always spent far less than that percentage on my wardrobe – except for a period of time in my 20’s :-), I have tried to buy quality clothes that last for years. Many of the things I wear each day came with me when I moved to Maine, nearly 20 years ago. And they weren’t all new then.

    I read an interesting article in Yankee Magazine this month by a Vermont homesteader, talking about one reason he is building his house – to teach the skills to his children. He commented how each generation loses knowledge of the skills needed to do things themselves, and fewer and fewer people learn trades, which is, in his point of view, not a good thing. Everyone should know enough to fix a roof, grow some food, etc.

    To me these feel very, very linked. Our culture has shifted toward consumerism, and convenience, giving no thought to what that means for our culture and our future. Imagine a day when no one knows how to build a house, sew a skirt, knit a sweater, cook dinner? I hope I am not around for it.


  5. Constance says:

    A real eye opener. Great research.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s