It is increasingly difficult to find high-quality clothes that will last and look good for years, but it's worth putting in the effort.
Forget brand names and prices. These tell you nothing about the quality of a garment. With fast fashion houses churning out new styles on a biweekly basis, it’s getting increasingly difficult to sift through the crap to find the real fashion gems, whether you’re at a department store or vintage shop. The best approach is to learn how to identify signs of quality (and, by extension, crummy construction), and ask yourself some key questions while shopping.
Assess the fabric.
How thick is it? Fabric is thinner than ever, which may be suitable for certain styles, but is usually indicative of cheaper quality. A T-shirt, blouse, and jeans should be thick enough to stand up to regular wear, especially if you have a minimalist or capsule wardrobe.
How does it feel? Give it the ‘hand’ test. Stroke it, drape it, touch it to your bare skin. Is it stretchy, smooth, rough, soft, heavy, etc.? Look for heft and weight, since heavier fabrics tend to be better-made fabrics. Give it the scrunch test to see if it wrinkles immediately; if so, walk away.
How tight is the weave? The tighter the weave of the fabric, the better, because it means a garment will be more durable. Loose knits are more susceptible to snagging and tearing. The little threads in the fabric should be straight, otherwise you might get that uncomfortable feeling when a garment’s seams twist oddly to the side.
What does the pattern look like? If a piece is boldly patterned, like a stripe or plaid, then care should be taken by the maker to line it up at the seams and pockets. Unless misalignment is meant to be a fashion statement, avoid pieces don’t match up.
Examine the details.
What do the seams look like? I’m not a seamstress, but I found some fabulous tips in this article on Recovering Shopaholic. Author Debbie Roes writes:
“Better quality garments have more stitches per inch and thus have tighter seams – and thus less of a chance to have the seam come apart. Quality top-stitching should be straight, in matching thread (unless the top-stitching is designed for contrast) and have a high number of stitches per inch. The stitches should lie flat to avoid snags (no loopy stitches).”
You can find some helpful pictures of seams at Dress Well Do Good.
What does the hem look like? Higher-end clothes have generous hem allowances, which mean you can let them out for future alterations. This requires more fabric, which is why these clothes are more expensive.
Are the buttonholes well-made? These should be tight, with no loose threads. There should be extra buttons included in the garment for easy repairs. Expensive blouses often have a ‘placket’ to cover a row of buttons or a zipper – a thin overlap of fabric that hides it.
What's the lining like? If the piece is lined – already a sign of better quality because they glide on more easily and are more comfortable – make sure it feels like a sturdy, thick lining. (You can also have it relined.)
Read the care label. Avoid finicky details like mandatory dry cleaning, if you can. These will be expensive and annoying in the long run. Be realistic about the amount of care you’re prepared to give, especially if you lead a busy life.
If you’re considering a new item, grab several of the same size to compare for consistency. There will be minimal variation in well-made garments, whereas fast fashion pieces can vary wildly.
Read online reviews to see what other people have thought of it.
If you’re a woman, check out the men’s section. Men’s clothing tends to be better made than women’s, for some reason. Sometimes you can find certain gender-ambiguous pieces like cashmere sweaters, scarves, T-shirts, and basic comfy shoes at good prices.
Study vintage items to see what good garment construction looks like. Compare that to the fast fashion pieces of today and it will become easier to spot the good stuff quickly.
Last, but not least…
Ask yourself, "Can I wear this with something else?" A good rule of thumb is only to purchase items that will go with at least 3 other things in your closet.