Ellie Levenson: China has saved us from sartorial snobbery

The desire for new things may not be a great character trait, but it has broken down social barriers
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The Independent Online

I had a wonderful time in the tailor shops of Hoi An in Vietnam a few years ago. Tailors catering to tourists produced copies of various Western clothing catalogues and we could point to any style we liked and any material in the shop, and have a made-to- measure version ready by the next morning. My companion and I went a little overboard perhaps, spending five days in the town and most of that time in the clothes shops.

The process of buying a whole new wardrobe was so enjoyable for its own sake that it barely even mattered when I got home a couple of months later, having lost rather a lot of weight backpacking, to find that my made-to-measure clothes were as lovely as I remembered, but my measurements had changed.

Such methods of shopping, however, are not so practical in the UK for non-backpackers. I don't have five consecutive days to spend on shopping, nor the creative vision to know what something will look like before I've seen it, though I am rather jealous of the friend whose lovely dresses I frequently praise only to be told they have been made by her mum.

Therefore, like most people, I am dependent on the high street, and am a regular visitor to the shops that have a quick turnover of cheap clothes in the latest fashions, taking great joy in buying something for just a few pounds that looks great now but may be laughingly last season in a few weeks.

Unfortunately, the detention of millions of Chinese-made clothes in ports and warehouses around the EU at the moment due to trade quotas may put a stop to this while negotiations for their release take place. Some UK shops, including Marks & Spencer, Bhs, Debenhams and Next are already complaining of stock shortages and warning of price rises - not that surprising when you consider the sheer scale of clothing being held - 59 million jumpers and cardigans (that's one for every person in the UK) and one and a half million bras.

Not since Eva Herzigova was pictured wearing a Wonderbra in the 1994 "Hello boys" advertising campaign, causing numerous complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (and apparently quite a few car crashes), have bras featured so heavily in the headlines and caused quite so many newsreaders to blush.

Now it is absolutely true that I don't need any more clothes. Not now and probably not ever. I have a whole wardrobe, for example, of black tops, all of which differ from each other in small but significant ways that it is possible only I can see. I have skirts in many different lengths, styles and patterns and still probably only ever wear about half of them, and I have way more bras than I have breasts.

So I am not unaware of the pleasure than can be got from shopping out of greed rather than necessity. However, even I was surprised by the number of garments we import. That there are 17 million pairs of trousers waiting to be released means that we must buy an awful lot of trousers.

This is partly due to a shift in the way we view clothes. We no longer care so much for the quality of a garment, because the chances are it will be out of fashion before even the cheapest item has worn out, and there are several shops on the high street with such a quick turnover of clothes that you can go shopping in two consecutive weeks and by the second time the stock will have changed completely. This is why shops providing good quality basics, such as Marks & Spencer, have seen their fortunes dip.

We may have sacrificed quality for quantity, but we've certainly got more colourful. Foreign manufacturers have responded to our constant demands for something new by producing cheap, exciting clothing, and shops have responded by ordering it far more quickly and in far bigger quantities than expected, hence the current crisis.

Although this constant desire for new things may not be a great character trait, it has had the effect of breaking down some social barriers. You no longer hope, when people admire something you are wearing and ask where you bought it that it is an expensive item. Rather, you look forward to showing off the bargain you found. "Yes, I got three tops and some accessories, and got change from a £20 note."

The preponderance of cheap and fashionable clothing means that you can no longer tell the difference between an outfit bought in the local supermarket while stocking up on groceries and an outfit bought from an upmarket boutique. Thus, you probably actually have to talk to people before any snobbery of that kind can kick in, rather like city workers, where you cannot tell from clothing who is a company director and who works on reception. This is excellent - fashion as a democratising force.

Though the restrictions on the cheap imports were demanded by many EU member states worried about job losses in their own manufacturing industries, it's unlikely that, having tasted the joy of cheap, almost disposable, clothing, we will ever go back to our old ways.

If, as threatened, the trade restrictions continue and prices rise, I suspect that rather than spend more we will just buy less. Clothes will once again be seen as items that last longer than a short season and we risk returning to the clothes snobbery that has marred many a social life.

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