Americans have stopped trying to stuff more clothes into their closets

But where would you put it?
But where would you put it?
Image: AP/Seth Wenig
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The 1990s were a clothes shopping spree for Americans. At the start of the decade, the US consumed about 40 garments per person annually. By its end, that number had ballooned to about 65 garments per person.

The figures, which come from the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), are basically a proxy for how much clothing, on average, Americans buy—all the garments the US produced, plus all those it imported, divided by the US population. Even accounting for the population expansion, the amount of apparel the country consumed still grew more than 60%.

But then something happened right at the start of the new century: the decades-long rise abruptly plateaued. Two recessions—the first in 2001, and then the Great Recession of 2008—slammed the breaks on US clothing consumption. It hasn’t picked up significantly since.

Rather than being a temporary malaise, it may represent a fundamental shift in US spending. ”We think it’s sort of the new normal,” says Nate Herman, senior vice president of supply chain at the AAFA and its resident economist.

Data before 1991 isn’t as reliable, but Herman says the trend looked much the same, if not quite as dramatic as the rise through the 1990s, when lower clothing prices spurred a shopping binge.

After a dip during the 2008 recession, shopping did rebound a little. People presumably felt the need to replenish their closets. But the numbers have flattened out again. Herman doesn’t expect consumption to drop much further, barring a major economic downturn, but he thinks the rapid expansion of the American closet that we’ve seen in previous decades has come to a stop for now.

The major reasons are large-scale changes in how Americans spend their money. Millennials, shaped by the Great Recession and more populous than the Baby Boomers, are coming into their prime spending years, and they use their money differently than previous generations. Generally speaking, they’re shifting dollars to experiences and away from things, including clothes and shoes.

Signs of this change pop up in subtle ways: Instead of buying SUVs for their looks, younger Americans are buying the oversized vehicles because they actually need the cargo space to lug their paddleboards and kayaks out to a lake or seashore. The 1990s ideal of a gigantic closet stuffed with designer clothes (see: Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe closet in Sex and the City or Cher’s AI-assisted smart closet in Clueless) holds less allure these days. Instead, high status is suggested in minimalism and the language of conscious consumerism, and brands are touting their sustainability and recycling efforts.

When millennials are spending on material goods, clothing has tough new competition from pricey digital accessories. “If you look at the last peak in per capita consumption, which was in 2006, the iPhone didn’t even exist. It was introduced in 2007,” Herman says. “The kinds of items that are competing with purchases of clothing and shoes have changed dramatically over the last 10, 11 years.”

Americans do still buy a lot of clothes—no great surprise in the world’s largest consumer market. The annual US consumption for 2016 works out to every American on average buying more than five garments a month. The Council for Textile Recycling estimates that Americans discard about 70 pounds of textiles per person (pdf), much of it clothing, in landfills each year.

But while Americans are still buying lots of clothes, they’re actually spending less of their income on them, in part because they can. Since the early 1990s, clothing prices have slightly declined, even as overall retail prices have climbed steadily. Low-cost options from fast fashion to off-price chains have flourished, while many clothing retailers have come to rely on constant discounts to get shoppers in stores.

There are early signs, however, that apparel prices could start rising again. In January, they spiked their most in three decades, as stores scaled back on promotions and up-market labels rebounded. One month doesn’t make a trend, but Herman says there are other indications that “people are willing to invest more in higher quality clothes and shoes, in part because they’re buying fewer of them.”