The ingredients for this demise have been brewing for decades. In 1977, clothing accounted for 6.2 percent of U.S. household spending, according to government statistics. Four decades later, it’s plummeted to half that.
Share of personal consumer expenditures
U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Wells Fargo Securities
Apparel is being displaced by travel, eating out and activities—what’s routinely lumped together as “experiences”—which have grown to 18 percent of purchases. Technology alone, including data charges and media content, accounts for 3.4 percent of spending. That now tops all clothing and footwear expenditures.
Several reasons are behind this shift. Some are beyond the control of apparel companies, as societal changes drove different shopping behavior. But missteps by these companies along the way have hastened the death of clothing.
It used to be that office workers needed suits and ties or pleated pants, long skirts and heels to get through the week. By the early 1990s, that seemed to change. The genesis is debatable, but many chalk it up to tech firms in Silicon Valley pushing a business-casual look dominated by khakis. That trickled into other industries, as casual Fridays became common. Now, office apparel is just as casual on Monday as on Friday for many workers.
Over the past five years, there has been a 10 percentage point spike in employers that permit casual dress any day of the week. The upshot of this is that Americans increasingly need just one wardrobe, because there is so little differentiation between what people wear to work and on the weekends.
Share of U.S. employers that allow casual dress every day
Source: Society for Human Resource Management
Decline in dry-cleaning shops since 2010
Neckties are disappearing, even in industries such as finance. Sneakers can be worn to any occasion, including weddings and religious services. And about half of Americans say they can wear jeans to their professional offices, according to a survey by NPD Group.
It’s easy to see why this is bad news for apparel companies. When you cut out an entire category of attire, there’s less need to buy new clothes when fashions change. When there’s a hot new color or pattern, maybe a twentysomething buys one new blouse to stay on trend and wears it to work and out at night. Before, she might have purchased two pieces, one for each setting.