Cataloging Our Progress: Men’s Business Wear, 1975-2012

by Don Boudreaux on December 28, 2012

in Growth, Standard of Living

Using my Fall/Winter 1975 Sears catalog, I compared an eight-piece ensemble of low-priced men’s business wear available from Sears in 1975 to a “similar” ensemble available today.  (The meaning of my scare-quote marks around “similar” will soon become clear.)  This comparison is akin to my recent one comparing men’s clothing items in 2012 to those available in 1956.

On the surface there’s good news for those who subscribe to the account that the standard of living for middle-class Americans reached its peak in the mid-1970s and has stagnated ever since.  Alternatively stated, on the surface what you’re about to read might be interpreted as confirming the belief that all the improvements in American middle-class living standards reported here (and here, here, here, and here) occurred between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s, with little or no improvement since Gerald Ford occupied the White House.

But – and this “but” is significant – a great deal lurks beneath the surface.

The prices reported in the list immediately below are 1975 prices; the ‘typical’ American worker then earned an hourly wage (in 1975 dollars) of $4.87 (specifically, in December 1975; the average figure for the entire year 1975 is $4.73 per hour).  (Data available here from the BLS.)  The figures in the accompanying brackets are, first, the amount of time that a typical worker in 1975, earning $4.87 per hour, had to work to buy that item, and then the difference in this 1975 time with that required of a similar worker in 1956 and, also, with that required of a similar worker today.

- lowest-priced all-wool two-piece men’s dress [leisure] suit in 1975: $39.90 [8.2 hours - down a whopping 14.3 hours, or 64 percent, from the work time that was required of a similar worker in 1956; 1.9 hours less than is required of a similar worker in 2012]  {Unlike in 1956, Sears in 1975 sold no all-wool men’s suits.  Indeed, it sold – at least if the catalog used here is a good guide – no traditional men’s business suits at all.  The only men’s suits for sale in the 1975 catalog were polyester leisure suits.  The 1975 suit used in this calculation was made of 100% polyester.}

- lowest-priced dress shoes in 1975: $14.99 pair [3.1 hours - up 30 minutes from 1956; 2.1 hours longer than is required of a worker in 2012]

- lowest-priced animal-hide belt in 1975: $5.00 [62 minutes - double the amount of work time that was required of a similar worker in 1956; 8 minutes longer than is required of a similar worker in 2012]

- lowest-priced all-cotton dress shirt in 1975: $4.99 [1 hour - practically the same amount of work time that was required of a similar worker in 1956; 15 minutes longer than is required of a similar worker in 2012 ]  {Unlike in 1956 and today, Sears in 1975 offered no all-cotton men’s dress shirts for sale at any price; the shirt listed here was made of 65% polyester and 35% cotton.}

- lowest-priced all-silk four-in-hand necktie in 1975: $3.50 [43 minutes - down 5 minutes from the amount of work time required of a similar worker in 1956; 13 minutes - or 43 percent - more work time than is required of a similar worker in 2012]  {Unlike in 1956 and today, Sears in 1975 sold no all-silk men’s neckties at any price; the necktie listed here was made of 100% polyester.}

- lowest-priced all-cotton boxer shorts in 1975: $1.66 [20 minutes - down 5 minutes from the amount of work time required of a similar worker in 1956; 4 minutes less work time than is required of a similar worker in 2012]

- lowest-priced dress socks in 1975: $0.96 pair [12 minutes - less than half of the work time that was required of a similar worker in 1956; the same amount of work time that is required of a similar worker in 2012]

- lowest-priced knee-length non-plastic raincoat in 1975: $26.88 [5.5 hours - up about 20 minutes from the work time that was required of a similar worker in 1956; a full hour less work time than is required of a similar worker in 2012]

All in all, the work time required of an ‘ordinary’ American worker in 1975 to buy this modest ensemble of clothing was about the same (20.1 hours) as is – actually, slightly less than – the time required to by a “similar” ensemble today (20.4 hours).

So, at least judged by this sort of ensemble of low-priced men’s business clothing, all of the economic improvement, 1956-2012, does indeed seem to have occurred during the first 20 years of this time period.  But one must be careful to adjust for quality – a warning that indicates that adjusting for inflation over long stretches of time is difficult.

Forget that Sears sold in 1975 no traditional men’s business suits.  That fact likely is simply a matter of fashion and taste – a fact that conveys no relevant economic information for our purposes.  But the materials out of which clothing was made is not necessarily, or so obviously, simply a matter of de gustibus non est disputandum taste.

Polyesters – at least the varieties that were commonly used for clothing in the 1970s – were decidedly inferior to wool and to cotton.  (I remember well, sometime in the early 1980s, being surprised at how much more comfortable were [what I am sure were] my first pair, as an adult, of all-cotton underwear compared to the polyester and polyester blends that were the norm until then.)  What would the price of the 1975 leisure suit have been had it been made of 100% wool?

Embarrassingly, I confess here to having a frivolous interest in clothing.  I pay a lot of attention to men’s clothing (and spend too much money on it).  I make this confession to establish my clothing creds: I know of what I speak.  A polyester suit not only looks more crappy than does a wool suit, it feels crappier.  (I know: I wore 100% polyester leisure suits in the 1970s.)  I’m quite confident that if today Sears.com (or some other retailer, such as Jos. A. Bank) offered for sale a 2012 traditional-style men’s business suit made of 100% polyester, it would have to be priced very, very low indeed in order to sell – that is, if such a suit would sell at all in sufficient quantities to make it worth a retailer’s effort to stock such a suit.  (Opps – I take that back.  Here’s a 100% polyester men’s suit available today for $108.05 - the purchase of which would cost today’s ‘typical’ American worker only 5.4 hours of work.  In the interest of making the stagnationists’ account as strong as possible, though, I’ll ignore this suit.)

You’ll recall from this earlier post that Sears.com today sells no all-wool suits (which is why I went to Jos. A. Bank to find one.  But Sears.com does sell suits that are “wool blend,”  (Sears doesn’t specify which fabric the wool is blended with.  We can assume, to make this bargain today as unattractive as possible, that the blended fabric is the ugly and itchy polyester that was used to make the 1975 leisure suit mentioned above.)  A two-piece wool-blend suit can be purchased today at Sears.com for $120, which requires only 6 hours of work time of the typical American worker today.  This work time is 2.2 hours less than was required to buy a 100% polyester suit in 1975.

So if we use for our 2012 calculations not the all-wool suit but, instead, the Sears.com wool-blend suit, we find that the total amount of work time required in 2012 to buy this eight-piece clothing ensemble is only 18.2 hours – 1.9 hours less than was required in 1975.  (We could, and should, do a similar exercise for neckties and for shirts.  Believe me, a pure-polyester tie ain’t close in quality to an all-silk tie, and an all-polyester or polyester-cotton blend shirt ain’t close in quality to an all-cotton shirt.  But in the interest of space we’ll let these items go.)

Of course, even using the 2012 wool-blend suit, the fall in the work time required to buy this ensemble of men’s clothing was much greater over the 19-year span 1956-1975 (a decline in work time of 40 percent) than it has been over the 37-year span 1975-2012 (a decline in work time of only 9.5 percent).

Putting aside tricky questions of adjusting for improvements in quality (and for expansions in the range of selection, as well as for improvements in the ease of shopping and reductions in shipping time), we can concede that the increasing affordability of clothing – in this case, proxied by this men’s clothing ensemble – has been slower in recent decades than in the decades immediately following WWII.  But clothing has nevertheless still gotten less costly in terms of work time since the mid-1970s.

The many other comparisons still to come here at the Cafe – of today with 1975; of 1975 with 1956; and of today with 1956 – will give a more complete account of improvements (or not) in the living standards of middle-class Americans over the past six decades.

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