Seams Foreign

When manufacturing jobs return, I hope we haven’t forgotten how to make clothes.

When I married my wife 28 years ago, I thought the best part of married life would be the physical part. I conduct a lot of weddings, and every groom-to-be is thinking the same thing—I can tell by the drool. We don’t know what our wives are thinking, and would likely be disappointed if we did. I once read that the male’s desire for sex declines as we age. Fortunately, by the time that happens, we’ve discovered other benefits to marriage, one of which is not having to shop for clothes any longer. 

Shortly after we married, my wife began buying my clothes. It took her a few years to learn my tastes, so for a while I went around looking like Pee-Wee Herman. Now that she knows me better, I’ve gone back to looking like George Clooney. Early this summer, my wife brought home several pairs of shorts for me. When I was checking the size, I noticed they were manufactured in Cambodia. I imagined a Buddhist woman hunched over a sewing machine making my shorts and thought it would be interesting to travel to Cambodia to meet her. While I was in that part of the world, I could stop by China to visit the person who made the Keen sandals I’m now wearing with my Cambodian shorts. The T-shirt I have on was made in Mexico, though it was purchased at an Amish store in Greene County. When my wife bought the shirt, she also purchased a pair of Red Wing boots for me. The label says they were made in the U.S.A., but I’m not sure it can be trusted. The Federal Trade Commission has rules about what can properly be labeled American-made. They read, “The term United States includes the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories and possessions.” 

Those last bits include Guam, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa, among others. I bought a coat last year whose label read “Made in the U.S.A.” I had in mind that a woman in Maine sewed it by hand sitting in front of her fireplace, but I suspect it was actually made by someone in American Samoa sitting under a coconut tree. I know Samoans have to make a living, but the label should say “Made in American Samoa.” The Samoans must be in good with someone at the Federal Trade Commission. 

My wool blazer was made in Canada. Canada isn’t the first country to come to mind when I hear the words “sport coat.” Sport coats should be made in England by old men with tape measures around their necks. Canadians are supposed to make maple syrup and hockey sticks, not sport coats. The brass buttons on my blazer have a lady on them who I think is Queen Elizabeth. I had forgotten Canada and Britain share a monarch. I know Britain is our ally, but I have a hard time trusting them since they torched the White House in 1814. They’ve had 198 years to apologize, but they haven’t yet. I have a pair of black dress shoes made in England. They originally cost $475, but I bought them used on eBay for $50. They look brand-new. The man who owned them wore them only six hours, and he was in a casket the entire time. 

My wool blazer was made in Canada. Canadians are supposed to make maple syrup and hockey sticks, not
sport coats.

Not long ago, I bought three pairs of socks that were made in America, in the state of Vermont. One pair is yellow, one is purple, and the third is maroon. I look like a clown when I wear them, but I’m so pleased to be wearing something made in this country that I don’t mind people laughing at me. If I later discover they were made in Vermont Samoa, I’m going to be very disappointed.

My oldest article of clothing is a Levi’s jacket I bought 25 years ago. I wear it when I ride my motorcycle, which was made in Japan. My jean jacket fits a bit more snugly now than it did a quarter-century ago because my wife dries our clothes too long, and they shrink. I haven’t said anything to her, but I notice she’s been drying all of our clothes a bit too long these past few years. I have a nice leather belt that was made in the U.S.A. I think my wife must have dried that, too, because it’s smaller than it used to be.

I wonder what the foreigners who make our clothes think of us when they see our fashions. If I had to discern what Americans were like based on our clothing, I wouldn’t have a good opinion of us. Most Americans have the sartorial taste of a wino. If blue jeans hadn’t been invented, most of us would be naked. The average American owns seven pairs of blue jeans. There are 313 million of us, which means there are 2.2 billion pairs of blue jeans in our closets, few of them made here. Levi Strauss, that iconic American clothier, makes its jeans in Mexico, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, the Philippines, Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, and Haiti. With the high cost of fuel, we must surely be reaching the point where it costs more to ship clothing here than it does to make it here. I hope we haven’t forgotten how to make things before those jobs return.

People are always complaining that the Internet has put children at risk from perverts. That is unfortunate, but on the plus side, it’s made shopping for clothes a lot easier. I bought a necktie on eBay for 99 cents. The label said “Vital Sassoon, 100 Percent Silk” and “Handmake in Italy,” but it was shipped from China, so I suspect it was counterfeit. Plus, “Vidal” is spelled with a “d,” not a “t,” and “handmake” isn’t a word. But I like the tie. It looks great with my Canadian sport coat, Hong Kong dress shirt, and Korean slacks.

I once heard an economist predict that our global economy will inspire nations to resolve our differences peaceably, that no country can afford to go to war against another country for fear of losing a trading partner. I hope the economist is right. I was born at the start of the Vietnam War, have lived through dozens of other wars involving the United States, and have grown a bit weary of them. We don’t call them wars, of course; we call them “operations” to make them seem antiseptic—Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Restore Hope, Operation Uphold Democracy. After all, who wouldn’t be for freedom, hope, and democracy? I would happily buy clothes made in other countries if it meant world peace, though I must admit it depresses me to think my shorts are only three months old and have done more traveling than I have in 51 years.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

This column appeared in the September 2012 issue.