Costs & coats: product pricing relative to salary

I went to the British Museum last year to see a particular exhibition that had captured my fancy – “The Cost of Living in Roman and Modern Britain” (it’s on until April, go see it if you can). It was just a small exhibition, but full of plenty of incredibly fascinating information. One thing in particular that stuck with me was the relative cost of items in terms of how much a soldier in the army could afford, then compared to now. It turns out that the salary of a new-recruit soldier in the Roman army, if you take into account currency values, inflation, etc., was pretty much the same as a new-recruit soldier in the modern British army could expect (somewhere in the region of £16,000 per annum if I remember correctly).

The exhibit included items that both the Roman and the modern soldier might buy and how much it would cost them respectively – what fraction of a day’s salary for a dozen eggs or some dice or whatever. What struck me in particular was that if the modern soldier wanted to buy a winter jacket from the high street, what would it cost him or her? Maybe a couple of days’ worth of salary. By comparison, if a Roman soldier wanted to buy a coat to keep him warm in the winter months, it would set him back a month’s worth of salary. That’s equivalent to about £1200, which most people would consider a pretty large amount of money to be spending on a coat. Incidentally, clothing was also not particularly affordable all the way up until the 19th century, with a man’s suit in the 18th century costing £8 when the cost of providing for a family for an entire year was £40.

Now obviously it’s very much an understatement to say that things have changed a bit since Roman times and since the 18th century. We now have different ways of producing fibres for fabrics, we can do it on a larger scale, we have all sorts of ways of reducing the time taken and the cost of the materials required for manufacturing a garment. But still, I have this misgiving that what we expect to pay for a garment is actually wildly out of step with what it would cost to manufacture a high quality garment from high quality materials using adequately paid skilled labour.

I don’t have much to go on in terms of what such a garment would cost to produce, since the price-tag of a garment (as I’ve mentioned time and time again) is no guarantee of quality. All I have, really, is the price break-downs provided for each garment in the Honest by Bruno Pieters collection, which I discussed here. Those detailed break-downs would suggest that a well-designed, well-made, ethically and sustainably produced garment costs well above what people expect to pay these days – €300-400 is the actual cost for a men’s shirt, €900-1000 for a coat (that coat works out at about £800, so still much less than our Roman soldier was paying back in the day). Maybe the prices would be a bit less if the production scale was larger (since runs are limited to about 10-20 garments per style at the moment), but even an expanded scale wouldn’t reduce the current prices by an enormous amount.

I certainly appreciate the value of low-price clothing for people who are economically disadvantaged and keenly aware of their budgets. There’s no doubt that there are people who really do benefit from that sort of affordability and whose lives are made more comfortable as a result. But for those of us who do have a bit of spare disposable income and whose economic situation isn’t so precarious, is it a valid assumption that we only think that €900 for a coat seems expensive because the profusion of cheaper alternatives has skewed our perception? Is it because we aren’t forced to immediately notice all the compromises – poorer quality materials, underpaid workers, overall diminished longevity – that a more cheaply produced coat entails? I’m reasonably sure that’s the case. It also doesn’t help that genuinely good quality, well produced items are relatively difficult to come by (and designer brand labels are no indicator of it), so we don’t necessarily notice something good when we do see it. That’s if we get past being overwhelmed by the seemingly ridiculous (but actually maybe kind of justified) price-tag.

Does it ultimately come down to the fact that, for whatever reason, we think we’re entitled to not have to spend time saving up for something that’s worth it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Post Navigation