Read Your Labels
You may not thoroughly inspect every item that lands in your shopping cart, but you likely invest some time at the grocery store reading food labels. After all, it’s important to know what’s going into your body. Armed with the nutritional information you find on labels, you can make smarter decisions about which foods to buy and which you’re better off leaving on the shelves.
So why not do the same when it comes to the clothes that are going on your body? You can learn a lot about the fabric content — not to mention the care (and cost) to extend the wear — of your clothes.
Knowing the quality of the fibers in your clothing is akin to knowing the shelf life of your food. Is this sweater going to be a “wear today, gone tomorrow” item because it will pill and wear out after one wash? Or is it a luxury fiber like cashmere that will last you to the next season and beyond? The “care label” on your clothes will tell you what type of investment you’re making when you purchase a particular item — can you put it in the washer and dryer, or does it require dry cleaning? Clothing labels can also help you make better decisions about what pieces work best for the climate or with your skin — some fibers breathe better than others, some are better against sensitive skin than others. (Online shoppers: You can get the same clothing label information by searching the product details.)
From leather to faux fur, cotton to cashmere, here’s what you need to know.
Genuine Leather vs. Vegan Leather
Leather has become a coveted fashion must-have for all seasons and has been showing up in unexpected ways, from the all-leather T-shirt to “jeggings.” Newer trends combine leather — both real and fake — with other fabrics, like leather mixed with knit leggings.
Pros: When genuine leather items are cared for correctly, they can last forever. Resale shops love leather, so you can usually sell for profit.
Cons: Dry cleaning bills for genuine leather pieces can be expensive. In Manhattan, for example, you can expect to pay at least $60 for bags and even more for some all-leather garments.
Pros: Most vegan leather goods (also known as “fake” or “faux” leather, made from synthetic polyurethane) are typically machine or hand washable, but always check the care label first — some do require dry cleaning. Overall, vegan leather will cost less than genuine.
Cons: It will wear, tear and fray much sooner than the real stuff. Some will crack or break down after too many cleanings.
Bottom line: Genuine leather is a smart investment when used for entire garments that will stay in style (think: jackets, skirts, shoes and handbags). Vegan leather, on the other hand, is a better buy for leggings, combo-knit tops and trendy dresses you’ll probably only wear this year.
Merino Wool vs. Lambswool
Merino wool is made from merino sheep and is loved for its light weight and softness. If you’re inspecting a care label and see simply “wool,” that usually indicates lambswool. What’s the difference? Think of lambswool like a mascara brush and Merino wool like liquid liner: Lambswool is rougher, as it is more curly and crimped with shorter fibers, as opposed to merino wool, which starts out as a silkier yarn.
A wool dress coat can be perfect for work, or pair a casual outfit with a wool peacoat. Look for labels with 50 percent or more wool because those will pill less. Pass on items where the first “ingredient” on your label is poly, rayon or acrylic — these will pill by the end of the season and don’t offer as much warmth.
Pros: Merino wool is warm without feeling itchy, heavy or bulky. It won’t pill and will last for many seasons.
Cons: It’s slightly more expensive than lambswool and should be handled with more care (it’s usually labeled dry clean only or hand wash cold).
Pros: Lambswool provides warmth and is durable.
Cons: Lambswool on its own has a tendency to be bulky, coarse feeling and scratchy. Items made of 100 percent lambswool usually require dry cleaning; however, you should be able to get in two to three wears between each cleaning, provided you layer with a T-shirt or tank top to keep your body’s natural oils away from the wool.
Bottom line: Invest in all Merino wool sweaters, or try a sweater blended with polyester, rayon or nylon if your skin is very sensitive (or to find it at a better price). Save the regular lambswool for oversized garments that you will layer with a long-sleeve turtleneck or T-shirt to keep it from contacting your skin.
Merino: Banana Republic Extra-Fine Merino Wool Vee, $49.99
Lambswool Blend: BCBGMAXAZRIA Heather Grey Striped Camille Dolman Sweater, $48.50
Silk Charmeuse vs. Polyester (Poly China Silk)
Silk charmeuse evokes elegance: In the 1920s, designer Madeleine Vionnet revolutionized evening gowns by cutting silk to hug the female form and free women from corsets. Some 40 years later, new synthetic fabrics like polyester, meant to emulate silk and cost less, were manufactured in Japan; but it wasn’t until the 1990s that polyester was totally embraced. Today, silk blouses are an opulent option for the work day and can brighten up a dark suit.
Pros: Real silk looks and feels more luxurious than poly — even the best micro-fiber silk imposters. As a natural fiber, it will also breathe better than polyester.
Cons: Handle with care: Most silk blouses must be dry cleaned after one use (unless washable silk is indicated on the care label). Silk is more delicate than poly and is prone to snags and stains.
Pros: Polyester is easier to wash, either by hand or machine on cold and a line dry. The price is also much lower than that of real silk, and this fiber is more resilient and less likely to pull.
Cons: It can feel hot and sticky. Some polyesters, though silky looking, can appear dull in solid colors.
Bottom line: If you prefer a more luxurious look and feel (and can afford it), silk is the crème de la crème — especially in rich colors that will take you through multiple seasons. Printed blouses in polyester are a better buy because you’re spending less and may tire of that print by next year.
100% Cotton Knit vs. Pima Cotton or Cotton/Modal Blends
Cotton knit is the quintessential T-shirt material. One early form and function of the class cotton T-shirt had military beginnings for men. Naval forces in the early 1900s wore them under jackets to keep their uniforms from being soiled. Fast-forward to the 1950s when both men and women embraced them as a great layering piece. Not much has changed since. Today, we wear tees to the gym or under a tailored jacket for a new work-casual feel. (Add a scarf or necklace so you appear casual, but not sloppy or underdressed.)
100 Percent Cotton Knit
Pros: A tee made from 100 percent cotton can be easily shopped for under $30.
Cons: Regular cotton can feel dry to the touch and tends to twist and wear out after just a few wash and wears.
Pima Cotton Knit or Cotton/Modal Jersey Blends
Pros: Pima cotton (developed to emulate Egyptian cotton, a high-caliber material that’s great for tees and bedsheets) is a more refined option than 100 percent cotton. It’s smoother and fine to the touch. Think about cotton blended with synthetics like modal, lyocell, nylon and lycra as lotion for your T-shirt.
Cons: Get ready to pay over $50, and you may only get one season out of them due to the need for frequent washing.
Bottom line: Buy the less expensive, 100 percent cotton tee for yoga, workouts and weekends. If you want a tee that can pass for work casual, it can be worth paying more for a pima or cotton modal blend. Wear it with a necklace, under a blazer, or both.
Regular Cotton Knit: Under Armour’s Women’s Charged Cotton Sassy Slub T-Shirt, $29.99
Pima/Modal Cotton: Vince Cotton & Modal Tee, $85
Cashmere vs. Acrylic
Cashmere is considered a “seasonless” fiber: You can wear it year round regardless of the weather. Cashmere comes from the soft undercoat of goats bred to produce the wool. Acrylic was developed to emulate cashmere (and wool) for a cheaper sweater fiber alternative with a warm wooly hand.
Boyfriend cardigans are trendy today, as well as the even more relaxed, deconstructed “fly away” cardigans. Wear them as a casual office option rather than a tailored jacket. They’re also great for layering over a tee.
Pros: Cashmere is seasonless — warm yet light — and isn’t itchy like wool. If handled with care, it can last a lifetime.
Cons: You do pay a price for luxury, often $200 or more. (Keep an eye out for end-of-season sales!) Make sure to keep away from moths!
Pros: It’s cheap and feels best when blended with cotton, polyester, rayon, nylon or wool where the acrylic is 30 percent or less.
Cons: It’s cheap — as in, it looks and feels inferior because it’s rough and it pills like crazy, making your sweater look like a worn-out mess after wearing just once.
Bottom line: Invest in cashmere for modern classics like v-neck pullovers, wraps and cardigans that will not go out of style, and wait for end-of-season sales to stock up. Opt for cashmere blends to find an even better deal.
Real Fur vs. Faux Fur
Want to survive the winter months in style? Take a cue from our furry friends. Both real fur and faux fur is showing up on the fashion landscape in fun new ways, from fur-trimmed sweatshirts to fur vests worn over a long-sleeved tee.
Pros: Like it or not, in terms of style, this trend is here to stay. Real fur provides unbelievable warmth and longevity.
Cons: Animal trapping is harmful, and you may end up with PETA paint on your tail. The cost of real fur is also considerably higher than faux.
Pros: Faux furs have come a long way from looking like teddy-bear fur that only stuffed animals should be sporting. When the quality is nice, it looks like the real thing and provides a nice level of warmth.
Cons: The fine hairs from faux fur are embedded on a base cloth, so they may actually shed worse than fur skins. These garments also easily get matted if you get them wet.
Bottom line: Thanks to new, innovative technology, faux furs are just as luxurious and gorgeous as the real thing, and you can save money (and grace) with peace of mind for your furry friends. If you cannot live without real fur, shop for it at end-of-season sales, at vintage stores or in your grandmother’s closet.
Premium Denim vs. Regular Denim
Finding a great pair of jeans is the No. 1 request I hear from the clients I style (you’re not alone!), and a good fit is like the search for the Holy Grail of garments. In the last decade, “premium denim” has become a new category, but is it worth the premium price? (Hint: yes!)
Pros: Due to better cotton-fiber production and better dye and finishing techniques, premium denim has better stretch and recovery — no baggy knees! True-blue indigo denim is built to last.
Cons: Premium denim carries a high price tag, usually between $150 to $250.
Pros: The price is right. You can typically score a pair from the Gap or Levi’s for around (even under) $50.
Cons: Regular denim doesn’t keep its shape well. The legs tend to twist so the inseam starts to crawl to the front or back. Baggy knees and seats also tend to stretch out and not snap back into shape.
Bottom line: Premium denim is better quality and will last longer. Just be sure to machine wash cold separately and line dry. The heat from a dryer can break down fabric and color will fade. Find colors such as dark indigo wash and black, or neutrals like brown and gray, for a casual work outfit, and polish it off with a blazer or cardi. Reserve your regular denim for a weekend casual look.
Premium Denim: Adriano Goldschmied’s Prima Cigarette Jeans, $176
Regular Denim: Gap’s 1969 Curvy Skinny Indigo Jeans, $48.96
Tania Sterl is a personal stylist and fashion expert, founder and principal of Sterl on Style. As the “Creative Director for your Image,” Tania's mission is to empower women through style, showing them how to take both their image and their success to the next level.