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More Spending on Health Care Means Less on Clothing

Food, apparel, and shelter now account for only 35.2% of consumer spending, compared with 53.7% in 1929
Photographer: George Wylesol for Bloomberg Businessweek

In 1929, $11.67 of every $100 that American consumers spent went to clothing and footwear. Apart from a sharp increase amid the shortages of World War II, that share has been falling pretty much ever since. In the first three quarters of 2019 only 2.8% of Americans’ consumer spending went to wearable things.

This decline has been driven by two main forces: rising incomes and falling relative prices. The former dominated early on; the latter has been more important lately. Apparel prices rose through the 1980s, but at a slower rate than overall inflation. Since the early ’90s, they’ve actually fallen as a result of cheaper overseas production and the rise of lower-cost sales channels such as Walmart. From its peak in 1993, the price of women’s apparel is down 23%; men’s apparel is down 10% after topping out in 1998.