Fashion's Big Look this season is getting more looking than buying from consumers, many of whom are shocked and angered by the clothing's Big Price.
And the sounds of dismay are coming from all income groups, and cover all categories of clothes - men's, women's and youngsters'.
Late last week there was evidence that prices may have outstripped even President Carter's attention. Explaining to visiting editors his feelings about bank overdrafts, Carter mentioned a hypothetical case that had the First Lady writing a $25 check for a dress. A few observes noted later that it sounded as if the President hadn't set foot in a store in years.
Sandra MacElwaine, a freelance writer and socialite, started making the rounds of the fashion stores last week. Her quick conclusion: "The prices are outrageous. $180 for a nothing challis dress, $200 for a New York designer blouse with all the buttons missing! I can't imagine how people are coping."
MacElwaine is coping in part by shopping at Loehmann's, where prices are below the normal retail tag. "Some of my friends who would neve shop at Loehmann's before are now asking for a guided tour of the store," she says.
Fred Langbein, an administrative aide at the Federal Reserve Board, started looking for non-traditional ways to buy clothing as he watched price tags on suits escalate from $150 two years ago to $175 and $180 last year and $240 this year.
He's discovered a discounter, Symns in Woodbridge, N.J., where all the suits are about $100. "They may not be the latest models," says Langbein, who used to buy two or three suits a season, "but now I'm willing to forfeit the latest sytle to get good quality at a price."
Parents aren't faring any better.
"Kid's clothes are outrageous," says Beth Rubin, the mother of two. "Can you imagine $22 or $24 shoes for an 8-year-old? My shoes don't cost much more."
"It's appalling," says social worker Myrna Guttentag. "For three children for a pair of decent shoes and sneakers I've spent almost $150."
And it's not only shoes that are giving parents the great price pinch. Jo Holliday, who never shops for her two sons without a handy notebook of comparative prices, says that with the exception of all-cotton oxford shirts for boys at Brooks Brothers, everything she has checked has gone up about 10 per cent since last year.
"At first I thought it was outrageous," says Holliday, "but then I started to consider how much more furniture costs this year. And having cleaning done. Everything else seems to have gone up at least that much."
Augusta Moore's answer to increased costs is to cut down her buying. "I now buy two thirds of what I bought five years ago," says Moore, associate editor at the Federal Times. "Clothes have gotten beyond the point of possibility - so expensive, and the workmanship so shoddy. I just refuse to spend a greater percentage of my income on clothing." Moore's two teen-age children supplement their clothing allowance with after-school jobs.
What gripes Moore, too, is the lack of sales help in stores. "If you're not into shoplifting, you just have to wait and wait at the cash register."
While Washington-area stores are reporting an upturn in business with the cooler weather this month, neither manufacturers nor retailers are any happier with the high prices than their customers. And they profess there is little they can do about it.
"We have to sell dresses today for ago when we started," says New York dress designer-manufacturer Jerry and the one who doesn't care about Silverman. "The customer in the middle between the one who really doesn't have the to consider price tags and the one who doesn't care about clothes is really squeezed more than anyone."
Another manufacturer, who asked not to be named, has recently been forced to close down a large-volume knitwear business. "Because of the increases in yarn prices and the union increases, our retail prices would have to shoot up 30 per cent next season," she says. "I started to look around and found that comparable imports were selling in the stores for what my clothes would have to sell at wholesale (and then double at retail) so we've thrown in the rag."
In chorus, retailers point out that clothing is no different from any other commodity or service and in fact, is climbing a slower rate than most other goods, a fact borne out in current government price indexes.
James Button, senior executive vice president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., blames the higher cost of material, labor and "burden" such as overhead (light, heat, telephone).
A factor in the higher cost of women's clothing, he adds, is the fact that sales have never picked up all that much since the 1974-73 children's and menswear. But unlike recession.
"Appliances started to sell. So did menswear, where there was a sytle change from leisure suits to dressier, three-piece suits, there never was enough style change in women's clothing to keep women from delaying purchasing for themselves."
Waldo Burnside, a top executive at Woodward & Lothrop, cites higher real estate costs in new developments, increased hours of doing business, including Sunday, increased shortages through pilfering and wage increases for sales personnel.
"Even with making merchandise more accessible so people can help themselves, nothing takes the place of a sales person helping a customer. There is no way to merchanize that," he notes.
Garifnckel's fashion director Janet Wallach suggests it is the use of quality fabrics such as cashmere that makes prices seem higher, and says that her store is selling more higher-priced merchandise than before. "People are willing to spend more when they know they are getting quality merchandise and quality workmanship," she comments.
Indeed, it's been a noticeable trend among consumers in the last year.
"I love the look. The styles are there. The colors are beautiful. But the prices are outrageous," says Despina Kaneles, a legal secretary at Lane and Edson. "For a woman making under $15,000 year, it's almost impossible to put a new wardrobe together."
Kaneles says she used to buy everything at regular prices but now finds it a "rip-off," and buys only at discount stores like Hit or Miss and Loehmann's. "To get nice quality clothes they have to be designer-made. The rest is a poorer quality.So now I scout the designer things at discount prices."
As for footwear, Iver Olson, chief economist and executive vice president of the American Footwear Industries Association, pins higher shoe prices on the skyrocketing cost of hides, which he says reflects the world demand for leather, particularly in the Orient and Europe.
Also, boots are now a top-selling fashion item, and they run about double the cost of shoes.
The same is true for furs, according to local furriers. The increasing demand for furs has made the market price higher, as much as 20 per cent. But Washington furriers, and furriers elsewhere, had their best season ever last year and already see signs of greater sales this year.
But if there is one kind of buying that is not likely to happen often," it's the old spur-of-the moment hat or dress purchase to pick up the spirits.
"If I'm down in the dumps," says Beth Rubin, "I now treat myself to an $8 leotard in a new color."