When Walmart wasn’t quite the most prominent name in the field of marts, shopping for school might mean a trip to a store with t-shirts and jeans that had an extra tag—a tag that would indicate that these products were made in America. They often sported this fact in the design of the shirt itself, if not in words, then through an image like the American bald eagle or the flag. If you lived in a place that prides itself on being Americana personified, this was probably all the better—a bonus to the products being relatively affordable. If you didn’t, and you weren’t fashion-conscious, maybe you’d feel good that “Made in America” was worth putting on a shirt. ‘Cause you were as American as anything else, of course. But then you’d get around people who were fashion-conscious, and they would rip those clothes to shreds (verbally, most of the time). Away from Americana, “Made in America” wasn’t a viable brand in the way that entities built up through advertising or pop culture were.
Companies that made their products elsewhere were obviously the most profitable. Aside from designing and marketing products, none of these companies really made anything. They sub-contracted cheap, underpaid foreign labor to churn out quality products. This could have that done here, but, of course, America had standards of fairness that didn’t make us all that cheap. Away from notions of Americana, this should have been the real appeal of the “Made in America” label. It’s highly likely (almost certain) that even the clothes that now feature iconic American images are made far away and on the cheap. Most of the companies that made these products outsourced them, and the smaller brands of affordable clothes are made right along with the expensive ones.
For lives measured in shallow notions of identity, clothes aren’t simply just clothes. They’re what tie people to certain cultures, to certain levels on certain totem poles. As such, even when some people can’t really afford them, obtaining brands feels like a necessity to maintaining their identities. It’s funny how, for some people, the concept of “Made in America” is in a similar vein.
Nowadays, anything like a “Made in America” tag is a rare thing, indeed, and gets a little more rare everyday. Oddly enough, it’s become a big selling point for the products of small operations sold through online venues like Etsy, which, despite some admirable egalitarian goals, mostly appeals to buyers of products that have upscale, branded counterparts. It’s a lot of the upwardly mobile sustaining themselves.
I want to believe that what “Made in America” used to be was a broader swath of people doing that. But as long as I’ve existed, the case for that has been being beaten down. Particularly in those with power, unchecked selfishness has chipped away at even the semblance of fairness. It’s the one thing “Made in America” that seems to trickle down.