A Mint reader, S. Anand, has written in from Chennai with a pertinent observation about what he calls “the dry clean only" menace. He points out: “All retailers like Lifestyle, Shoppers Stop, Pantaloon Retail (India) Ltd or Westside put a ‘dry clean only’ tag on most of their Indian wear. This absolves them of all responsibility to procure merchandise from a company that uses good, durable yarn."

Retail department stores market Indian women’s wear under their own label (for example, STOP from Shoppers Stop) or stock other private labels such as Haute Curry, Ishvarah and Kashish. These clothes are a favourite of young working women looking for smart, affordable fashion. Anand writes: “I don’t think there are too many women, even affluent ones who will shell out at least Rs100 each time to dry clean a cotton salwar kurta set. Didn’t generations past routinely wash silk sarees at home? Even those Kanjeevarams with complicated, colourful weaves were nonchalantly handwashed and not one of them ever ran colour. Would you risk that with a ready-made garment bought nowadays? Would any American pay the equivalent of $20 for a dress and find a ‘dry clean only’ tag and accept it? I think not."

On consumer forums and in office chatter, it is apparent that many young women have had experiences of these dresses losing sheen, colour and form in one wash. I recall three kurtas that I bought last year, of the brand Melange from Lifestyle, which faded into wardrobe oblivion after a single wash. If a wronged customer were to complain, the store can take cover under the “dry clean only" tag.

Any Indian woman knows that a 800 kurta in a retail store can actually be stitched by the local darzi for half the price (and with better fitting). We knowingly still buy them to save ourselves the trouble of procuring cloth and finding a good tailor. We are even willing to concede that the value of this convenience is worth double the cost price. But what rankles is that despite paying that much, we actually do not get the maintenance-free, convenient garments that we hoped would make our busy lives easier.

We are expected to dry clean them, which is impractical and uneconomical for working women, the main buyers of these outfits. And if we ignore that instruction and wash it, the dress fades or shrinks or becomes unusable in some way. What a pity, that in a country with a rich textile tradition where Indians have been weavers and exporters of cotton cloth since many millennia, modern Indian retail shoppers have to suffer poor-quality fabrics at high prices.

Before the Big Lib of 1991, middle-class India bought readymades from individual garment retailers in Karol Bagh and Lajpat Nagar in Delhi, Pondy Bazar in Chennai or Dadar in Mumbai. My recollection is that those clothes lasted longer—so long that they would often become a barrier to new acquisitions. By default, they didn’t need dry cleaning. In those thrifty times, customers would have laughed in the salesman’s face if he had even suggested it. The stitching quality and fabric seemed to have received more attention, perhaps because of the small scale of operation. The shops would source their own material and get a limited number of designs in each size stitched by their in-house masterjis. So Indian woman shoppers were buying durable prêt-a-porter in the Arora Garments and Sweety Ladies Wear of our bazaars, before the retail boom. How come we are unable to do the same in the department store?

A former marketing head of a retail chain admits, off the record, that the retail game is all about margins. Margins on retail apparel are about 25% and there is constant pressure to increase this by searching for low-cost suppliers, which could result in slippages in quality. Retail apparel being a relatively new industry, quality control is still to achieve the standards of a GAP or Wal-Mart that manage to mass-produce cheap, durable clothes far from their home ground, like in Bangaldesh, the Honduras and of course India. For its bargain brands such as Faded Glory, Wal-Mart has been sourcing textiles from India for years. Wal-Mart’s office in Bangalore serves as the company’s global procurement hub.

One reason Wal-Mart and its likes are able to assure quality even at a low price is because their Indian fabric suppliers enjoy the status of a 100% export-oriented unit and get huge tax breaks. Suppliers to local chains do not, so the cost is passed onto the customer. Therefore, at a given price point of say, $10, Walmart can give better quality cloth than a home-grown chain that can afford only inferior cloth for that price.

The irony is stinging. For various reasons, foreign retailers manage to source apparel from India that meet their stringent quality standards. But our own retailers are either unable or unwilling to give domestic customers quality clothes. Wonder what a certain Gandhi, who made cloth weaving a symbol of Indian national pride, would have to say about this.

Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

To read all of Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns, go to www.livemint.com/toughcustomer