Until recently, Elizabeth Cline was a typical American consumer. She’d grown accustomed to shopping at outlet malls, discount stores like T.J. Maxx, and cheap but trendy retailers like Forever 21, Target, and H&M. She was buying a new item of clothing almost every week (the national average is sixty-four per year) but all she had to show for it was a closet and countless storage bins packed full of low-quality fads she barely wore—including the same sailor-stripe tops and fleece hoodies as a million other shoppers. When she found herself lugging home seven pairs of identical canvas flats from Kmart (a steal at $7 per pair, marked down from $15!), she realized that something was deeply wrong.
Cheap fashion has fundamentally changed the way most Americans dress. Stores ranging from discounters like Target to traditional chains like JCPenney now offer the newest trends at unprecedentedly low prices. Retailers are producing clothes at enormous volumes in order to drive prices down and profits up, and they’ve turned clothing into a disposable good. After all, we have little reason to keep wearing and repairing the clothes we already own when styles change so fast and it’s cheaper to just buy more.
But what are we doing with all these cheap clothes? And more important, what are they doing to us, our society, our environment, and our economic well-being?
In Overdressed, Cline sets out to uncover the true nature of the cheap fashion juggernaut, tracing the rise of budget clothing chains, the death of middle-market and independent retailers, and the roots of our obsession with deals and steals. She travels to cheap-chic factories in China, follows the fashion industry as it chases even lower costs into Bangladesh, and looks at the impact (both here and abroad) of America’s drastic increase in imports. She even explores how cheap fashion harms the charity thrift shops and textile recyclers where our masses of clothing castoffs end up.
Sewing, once a life skill for American women and a pathway from poverty to the middle class for workers, is now a dead-end sweatshop job. The pressures of cheap have forced retailers to drastically reduce detail and craftsmanship, making the clothes we wear more and more uniform, basic, and low quality. Creative independent designers struggle to produce good and sustainable clothes at affordable prices.
Cline shows how consumers can break the buy-and-toss cycle by supporting innovative and stylish sustainable designers and retailers, refashioning clothes throughout their lifetimes, and mending and even making clothes themselves. Overdressed will inspire you to vote with your dollars and find a path back to being well dressed and feeling good about what you wear.
There’s a lot in this book I could have written myself. The casual pop-ins to H&M to buy an accessory or a $5 tanktop? Check. The hanging on to every rapidly changing trend? Check. The warped view of what “affordable” clothing means to our generation? Check.
The book is a quick read. I finished it in several hours over the weekend. The writing is familiar and casual, but with that comes a set of additional problems. The editing is sloppy and I caught typos throughout, but I did read this on Kindle—perhaps the editing gap is there? Anyway, those don’t have anything to do with the content, all of which is scathing, fascinating and frustrating in equal parts. So let’s begin, shall we?
As to the scathing part—I admit that this book indicts me 100%. I’m a fast fashion consumer, absolutely. More than that, I’m passing on my shopping habits to even more consumers through my blog. I’m part of the cycle that Cline talks about and I admit that I felt uncomfortable (and ashamed) all the way through the book. There is really no defending my shopping habits against her arguments of quality, waste and labor. And why would I want to? There’s no defense of our current retail experience or the increasingly competitive and fashion-obsessed consumer that continues to drive it. The brands that Cline mentions occupy a large majority of space in my closet: Target, Forever 21, H&M. There’s a thoroughly critical account of the Missoni for Target mayhem and the fact that people lost their minds over what were essentially cheaply-made replicas of higher quality goods. But, lest you think you escape Cline’s critical eye because you shop at department stores or more middle-of-the-road retailers like J.Crew, Madewell or Gap, she smashes the likes of them and the consumer perception of their “code of conducts” too. By the time Cline has outlined all the problems with most popular retailers, discussed the fact that vintage or thrift pre-1980’s may soon be priced out of the average consumer’s hands and talked about sewing or re-purposing existing clothes as being perhaps the only way out of this crisis, I was ready to throw my Kindle across the room.
As you might imagine, the sweatshop/cheap labor statistics and problems that are inherent with the fast fashion industry (defined as stores containing highly affordable, trend-drive inventory that can change at least once every two weeks) and retailers beyond it take up a majority of the real estate in this book. Cline does discuss other problems too: quality shortfalls, pre-1980’s vintage shortages and the ensuing price jacking, copyright suits (primarily surrounding Forever 21), waste management and all its problematic variables. But, the second you read the title of this book, your mind probably went right to sweatshop labor, right? Our generation has Nike and the sweatshop scandals of the late 1990’s/early 2000’s to thank us for that immediate association between the clothing/textile industry and cheap overseas labor. But, as Cline points out, although we are conscious of how cheap fashion retailers are able to offer such low prices, it doesn’t really stop us from buying. We’re a highly informed consumer that chooses to ignore the information in front of us for the sake of affordability (in and of itself a flawed perception), trendiness and disposability.
But, to Cline’s surprise, buying pricer clothing wasn’t a solution either. The whole fashion retail industry seems to be flawed—top to bottom. She found you couldn’t exactly trust retailers who more stringently audited their factories because, well, you never know—auditors can’t be there 24/7. And the quality of more expensive clothing is sometimes not much better than the quality you can find at lesser prices. Price can be an indicator of quality, says Cline, but it’s not the only marker and certainly not the most reliable of them. Therein is the first of the frustrating things surrounding this huge problem—low prices and poor quality do not always go hand-in-hand, just like high prices and retailers saying they use a more modern, fair labor force to produce higher quality clothing doesn’t either. Basically, as a consumer of clothing, you have few choices available to you that you can feel good about it and trust.
But are you surprised? I’m not. Not really. I’ve seen the United Nations of countries adorning the tags of my clothing. I’m certainly willing to change my buying practices, but the problem is that fast fashion retailers (and that includes any chain retailer anywhere, including TJMaxx, J.Crew or LOFT) make it too easy not to change. If I sound like a mindless lemming following after the crowd wearing leopard print loafer shoes, I definitely am. I’m raising my hand over here and admitting that I am prime prey for the quick trend changeover, the ubiquitous clearance rack, the low prices, the ability to grab a new dress for an event and never wear it again because it’s just that affordable.
So, how will I reconcile the information in Cline’s book with my buying (and blogging) habits? Well, I’d love to know the answer to that. I wish Cline had helped. I really abhor books that discuss sweeping social problems and don’t offer the reader any ability to make a realistic change regarding the subject matter. Cline’s biggest solution? Sew your own clothes. Totally sustainable! Bypassing all the labor problems! Unfortunately, that’s just not realistic. I’m not going to sew my own clothes now or ever. Cline basically realized that outside of sewing/repurposing her own clothes or buying vintage, her budget doesn’t allow her to buy new items that won’t tickle her conscience.
There are other options to consider. Boutiques often carry local or small lines that use domestic labor and are still reasonably priced (which usually means prices between $50-$200). Online shopping offers alternatives too. Modcloth, for example, offers the ability to search clothing by a Made in the USA tag. But, even stores that say they use the same factories as many other designer labels, or audit their factories frequently doesn’t ensure you peace of mind. According to Cline, blindly trusting that a designer label or a retailer will source from a higher quality factory is a fallacy. Even the best factories Cline saw in her worldwide research efforts seemed to be more like open house models, specifically orchestrated for her benefit. As she said, many manufacturers have one or more “show factories” and then outsource portions of the order to other factories—the kinds of factories they don’t show in the Pretty Factory Tour. It’s a jumbled, awful mess. If you’re feeling depressed, join the club.
In the end, it’s probably easiest to treat buying clothing like you do food. The organic, local food movement has made it easier and more practical to procure those goods. The act of buying clothing could be undertaken in a similar way. Buy local and do your research. That, of course, assumes you are willing to accept that such goods will be more expensive than you’re used to and the concept of “clearance” doesn’t exactly apply. It will require a major shift in the way we think about buying and wearing our clothing. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m going to stop shopping at H&M. That would be a lie, and I’m not interested in lying to you. Short of sewing my own clothes, I will start shopping at thrift stores and consignment shops again. I’ll start trying to frequent more local boutiques too. I used to thrift a lot through high school and have gotten out of the habit. Frankly, online shopping makes it too easy for me to get what I want or need at an affordable price. A lot of people get around the fast fashion shopping guilt by saying things like, “I spend more on basics and classic pieces that I’ll wear for a long time.” I’ve tried to say that to myself over the years too. But, I’ve yet to meet someone who says that and still didn’t shit themselves over Missoni for Target, frequents J.Crew every season, buys a new $10 shirt from H&M, or grabs the occasional cheap accessory from Forever 21. I said before that I was frustrated that Cline didn’t offer options beyond sewing for making a realistic change. The depressing reality is that there really aren’t many. Of those options, can we choose to take them? After being given nonstop access to affordable clothing for over a decade, can we take a step back? And here’s the real kicker—do we even want to? Something to think about.
I don't even know where to begin. I remember looking at two friend's closets a few years ago and being shocked speechless over the insane number of clothes they had. Especially considering I saw them in the same clothes over and over and the vast majority spalid on the floor had never been worn. Throw on top that I find most of the clothes I see on people I know wearing to look patently inexpensive(thin, faded, pilled and pulled). This book explained to me how this came to be and how consumer culture changed when it comes to shopping.
I made a melton wool grey trench coat a few years ago. It's double breasted, down to my ankles and lined with flannel back satin. It's the warmest, best fitting garment I've ever made. It cost me $150. My good friend was shocked I would pay that much to make something when I could have bought a coat for less money and zero time. This coat, easily would have cost over $500 on *sale*. But, a poly / wool / acrylic coat for $90 made much more sense to her.
We live in a culture where we've forgotten that good quality items cost a lost of money. Period.
When I grew up, we shopped seasonally and for special occasions. In my 1930s home, the closets are the size of an outhouse. This book lays out how the expectations on the cost for clothes has changed and how the stores have catered to this. Now, people shop for entertainment and the clothes are inexpensive enough that we don't think twice about buying it. Add on top of this the loss of shame over having 'cheap' clothes and we have a society that has more clothes than ever. This has changed the way our homes are built, the way we shop and the quality we expect.
This book is eye opening and I will never shop the same way again. Ever. I want my clothes to have value and meaning. I don't want to contribute to this consumer culture where we spend more on a meal out than we will on a blouse! A blouse should last for years!
Sigh. I realize this isn't a review, LOL. Read this book. It will change your thinking and they way you live. I'm only not giving it five stars because the author talks about how we need to learn to identify good quality clothing. But, never really goes in to what the average consumer should look out for.
In Overdressed Elizabeth Cline details the problems with what she terms "fast fashion:" the cheap clothing that has permeated nearly the entire market, making it almost impossible to find well made clothes that were made by someone earning a fair wage.
I appreciated all of the points she made... the first time. The major flaw of this book is that it is about 100 pages too long. Cline repeats herself over and over during the first 2/3 of the book. And while she emphasizes many times that cheap materials put together by rushed, underpaid laborers have become the status quo throughout the market, she also seems to focus heavily on H&M. I think that's because that is the store where her own addiction to fast fashion began and thrived. But it's worth reemphasizing that nearly all clothes from nearly all stores are designed and produced in the same way. And toward the end of the book she focuses on a friend who has switched to sewing her own clothes as a way out of the fast fashion market, but a friend of mine who sews well told me that the fabrics available in most fabric stores are of no better quality that what is being used in the sweatshops. So sewing your own can reduce your contribution to abusive garment factories and ensure a higher quality of workmanship (assuming you're capable of a higher quality of workmanship), but you are still using substandard fabric that was likely put together in a factory that runs many of the same humanitarian problems as the garment factories.
What Cline's book leaves out is the most crucial aspect, and that is political action against the practices of fast fashion. We cannot rid ourselves of this style of market because it is too pervasive in our society. You simply have no other option if you cannot afford high end fashion. Any market changes in this industry will have to be spurred on by political action, yet Cline leaves that aspect out of her book entirely. It's a shame.
Where I got the book: purchased on Kindle. A book club read.
I got to select the book club book for that month, and went for a theme of awareness. Overdressed is about being aware of the impact our thirst for cheap clothes is having on fashion and on the world. And what a great idea this was—Cline says in the preface that her own habit of buying cheap clothes in multiples was what got her thinking about the whole topic. The penny dropped when she found herself lugging home seven pairs of the same shoe, because, why not? They were $7 a pair.
Now I’m not nearly as bad as that, but I have my moments of reckless consumerism. When my daughter needed long-sleeved white t-shirts for work, I took her to Old Navy and encouraged her to buy six identical t-shirts so I wouldn’t have to launder them constantly. That whole “the more you spend, the more you save” thing occasionally works to persuade me to buy two instead of one, three instead of two. Back in the 70s and 80s when fashion really meant something to me, clothing was way more expensive compared to income and I knitted my own sweaters rather than pay a lot of money for store-bought and spent much more time looking for the right piece.
But now, the “high-volume, low-priced fashion formula […] has squeezed the life out of the […] industry, forcing independent department stores to consolidate, middle-market manufacturers to shutter, and independent retailers either to go high-end or go home.” What’s more, we’re in a “cycle of consumption and waste” that will, in the long run, have profound effects on the economy and environment.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the consumption-waste cycle in the last few months, not to mention the consumption-debt cycle that keeps us all in wage bondage working ever-longer hours for less job satisfaction. And the fact that so much of what we consume is produced far, far away in very different economies, contributing to “a decline in domestic wages, the loss of the middle class, and the problem of unemployment.” In my area, storage facilities are a booming business—people are apparently buying more stuff than they have room for, and are paying for storage so they can buy more stuff. Garage sales spring up like mushrooms in the summer as people sell their older stuff for a tiny fraction of what they spent on it…so they can go spend some more.
For me, 2014 was the year when I decided enough was enough. I’m trying to read the books I own, work on the projects for which I already bought materials, and put more of my money into locally-produced products. And Overdressed has given me a new look at the eternal problem of what to wear. Simply put, I need to turn the clock back to the days when I prized quality in clothing, and may have worn the same thing many times but it looked good on me because it was well cut. I might even go back to knitting sweaters…
Cline does a fairly good job of outlining how we got to where we are today, in a breezy supplement-journalism style that suits its subject matter and audience. It’s not the most incisive or brilliantly written or exhaustively researched of analyses, but as an introduction to a new way of looking at your wardrobe, you could do a lot worse. She engages in some slightly shady research methods, notably pretending to be a small business owner looking for the cheapest way to manufacture a specific item instead of simply interviewing her targets, but she did make trips to Asia and elsewhere to see the effect of our cheap clothing craze on the ground.
She also considers the opposite end of the pole, the high fashion that has become increasingly expensive, with gigantic markups on items such as designer purses fueled by relentless advertising campaigns (the first 20 pages of a fashion magazine, anyone?) The same way American society is dividing itself into rich and poor, eroding the once-thriving middle class, fashion is splitting into two very different branches—outrageously overpriced high-end items and, well, cheap rags for the rest of us. Very Dickensian.
Cline took her new-found convictions so far as to take sewing classes, although she admitted her limits after a while and turned to local dressmakers instead. I’m of the generation where—gasp!—girls learned to sew at school (it was compulsory) and know how to sew on a button (for that matter I know how to make a buttonhole) and repair a seam, but the majority of people no longer repair clothing. Even with the knowledge those sewing classes gave me I don’t alter clothing, as a rule, if there’s something not quite right with the fit—and I should.
But, says Cline, “there are signs everywhere that cheap fashion is coming to an end.” As China becomes economically stronger its people are converting from producers to consumers, a fact which will have a tremendous knock-on effect. And here comes my favorite quote: “If every man, woman, and child in China bought two pair of wool socks, there would be no more wool left in the world.” One day the American underclass could be sewing clothing for the former third world countries, just think of that—makes you want to vote union, does it?
Well, Cline could be riding an awareness wave or perhaps she’s a prophet, you decide. But her book’s worth considering if the amount you buy and waste is starting to bother you. Perhaps, as she predicts, “consumers are ready for a new fashion paradigm—one that is not built on exploitation, wastefulness, and greed.”
Donna [indignantly]: Slaves?! I haven't got slaves! The Doctor [dryly]: Who do you think makes your clothes? -- Doctor Who, "Planet of the Ood"
For all my interest in global issues, I'd rarely given the clothing industry much consideration; on that front, Overdressed has provided me with a great deal of food for thought. My wardrobe, for better or worse, has always been a mix of Ross finds and outlet specials. While no one has ever accused me of being fashion-forward, I took some contrarian pride in this, thinking myself somehow "deeper" for not being a slave to fashion, and sensible for not spending absurd amounts of clothing just to buy into a brand name.
It never occurred to me that these low prices came at someone else's expense.
An item of clothing used to be an investment. It was something you bought and literally wore to threads after mending it repeatedly. Never before in our history has it been cheaper to replace something than to get it repaired; unfortunately, you get what you pay for: "Fast, cheap, good: pick two" holds especially true in the clothing industry. The fabric can be scratchy or likely to pill after washing, the seams kind of crooked, a garment poorly constructed and ill-fitting -- it doesn't seem to matter to us anymore, because it's SO. DAMN. CHEAP. And some new trend is on the way in before we think to complain, and the stuff we were on the cusp of being unhappy with is out the door in a sack to Goodwill. We're discarding so much clothing that we're on the verge of an environmental disaster -- Americans alone send 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfills a year.
And are we happy with our bargains? You'd think we would be, but how many times have we looked at our closets and despaired that we have nothing to wear? People like to cite the 20/80 rule -- we wear 20 percent of our clothing 80 percent of the time -- but I wonder if that was true when purchasing an item of clothing wasn't cheaper than buying lunch.
The worst part is that the garment workers assembling these clothes are regarded as just another way to cut costs. Clothing manufacture in the United States has largely been outsourced to countries with lower labor costs and fewer regulations... like Bangladesh, site of the Rana Plaza building collapse. When cracks in the ceiling and supporting pillars were found in the building -- constructed without permits, and which architects warned wasn't strong enough to support the weight and constant use of machinery -- the shops and bank were immediately closed, but factory managers threatened to withhold a month's pay from anyone who failed to report for work the next day. The eight-story building collapsed in less than 90 seconds the following morning, April 24, 2013, killing 1,129 garment workers and injuring more than 2,400 others. (Families of the victims are still awaiting back pay from the salaries due at the time of their deaths; some, after providing DNA evidence that their relative was indeed killed in the collapse, have received $200 in compensation.)
We can blame the brands that choose to manufacture in countries with few to no protections for garment workers, or the factory owners who value profits over people. But for every finger we point, three point right back at us: we, as consumers, drive this demand. This is our responsibility.
In flipping Spiderman's axiom, cribbed from Voltaire, it stands to reason that with great responsibility comes great power. We can change this. But short of wearing sackcloth and ashes as penance, what can we do?
Think long and hard about everything you choose to put into your closet. Whether you've found it at a thrift shop, or a boutique, or the Gap, or somewhere between the fabric store, your sewing machine, and your imagination, think about every item of clothing and the labor that went into it. What is the true cost of each garment, and was the person who made it fairly compensated? If it starts to come apart at the seams, do you care enough about it that you're willing to fix it?
Overdressed has been billed as a clarion call for the slow clothing movement. It's not perfect, but it's something, and it certainly had an impact on me. I hope you find it thought-provoking, too.
I'm not a vegan yet, although I'm convinced it's ethically right and technically, there's nothing stopping me. From December 2018 to December 2019, I took over 25 flights. I don't recycle nearly enough or even close to it.
However, there's one thing that I can say that I'm doing okay and that's shopping. I hardly ever buy clothes and when I do, I usually go to second hand stores. Cline describes a shopping cycle of cheap fashion which I just couldn't relate to. However, Overdressed is a great read, even for those of us who don't do much shopping.
Overdressed is a sober look at the fashion world. Cline used to shop a lot before realizing that all of her clothes are cheaply made and easily thrown away, controlled by swift trends. So she went on a journey to figure out what happened to the fashion world.
The answer is (as always) capitalism. When large scale production became possible, clothing prices dropped lower and well, the lower they go, the less people are willing to pay. In order to create a profit, companies try to scale down production costs with very unethical and environmentally destructive behavior.
From high fashion to Target, this is a massive problem. As a solution, Cline describes that learning how to sew helped her reuse clothes. She also recommends local stores as well as fair-trade stores with a focus on ethical and sustainable behavior. Asking questions about the production process is important.
It's enlightening to realize that our lifestyle isn't actually feasible in the long run- we can't rest on Bangladesh's poverty forever. Or, at least, we shouldn't. This is terrifying because this shopping culture is so comfortable, especially if we were to look at the food industry. I don't want to spend time thinking about how coffee beans get here. Moreover, I can easily ignore it and really, that's why it's so important to try and be aware.
It's wild to look at the tags of our clothes and realize that I'm not sure I'd be able to point out Bangladesh on a map but at a certain point in time, the shirt I am wearing was there. Before this shirt reached me, it went through this journey and I don't even know what it was. All I really know is that I didn't pay nearly enough for it.
This book was published in 2012. I would love to see a more contemporary look. With online shopping, globalism, and perhaps millennial with different values, this topic is shifting. Is trend culture still prominent in the youth when it comes to clothes? Malls are closing down, Forever 21 went bankrupt, I have no idea what's the new fashion trend (masks?), is the reality this book describes still relevant in 2020?
All in all, this book reads more like a blog post than a book. It feels perhaps like a friend showing up and telling you about her adventures in China, rather than a work of journalism. I'm sure there are more serious books out there but I enjoyed hearing about her journey. If you want a taste of what shopping was like in 2012 and why it's harmful, I think this is a solid read.
What I'm Taking With Me - This book never addresses people like me who will shop cheaply and overthink it so that they use the cheap thing forever. - Honestly, I just want the high fashion industry to die. There's no room for such an evil industry in our time. - This feels unsolvable, you know? Like, as consumers, there's no motivation to shop better, other than ethics. As firms, there's no motivation to be ethical, unless consumers create it. And with these poor countries getting business, shopping locally might end up hurting them but at the same time, how can we truly trust China is providing its workers with decent conditions, even if they say they are? And what will we do about the inevitable black markets? Ahhh.
------------------------------------ This book made me want to learn how to sew.
Review to come! In the words of Economics, there's a high demand for papers that I have to hand in and a very low supply of papers that I can provide, due to a severe lack of motivation.
I remember reading a book like this before. It was about branding and clothes and through this topic, I actually understood a lot more about IP rights and stuff. Sadly, I forgot the title so I can't share it with you. But, what I'm trying to say is that this book is just like that - excellent, amusing and educational.
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion takes a deeper look into the implications of cheap fashion like H&M, Target, etc It's actually a very well-down piece of research, seeing how the author actually went to China and other countries to understand how the clothes are produced.
Even though I myself hardly buy clothes (really, why buy clothes when you can buy books?) I thought this book was very interesting. It seems to cross genres, cover personal experiences, the business managements part, the economics behind this industry, etc. There's even some history in it, if you count the fact that she traces how consumer expenditure on clothing has changed throughout the years, and the socio-economic conditions that accompany/cause each change.
I actually agree with the main thrust of the book. Cheap clothes are a vicious cycle. It makes sense that if you pay less, you value the object less (well, unless it's a book). And if you look at things like Economies of Scale and profitability margins, then the quality of the good has to go down since quality is inversely related to price (think of demand and supply).
Honestly, growing up, I always wore hand-me-downs, so I don't really have the "disposable clothes" mentality that she had. I did try shopping at a cheap fashion store once (I think it's bankrupt now), but I really didn't like the clothes (...so loud...so garish...-shudder-). I tend towards pink(:
If you like the book (and I did), then you should be pleased to know that there is also a blog! It's called The Good Closet and the posts there are thought provoking and interesting (there's a nice mix of both types).
Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.
The amount of damage we do to the environment in buying mass-produced clothing is staggering. Apart from the pollution caused by industrial waste, the very fabric is mostly made of plastic and hence when they eventually clog the landfill, they will not degrade for hundreds of years. Yet, we never give it a thought because we buy so cheap.
The recent (and here I mean the last 10-15 years) emergence of widespread public concern about the real of cost of our cheap clothes – costs that are paid by workers in border areas, free trade zones and subcontractors’ factories in the Philippines, Mexico, then Thailand, then Camdodia, then Bangladesh, and still Mexico, then….. has been one of the big shifts in political debates and raised the profile of the politics of consumption. So much of the debate, however, has focussed on the situation of workers ‘out there’, in that list of American and Asian nations where we see high rates of exploitation. Much less has focussed on the costs at ‘home’; the workers in our vicinity who work making and selling clothes and pay those costs of low wages, long hours, inadequate housing and the like, and we seldom get the subtle analyses of the experiences of clothing workers where self organisation and struggle leads to systems that undermine the global model of exploitation and dominance.
Elizabeth Cline’s real strength is that as a reformed thoughtless consumer and engaging writer she gets to tell us many of those stories, not that there is much good to find in the global fashion industry or much reflexivity to find in our patterns of consumption that presuppose disposability where it is cheaper and more importantly easier to throw away the torn shirt, the shoe with the broken heel or whatever else seems less than perfect. Her audience is, it seems, the first world consumer as we line up at Primark, J C Penney’s or Target (or which ever other chain store prises open our wallet/purse/pocket) to stock up on 7 new pairs of sandals/trousers/shirts/skirts that are unlikely to be worn again next year.
The point is that there is not much new here although there are really good accessible and engaging stories about people at the centre of the old stories – or at least not much new in the first half of the book but the chapters on fast fashion and on the associations between high and low fashion are really good non-technical ways into the issues (they are the kind of thing I’d use with my non-specialist students to get them interested in the issues and then move on to more scholarly things). There is also a good sense of the environmental costs of corporate fashion.
It is, for the most part, in the second half of the book where she gets into more challenging things – the waste associated with the second hand clothes market, the gargantuan scale of the Chinese clothing megalopolis in the south east, the lives of Dominican clothing workers who, with support, staged a worker buy-out of their factory (this is the most exciting chapter because it takes us into alternative forms of organising the industry where the focus is on quality, price and worker well-being equally); it is also where Cline engages with the practice of textile and clothing production, finding out just how challenging it can be. She also, toward the end of the book, seems to find new respect for her mother’s generation and their continual use of sewing machines in a discussion she calls ‘Make, Alter and Mend’.
Unfortunately, it is in this romanticisation of making, altering and mending that she loses way. She proposes solutions to the problems of our clothing obsession in our own living rooms – making, altering and mending with a passion that seems to ignore the sheer size of the clothing demand (even if were wore things more than five times each) and romanticises the Dominican worker factory case suggesting at some fundamental level a misunderstanding of the issue she is exploring. Don’t get me wrong, the future of fashion must be local, must be sustainable in every way and must rely on consuming less better, and she does point to many of the initiatives that are helping redesign the industry – but somehow her case just feels a bit naïve and while recognising, as she says, that all economics is social practice, she seems to fail to recognise the politics that weaves its way into the macro, micro and quotidian economic processes she explores and seems also to lack a sense of the profound political struggles these changes might require.
So, don’t come to this looking for a guide to solutions or ways to change anything other than your own consumption practices, but do come to it for an engaging exploration of an industry close to devoid of social justice, of the way our consumption practices are essential to and framed by that industry and for a powerfully emotional response to the savaging of our social and cultural order that the current shape of the fashion industry bring about.
Cline explores the fast fashion industry and its aftermath: the mountains of waste and the secondary market that can't keep up, the loss of American and other first world garment jobs, the decline in clothing quality (making a secondary market irrelevant because the clothes won't last through more than one user), and the unsustainability of the market model based on garment-worker wages so low that they are almost irrelevant to the cost of production.
Cline experiences a conversion, going from consumer of fast fashion to appreciater of the lost art of sewing. She starts buying fewer good quality pieces made in the U.S. She ends on a hopeful note.
I have a much longer essay about this here, but I do feel she missed the point a bit. The American level of fast-fashion shopping isn't so much about clothes as about entertainment, and until something replaces the entertainment value of shopping, people will not do less of it. The author lives in Brooklyn; I don't know where she's from but if she's never lived in suburbia then she just has no idea.
There is not a lot that is new or non-intuitive here, but I do think it's worth a read. Conscious consumerism is an iterative process, and it always helps to have a reminder.
The author was interviewed in Salon, if you'd like to read more.
An interesting, thought-provoking, and in some ways quite sad book. It's rare that I feel sorry for an author, but I do for this one.
This book was well publicized; I saw essays excerpted from it in both The New York Times and Slate, and Cline has the obligatory attention-grabbing single stat: Did you know that the average American now buys 64 items of clothing every year? It's a good description/indictment of the modern garment industry, and she does a pretty good job of connecting it to broader economic trends--basically, the middle is disappearing, here as elsewhere. Consumers are increasingly facing a choice between lots of really cheap, poorly made crap or really high-end, virtually couture clothes, with less and less middle ground.
Annoyingly, she walks right up to the class implications of this, yet fails to complete her argument. She should really read Paul Fussell, who covered the same basic divide in his book Class, more than thirty years ago: He described how people in the upper-middle and wealthy classes are taught to buy a few good things, and then wear them to death (ex: repairing items like shoes so many times that by the end, there's often no original material left). By contrast, the lower classes buy cheaper, more disposable items that are lesser quality, and thus often can't be repaired, and so have to be replaced. I'd love to see Cline's take on that.
Cline does describe what happens when the better clothes stop being made, so only the truly mega-rich can get even decent quality, and everyone else is settling for junk. She points out that things have gotten so bad now that people are buying clothes that rip or fray after only one or two wearings, and simply accepting that. Tragically, stuff that used to be considered cheap crap would nowadays be seen as fairly high end, from a technical construction point of view.
For me, the really sad parts came with Cline's descriptions of her own total ignorance as a shopper. In one breath, she says she used to spend virtually all her spare time shopping (lunch breaks, after work, etc.), but in the next admits that it never even occurred to her to look at little details like what fabrics her clothes were made of (spoiler alert: Cheap clothes=lots of nasty synthetics). She's wry and self-deprecating about it--she compares her continuous, mindless shopping to a cow mindlessly munching grass--but seriously, how can she not have known the first things about how to shop?
Okay, I understand not knowing the differences between types of seams, but how does one buy skirts or sweaters without checking what they're made of? It's one thing if you hate shopping, and just buy things to cover your body without caring. But if you supposedly care about fashion, and how you look, how can you be this clueless? She talks about having literally hundreds of items of clothing, and yet not knowing anything about them.
Relatedly, Cline doesn't know how to take care of her things, either; she confesses that during the course of writing this book was the very first time in her life that she took boots to a cobbler to be re-heeled (instead of just tossing them and buying new ones). I was speechless. She's actually quite good on the horrifying environmental implications of all this, too.
There's also an unintended consequence of feminism here, which I wish she'd acknowledged. To her credit, Cline realizes that she (and millions of other young women) have failed to learn something that previous generations knew, but she fails to connect this with women rejecting rigid sex-role tasks/skills like sewing en masse. As a knitter myself, I've seen this for years; Lots of women in the 1960s and '70s said, "Damnit, I hated home ec and being forced to sew/knit/cook, and as I escape I will liberate my daughter as well, by not forcing her to learn these." So a whole lot of little girls weren't taught/didn't learn.
But, then a few years later, it turned out that those skills were actually really practical and useful, and sometimes even fun (when not required). Today those little girls have grown up, and many of them (along with many men) have set out to learn what they missed, often with gusto. Little things, like understanding the difference between a well-made garment and a shoddy one, as well as bigger ones, like how to cook or knit or take care of clothes.
At the end, Cline's big epiphany is that, guess what? People don't have to shop like mindless morons. It's worth learning to recognize and then actually paying for quality, because better clothes are actually (gasp) better: They fit better, they feel better, and they last longer. Mirabile dictu. She even starts learning to sew a bit, and discovers another hot new idea: Trendy styles often don't flatter every body shape, and she looks better in clothes that fit and which do, in fact, suit her particular shape.
Sigh. A college-educated woman in her mid-thirties has discovered what my mom taught me before I reached high school, and it's considered book-worthy. Worse, after reading this, I think she's right.
Is it wrong that part of me wants to email her, and offer to take her out for lunch and some real shopping?
Final note: Ironically, this book about cheap crap driving out good is itself rather poorly produced. I caught various annoying typos, including the ubiquitous "lose/loose" confusion and, even worse, a mention of a garment that had had its sleeves "lobbed off." I did a double-take on that one, and actually had to think for a moment before realizing, "Oh, Lord, she means 'lopped off.'"
I spent quite a bit of time about a week ago going through the entire backlog of posts over at ReFashionista, a very cool blog by South Carolinian Jillian Owens. It just so happened that I had Overdressed on hold at the library and that it came in for me not long after I finished reading the ReFashionista archives.
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline is mostly about (you guessed it) fast fashion and the like. This means the ultra-cheap clothing available at such retailers as Wal Mart, Target, Zara’s, Aeropostale, etc. Elizabeth Cline was a devoted patron of stores like H & M and Forever 21 at the start of her research for this book. She counted 354 articles of clothing (excluding socks and underwear) in her possession at that time (2009). This was about in line with the American habit of purchasing 64 items of clothing per year. Everywhere Cline looked, even outside of her closet, there were signs of over-consumption of clothing. She interviewed a few of the 20-somethings who post haul videos on YouTube for this book. She also browsed H & M and Forever 21, Target and Wal Mart and observed how quickly stock changed and how poor the quality of each article of clothing was.
She contrasted this with high-end boutiques, vintage clothing sellers, the clothing produced by U.S. companies that pay living wages and a number of other sources that don’t use the cheapest fabric and labor that can be found anywhere on earth. The differences were astounding. And fast fashion obviously has a huge environmental impact. Much of the fabric is polyester or other petroleum-based fibers and people throw out their clothing very quickly because seams rip after just a few wears, buttons fall off and fabric tears. The clothing is meant to be disposable so people have to buy more of it, but it’s getting to the point where it’s completely ridiculous. Who wants to buy a shirt and only be able to wear it once before it falls apart?
The quality of our clothing has been steadily deteriorating, particularly since the early ’90s when NAFTA was ratified and import limitations on clothing were pronounced an unfair advantage to developed countries. Major companies with the resources immediately started moving production overseas and lowering prices. This increased the speed of the downward spiral of clothing quality and number of jobs in the textile industry in the United States. Consumer demand for lower and lower prices have forced retailers to make clothing out of cheaper and cheaper fabric and forced producers to make garments faster and faster without regard to any standards of quality. United States retailers are also starting to leave China (which is becoming a more expensive place to produce clothing as labor prices and materials prices have risen) for the ultra-cheap countries such as Bangladesh and India. This means quality is even worse because those countries don’t have the state-of-the-art machinery and level of skilled labor that China now has.
One of the great things about this book is how much research Cline did, including traveling to places like China and Bangladesh, in order to write it. It’s obviously rather depressing reading about the factories in Bangladesh that pay the mandated minimum wage that isn’t actually a living wage (but the minimum wage in the U.S. isn’t a living wage, so maybe my hopes are too high). Cline does leave us with some glimmer of hope, though. Some consumers are starting to revolt against fast fashion and university fashion programs are emphasizing sustainability and minimal waste in a big way in recent years. Boutiques have opened in places like L.A. and NYC that only carry brands with ethically sourced materials, sewn by people payed a decent wage, and these boutiques are popular and starting to be able to make greater demands concerning sustainability on designers wanting to be carried in their shops. Hopefully this trend continues (and reaches my mid-sized town in the Midwest sometime sooner rather than later).
After looking through the archives at ReFashionista, I hit the secondhand clothing stores in town. That’s normal for me. I did something I wouldn’t normally do, though. I bought a white shirt. As a pale-skinned person with auburn hair, I DO NOT wear white. I also bought a package of dye. I now have a dark green new-to-me shirt that I got multiple compliments on at work the first time I wore it. I think I caught the refashion bug. Not such a bad one to catch.
Have you ever wondered if their might be some negative consequences for being able to buy $7 shoes or $5 tank tops? What about overflowing closets filled with poorly made clothing that we almost never wear? Elizabeth Cline thought so, a concept she explores in Overdressed, which shows how the recent development of cheap fashion has negatively impacted the world. Surprisingly comprehensive for a book that comes in under 250 pages, Cline explores every avenue, showing how inexpensive price clothing has hurt the US economy by moving textile jobs overseas, how the quest for "fast fashion" has cheapened both the clothes we wear and the fashion industry at large, how cheap clothing has bled into the luxury market, and the impact the clothing industry has has on countries like Mexico, China, and Bangladesh, as well as more sustainable ways to dress ourselves. The result is a book that has tons of invaluable information for people that care about the negative consequences our shopping addiction has on the environment, the world, and ourselves. In the chapters where Cline travels to Bangeldesh to check out clothing factories, you have to admire her devotion to the topic.
For the reasons listed above, I would recommend this book to anyone interested on the negative impact fast fashion has on the world. But while reading it, there were aspects about the book that ended up rubbing me the wrong way. Elizabeth Cline is speaking from the perspective of a middle class woman, and is clearly only speaking to other middle class women. She begins the book by counting every item of clothing in her closet (excluding things like socks, underwear and accessories). This ends up adding up to well over 300 items. This may seem like a stunning amount, but Cline is quick to point out that she is not alone in this amount. Despite the fact that clothing is so cheap, we're not spending less on clothes, we're just buying more than we could ever possibly need. Yes, $200 dress is expensive, but if we buy one dress, as opposed to eight $25 dresses, we're not actually any poorer for it, and have a higher quality item of clothing that will last longer in the end. It's hard to argue with her sound logic here.
Unless, of course, you can only afford one $25 dress.
Despite Cline's broad reach in research for Overdressed, she clearly has no interest in the people who can only afford fast fashion. In fact, she never even acknowledges they exist. Cline bemoans the man in her cafe that works on a thousand dollar laptop with ten Walmart shoes, or the fashion vloggers were their elaborate "haul" videos filled with dozens of items of fast fashion, but that doesn't change the fact that these people are is not the entirely of the US population. There are some that can only afford $10 shoes, or $5 tank tops, and their closets aren't necessarily overflowing with their findings. And maybe they picked up this book from their library, much like I did, hoping to make more ethical choices with their shopping habits, only to find nothing relevant to them at all.
I really enjoyed Overdressed and found tons of great information in here for me (despite the fact that I own far less than 300 items of clothing), but I often found myself wishing that Cline had at least acknowledged that not everyone reading the book was like her, and could afford to invest in nice items or clothing, or purchase a sewing machine, as it will limit the people I am able to recommend this book to.
The gist of Overdressed is that cheap fashion has changed the way Americans dress and shop. No longer do we invest in good quality clothing, rather we buy things as cheaply as possible. Instead of creating a wardrobe of fewer pieces of high quality, well-fitting things we love, we buy hundreds of items that are trendy, ill-fitting and of such low quality that they may only survive a few washings. Sometimes we don't even bother to wear our cheap finds. It's not uncommon to find clothing in thrift stores with the original tags still attached.
I found out about this book after reading an excerpt from Slate. The article is called "The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes" and it's from chapter 5 of the book. It's a fascinating look at where duds go after they are donated.
I recommend reading this book for all the good information it contains. The quote on the cover sums it up nicely: "Overdressed does for T-shirts and leggings what Fast Food Nation did for burgers and fries." - Katha Pollitt, The Nation. I feel like there are several books similar to Fast Food Nation, but I haven't come across similar books to Overdressed (some on Amazon recommended reading Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas). The reason I say that is because while Overdressed is great for the information it contains about fast fashion and the damage it does to workers and the environment, the book has its fair share of problems too.
Those problems include numerous spelling and grammar mistakes, to the point that one Amazon reviewer says she got so fed up she marked up her copy of the book and sent it to the publisher. Overdressed is also annoyingly repetitive. Large chunks could disappear from the book and they wouldn't be missed. Instead there should have been a chapter at the end filled with solutions. At the book's website there is a page devoted to "What you can do." Why wasn't that in the book?
Sadly the lack of quality editing holds Overdressed back and if I could think of a better book on the subject to recommend I would. I think the information contained in the book is valuable, and because of that I'd suggest reading Overdressed. Plus it's a fairly quick read (especially if you can ignore all those grammar mistakes, otherwise you'll make yourself crazy).
Essential points from the book: 1) Increasing demand for fast fashion - trends that go from runways to the masses within weeks - has caused a paradigm shift in the production of clothes. 2) For consumers to be able to afford new items every week, clothes must be cheaper. 3) Cheaper prices means cheaper production - lower quality, but also lower wages, causing a continuing shift from domestic production to production in China and now onto even lower-wage countries like Bangladesh. 4) Cheap prices have shifted consumer attitudes - clothes are now seen as disposable items, which can be discarded after one season, or even one wear. This, in turn, leads to increasing consumption. 5) Clothes as disposable items, paired with an increased number of clothes, leads to a drastic environmental conundrum - both because of the environmental cost of production but also the space in landfills. (As quality decreases and the use of synthetics increases, clothes are decreasingly recyclable.) This problem will only increase exponentially as large populations in China and other nations begin consuming at the same rate as the West.
Cline argues that consumers should: 1) Re-educate themselves on clothing quality, as well as more environmentally sustainable materials. 2) Support a "slow and local" fashion approach - buying clothes that will last (though they may be re-styled), that support local skill/economies, and that support ethical production - with living wages and environmental sustainability in mind. 3) Learn to repair and re-imagine old clothes (or support tailors who can). 4) It's important to note, though, that buying designer labels - despite shockingly high prices - does not in itself guarantee quality or better worker conditions... just higher markup. However, some labels have made a commitment to sourcing sustainable material and employing workers under ethical conditions.
The book certainly made me re-evaluate the way I think about what I purchase. I haven't quite determined what I'm going to do for my part. I've stopped buying but haven't learned to sew, though I'm looking into lessons and ethical retailers.
This book is well written, well researched, and could be (and should be) life changing for anyone who reads it. I deeply hope that people will read and take to heart the important information in this book, to reset our fashion industry and greatly reduce its impact on our environment.
I enjoyed this about as much as I expected to; it's certainly a quick read. Cline declares on the very last page "I know I will never go back to the way I dressed or shop in the stores where I used to shop. Because when I walk by an H&M or an Old Navy or a Target, I see what once looked like fashion meccas for what they really are: unsightly jumbles of cheap clothes dressed up as good deals."
The problem with this book for me is that I have always thought this. A few of my Goodreads friends followed me here from Livejournal, where my primary preoccupations included book reviews, home sewing, and complaining about the quality of commercially available garments. (They have gotten much worse since then.) You don't have to be an especially great seamstress to notice that cheap store-bought clothes are amazingly shoddy. My reaction to this has been an increasingly stubborn opting out. Cline reports an inventory of over 400 garments. I'd estimate that I own maybe a third as many, at most, and quite a lot of them are many years old (e.g. Banana Republic skirts from back when they could sew, which I bought new and am clinging to) or purchased from eBay or consignment shops by my mother, who passes down to me anything that turned out a bit too small for her (e.g. most of my high-end cashmere). I do a lot of garment maintenance because I have no idea where I would buy satisfactory new clothes if the old ones wear out. Even though this book is now almost eight years old, the author foreshadows this dynamic, especially a vintage market running out of high-quality older items to repurpose.
The weak point of the book for me is that even though the author apparently did learn to sew, she focuses a lot more on fabric quality than sewing quality. But the sewing quality issues are remarkably easy to spot once you know what to look for. Stretchy fabrics provide an easy out for bad sewing. Stripes that don't match. Closures that lead to bulges and gaping. And design shortcuts that disguise these problems. You know those dumb little flutter sleeves that became ubiquitous on tank tops a few years ago? I bet those are because you can cut them very imprecisely and still have them look "right" whereas real sleeves have to be the exact correct width or when you sew them up, one will look bigger than the other! When I sew at home, I cut through one or two layers of fabric at a time, but I've heard that they do dozens at once, in commercial sewing. The fabric slithers around and you can't be nearly as a precise. Hence the stupid flutter sleeves--but when all the designers do it at once, and no one knows how to sew anyway, we are persuaded that it is a fashion. The book doesn't really talk about this, putting more attention instead to the negative environmental effects of cheap polyesters.
A stronger point of the book is the author's exploration of clothing donation, and how we delude ourselves into thinking that our limp, stained, torn clothes are having some kind of productive second life. She writes about how stores like the Salvation Army only put out, say, the top 10% of what they receive for resale; the rest gets compressed into giant blocks and sent to make products like carpet padding. You can't really justify your overconsumption by assuming that someone else wants your cast-offs. Why wouldn't a less affluent person prefer their own brand-new $7 t-shirt, anyway?
This book was not an epiphany for me, but it's an important issue, and I think this book is only out of date in terms of understating the issues.
I had the same sense of revulsion reading this book as I did reading "Supersize Me" (which is more or less the food version of this book) and I see fast food and "fast fashion" as indicative of the same lack of basic skills. We don't typically cook -- and therefore don't recognize quality in food. Few people sew anymore, and therefore don't recognize quality in clothing. The high cost of housing means that cost becomes more important both for food and clothing -- and quality suffers. The manufacturing chain makes adjustments to accommodate the desire for more of everything. And then follow the TV shows: Biggest Loser for the food problem; and Hoarders for the clothing (and everything else) problem.
Oddly enough, the bad construction of cheap clothes puts consumers into the endless cycle of buying more of everything. If you can't fix your shoes or alter your clothes, then you need multiples of everything just to make sure something lasts through the season. Expectations of grooming and dress have become demanding, which means that there is more acceptance of cheap clothing. 60 years ago when every working woman wore a suit every day to work, her entire wardrobe was different. She didn't have 22 tops and 14 skirts -- she had five suits. And yet we see the connection between clothing and our behavior-- schools that expect specific behaviors usually have specific dress codes. (the author of Supersize Me also comments on how fast food -- and eating in your car -- disrupted the idea of set meal times. )
I am old enough to remember the grand department stores in big cities -- and the expectations both of dress and behavior that accompanied them. The author does not make the connection between larger houses (and greater house payments as proportion of income) and the growth of the shopping mall. Those grand department stores didn't need parking lots -- people took transit and had their purchases delivered by delivery truck (not FedEx). They shopped during the day, not on the way home from work at 8 pm. Our whole society has changed and the way we relate to food and clothing has followed.
This may be one of the first things I've seen that puts a "sustainable, green" cast on clothing consumption though. its ironic that Whole Foods sells cheap -- although organic and fair-traded -- teeshirts in the toiletries aisle. And those items are always manufactured overseas.
Lettura molto interessante che mi ha fatto aprire gli occhi su tante cose. Confesso di essere un'abituale frequentatrice dei negozi cinesi e confesso che spesso ho acquistato abbigliamento e borse a poco prezzo pensando che tanto mi importava poco quanto sarebbero durati visto quello che ci avevo speso. Allo stesso modo confesso di aver pensato che un capo di vestiario messo nel cassone della Caritas tutto sommato era anche una buona azione perché aiutava chi di vestiti non ne può comprare. Leggendo questo saggio mi sono resa conto di quanto questa moda usa e getta non faccia altro che creare montagne di spazzatura, roba di cui il nostro pianeta non ha certamente bisogno. Oltre al fatto che la produzione di questo abbigliamento rappresenta uno spreco di risorse non rinnovabili e un inquinamento non da poco, dal momento che le fibre artificiali che vengono utilizzate sono difficilmente riciclabili. C'è poi un enorme costo umano che è forse quello più moralmente discutibile. Le persone che cuciono questo vestiario sono costrette a lavorare più di 12 ore al giorno, spesso 7 giorni su 7, e vengono pagate una miseria. Per di più questa fast fashion uniforma tutti. È praticamente impossibile avere un proprio stile perché di fatto abbiamo tutti lo stesso abbigliamento. Abbigliamento cucito male, a cui spesso non viene nemmeno fatto l'orlo per fare più in fretta. Una volta questa mancanza di attenzione ai dettagli ci avrebbe fatto inorridire. In effetti leggendo questo libro mi è tornata in mente mia mamma che, le prime volte in cui ho acquistato dei capi privi di orlo, si metteva immediatamente alla macchina da cucire e me lo faceva lei perché era inconcepibile andare in giro vestita così. Adesso nessuno ci fa più caso e nessuno è più in grado di ripararsi un abito. Io per prima sono in difficoltà quando devo attaccare un bottone o sistemare una lieve scucitura. Tanto c'è una soluzione molto più immediata: buttare e comprare qualcos'altro. Non dico che da domani mi iscriverò a un corso di taglio e cucito e inizierò a confezionarmi gli abiti da sola, ma sicuramente questa lettura mi ha permesso di avere una consapevolezza maggiore su questi temi e ne terrò conto la prossima volta che andrò a fare shopping.
This was an interesting, but frustrating book. I kept waiting for it to take off and find a groove, but it never really did. I felt the author kept repeating the same facts through most of the second half of the book, and it was very difficult to find an arc or cohesiveness to the chapters. It felt a bit scattered and more like a draft than a finished product.
Once I (reluctantly) accepted that, I kept waiting for the take-home message of how I should change to make more ethical clothing decisions. But that never really happened either. The book ends with the tentative and nebulous suggestions to make our own clothes, modify thrift store finds, shop vintage (which is getting pricey and won't be an option for long) or spend a significant amount more per item to get locally made and ethically sourced clothes. Not everyone has the time or desire to make/alter clothes. And what about the overseas factories churning out fabric under appalling working conditions? (The book completely sidesteps that issue to focus on the labor involved in constructing garments.) And although some people could shift from buying multiple, less-expensive items to fewer, quality items, what about those who buy only a few, inexpensive items?
Basically, Cline admits there is no easy answer to the problem, and that things are slowly changing as the global economy changes. The book packs in a lot of information (and a lot of redundant information as well), offers very few solutions and kinda just leaves one depressed about the whole concept of buying clothes and our current globalized world.
A beautiful but always badly dressed woman I used to know once told me, "I'd rather have lots of mediocre clothes than just a few really high-quality clothes." This book explains the impact of that attitude: the effect on the environment of millions of tons of cheap, disposable, mostly synthetic garments; on the domestic garment industry, when manufacturing fled to cheaper countries; on the people in those cheaper countries, who work under terrible conditions for equally terrible pay; and a lot more. And can I mention how awful most Americans look, in their cheap, cheap clothes?
I can fault the book for badly needing a copyedit, and the author also seems to have no concept of what "sewing" means--she talks about customizing the fit of her t-shirts, for heaven's sake, and making tote bags out of her pile of cheap cast-offs. But those are relatively minor criticisms of a book that finally shines a spotlight on a huge issue that most of us never think about: the ultimately high cost of our cheap clothes. The blurbs on this book compare it to Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" and I think that's an excellent comparison. Read this book if you care at all about what you're putting on your back every day.
"We currently spend the most money on brands names and high end designers. Instead of shopping for a name or label, our hard-earned money should be going toward good materials and garments with a strong and unique design vision. We need more designers making good clothes. And more consumers who are willing to buy them." pg. 204
Recommended, and fair warning for feeling convicted to change
I read this book on a recommendation from Everyday Annie, and I'm really glad I did. I have so many thoughts on this book.
I went in with some trepidation, cringing because I was pretty sure it would challenge me to make changes in my wardrobe, and yep, that's exactly what happened. The tone in this nonfiction book is fairly conversational, and the author mixes in powerful stats with testimonies from people in the fashion industry. The whole thing is very effective. My biggest takeaways are: well-made clothing is not cheap (DUH, but have I ever said these words in that order before?); my price points are anchored far too low to assume good quality; and I have the means and the opportunity to be more selective in my clothing, so I will. I'm still figuring out what my next steps are (aside from watching the documentary The True Cost), and I'm trying to approach it like when we started to eat more healthily. I'm reading labels and observing what my current clothing is made of and where it's from, and I have to stop impulse-buying bookish tees (SOB).
As I read, the information brought to mind a few people and two books. The people are my friend, Kayla, who had to give up her line of skirts because it was impossible to make them how she wanted to and still be profitable (I have one, and I wear it all the time!); and my friends, Abby and Tammy, who make so much of their own clothing, and it looks great and is so THEM. I am in awe of this. I do not enjoy sewing, so I don't think making my own clothing is one of my action items, but I can definitely be more intentional about where I get my clothing and what it's made of. The books I thought of were Irresistible, by Adam Alter, about how social media and other technology are designed to be addictive, plus Deep Work, by Cal Newport, about how our lives are conditioning us to have short attention spans. I saw the same symptoms in my closet: short attention span and a self-fulfilling loop of impulse buying for instant gratification.
Quality today means something quite different than it used to. It apparently means not lousy. (93)
No one expects to take an H&M shirt to the grave. At prices that often circle around $20, we know the product is not good quality. Instead the quality is good enough. According to C.W. Park, we accept a substandard product partly because we're so amazed by how well-made cheap fashion is for the price. (117)
"We blame companies. But at the end of the day we have to be responsible for our actions." (quoting Sara Bereket, 202)
Clothing that isn't produced at resource-draining quantities or by shortchanging the people making it is not cheap. Clothing that is well made is not cheap. There, I said it. (207-208)
No matter where our clothes are purchased, we should buy the best we can, make good use of them, and care for them. (218)
You'll never look at $5 tank tops from Old Navy in the same way again.
After reading this book, I was angry, in a sort of impotent way. If you want beautiful, quality clothing made by people working under humane conditions and being paid a living wage, you had better be rich. The rest of us are drowning under a tide of clothing cranked out by very young, very poor people working with very shoddy materials and very cursory technique. There is no middle ground any more.
Although Cline does a wonderful job of picking up the baton where Teri Agins ("The End of Fashion") and Dana Thomas ("Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster") left off -- you'll learn a lot about how the U.S. clothing business works -- she doesn't turn the same gimlet eye toward the societal pressures or expectations that drive people to think they're somehow letting down the cause if they don't have frequently-refreshed, expansive wardrobes. Looking at why American shoppers decided to favor quantity over quality -- and whether this can change -- would have added to the book.
Totally worthwhile read. Engrossing, fairly well researched, thought-provoking, and relatable as a person who buys clothes and at one time in my life spent more than necessary at fast-fashion retailers like H&M, F21, Kohl's, etc. Cline covers the history of the fashion industry that led us to this fast-fashion/over consumption/disposable clothing society, and does her own informal investigating into garment manufacturers in Bangladesh, China, and the Dominican Republic. She also looks at what happens when we donate clothes to charity/thrift shops and whether it's true that clothes can be given a second life.
I felt like the book lacked a little in the final chapters regarding solutions. Cline mostly focused on individual purchase decisions, and did not touch on the policy necessary to make broader changes. I also feel like she should have better explored the environmental costs of cheap fashion, which were only very briefly mentioned in passing.
I am so glad I stumbled across this book. As someone who's been known to wear a $10 dress with $500 shoes, it was a revelation to learn the repercussions of my shopping choices. I feel resolved to stop buying cheap crap and now see with wide-open eyes that there's something very wrong with today's consumerism. Should I buy a skirt or a cup of coffee?!
The section detailing what happens to the unending mounds of trash bags full of donated clothes was fascinating, and the chapters detailing manufacturing conditions in China also gave me a deeper understanding of my work in the toy business. I've already recommended this to several of my colleagues and really believe the knowledge I've gained will impact my buying (or NOT buying) behavior for years to come.
Quick read, simply written book. I feel like I knew most of this going in but I’m sure this was one of the first books of its kind (like the fact that I knew all this already is in part due to the book’s influence). I remember in Venice someone told me that sewing is hard work and most girls don’t want to learn it, which is why lacework is a dying art. This book is giving me the push to learn to sew though, I feel like it would be fun to design my own clothes. I’m going to go donate some clothes now.
i can’t believe i’m never shopping at forever 21 and that i’m gonna learn to sew again immediately
this is a solid book that takes you through how exactly fast fashion retailers like forever21 and h&m and zara get their prices so cheap which is smth i had been wondering for a whole but never did the work of actually looking into it. i’m...... changedt
I'll state from the onset that Elizabeth Cline, as passionate about her subject she may be, is no Rebecca Skloot. The topic is interesting and easy, and this goes a long way in making the choppy writing and so-so investigative journalism palatable.
This book was as concerning and overwhelming as I predicted. It ended on a positive note, though, and for that I was appreciative. I've typed out a few passages from the book I thought were interesting and worth discussing.
"Sewing should be a good job; it should be a great job." (page 142, 2nd paragraph)
I agree. Sewing, healthcare, teaching, food production, and childcare should all be great jobs. The jobs that either sustain life or attend to our basic needs have become menial and unimportant. Athletes, celebrities, 7-figure authors--entertainment, in other words--are who and what we exalt and consider of value.
China has become the colossus in the field. Chinese apparel imports to the United States have more than doubled since 2005 and now account for an astounding 41 percent of imported clothing. In certain categories, China totally dominates, making 90 percent of our house slippers, 78 percent of our footwear, 71 percent of our ties, 55 percent of our gloves, and roughly 50 percent of our dresses. (page 164, 1st paragraph)
I'll just let you noodle on that for a bit.
The Chinese factories make the whole process of garment production very easy. But they can also make the process very hard, as Karen Kane has experienced. Michale Kane says, "They have such a monopoly on manufacturing now, especially in apparel, that they really can dictate whatever quality they want to put out. And you really can't challenge them. You're kind of locked in." (page 166, 3rd paragraph)
We see a shift from this attitude when the book ends--China is becoming too expensive a producer and more fashion lines are looking to bring production back to the States--but it's worth noting that it never pays to give anyone or anything too much power over you. Checks and balances, people. The Roman Republic figured that out several thousand years ago.
Clothing that isn't produced at resource-draining quantities or by shortchanging the people making it is not cheap. Clothing that is well made is not cheap. (page 207-208, 3rd paragraph)
I have argued this point so many times online and in real life that I don't have anything more to add than, "No duh."
Hah. As if an opinionated loud mouth like me would be so brief! I would add that many expensive status labels do not, in any way, shape, or form, equate to quality. In my opinion, you start to see a diminishing return on investment when you get into some of the more ludicrous luxury labels, along with no significant improvement in quality.
So why not take more risks with our clothes? In a way, personal style has become an imperative. Trends change so fast now that we are handed two choices: Change trends like a maniacally flickering light switch or have the courage to develop your own look. (page 209-210, 2nd paragraph)
I knew that stores were getting shipments of new clothes every couple of weeks, but I didn't make the connection to impact. As strange as it sounds, I have been aware of the fast fashion concept and yet completely unaware. I don't know why I thought Fall fashion kept arriving in stores until Spring. I honestly didn't give it much thought. I certainly didn't consider what it meant for our economy and environment.
Because when I walk by an H&M or an Old Navy or a Target, I see what once looked like fashion meccas for what they really are: unsightly jumbles of cheap clothes dressed up as good deals. When we can recognize how clothing is put together, what it's made of, and can visualize the long journey it makes to our closets, it becomes harder to view it as worthless or disposable. (page 221, 2nd paragraph)
I agree, sort of. I believe this is true if you treat your clothing solely as disposable objects. I do not. I'm a proponent of altering clothing to fit and flatter, but I'm not a seamstress. I don't know how to make compression pants, and I like the 3 pairs I have from Old Navy. The goal, I believe, is to reduce our shopping and eliminate the fast fashion mindset. I didn't buy 12 pairs of compression pants from Old Navy because they were on sale ZOMG! I bought 3 pairs because I walk every day and I thought that was a sensible number to have in rotation.