Malcolm's Reviews > Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Overdressed by Elizabeth L. Cline
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bookshelves: fashion, political-economy

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.
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Reading Progress

February 28, 2013 – Shelved
March 15, 2013 – Started Reading
March 15, 2013 – Shelved as: fashion
March 15, 2013 – Shelved as: political-economy
March 16, 2013 – Finished Reading

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