Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline is a primer on our modern clothing industry. Specifically, Cline explores the impact that “fast fashion” (retailers like Forever 21 and H&M) has on workers, the environment, and the average Western consumer. She also gives us a bit of clothing history, and dips her toes into what ethical consumption and “slow fashion” might look like.
Cline didn’t tell me too many things that I didn’t know, but it did feel shocking, overwhelming, and very, very saddening to hear them all put together as a “big picture” — rivers in India that run red because of textile mill dye, the inability to see more than a quarter mile in front of you in China because the pollution is so bad in manufacturing towns, people in Latin America (people in Los Angeles!) who have to produce their part of 2,300 garments a day in order to not-quite make minimum wage, how many luxury brands are cutting corners these days just like Old Navy — you are not necessarily getting a well made product just because you are spending more. I actually felt queasy as I read about young American women whose “hobby” is shopping then posting videos of their “haul” on YouTube, garnering a half-million hits, the metric tons of clothing that do not get sold by thrift shops, and where it goes … not to mention the Westerners who wear things once or twice and literally put them in the trashcan. It kinda, sorta makes you never want to buy a single thing, ever whilst making a bonfire of any “fast fashion” you might own, weeping in contrition (which you shouldn’t do because it’s most likely made of polyester, which is plastic, and will only send more toxic fumes into the environment).
I initially thought that I was perhaps not the ideal reader for this book. The amount of clothing I’ve bought for the fall? Zero! I have a bag containing two year old shoes that have a broken buckle in my foyer so that I can take them to the cobbler. My last “shopping binge” consisted of me going to yard sales in my neighborhood last May — I left the house with $51 and came home with $6 (and bags and bags and bags of treasures!)! I have socks on my knitting needles at present, and a pattern waiting patiently in my drawer to be made into a new dress. But then I thought about the three dresses I bought from my coworker Avon Lady — no gold star for me! Sure, I was aiding her in making an additional income, but also breaking the backs of workers in India and China. I also have a vivid picture of the dress I bought at Banana Republic with a gift card. I was sitting at a bar and noticed some strings on the bottom on maybe my second or third wear. I started picking at them and pretty soon I was in the middle of a busy gathering with my hem completely gone! I think we are all ideal readers for this book, because even if we know better, it’s so easy to make excuses when we are presented with the cheap, shiny instant gratification of fast fashion.
What can we do? Cline gives us some ideas to get started. Become aware of how things are made so that you can both avoid products that are not ethical, and know when things have integrity — like good seams and nice fabric. Learn a little about sewing — even if you decide not to sew your entire wardrobe, you can mend and alter existing pieces for longevity and style. She offers us models like Sarah Kate Beaumont to help us envision what could be (which is very similar and very different to what was. So much food for thought!).
Whilst the book has so much to offer, I think it could have used a stronger editing hand — it circles upon itself one time too many, and it also introduces some characters more than once (with exactly the same words). I know it’s an overwhelming subject, but I would have liked to see a little more depth. It’s a pretty slim book at 200-ish pages and big type for such a defining issue of our time. I’m going to read Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster by Dana Thomas next. Weighing in at 384 pages and with a tighter focus, I think it will give me even more to think about.
(image: the Absolutely Fabulous Joanna Lumley raising awareness of the amount of clothing going to landfills. Some statistics of her “shwopping” project?
- 9,513 garments are thrown into landfill every 5 minutes in the UK – some 1 billion per year
- This is the equivalent of 1 in 4 garments sold
- 500,000 tonnes of clothes are sent to landfill each year
- This is the equivalent weight of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Kalifa
- 2,739,726 items of clothing sent to landfill every day
- 114,155 items of clothing sent to landfill every hour