What I’ve Read: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline
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.
Have you read this book? What did you think?