Book Review: ‘Overdressed’ by Elizabeth L. Cline

I knew something was wrong last year when I saw the sale price of a floor-length black cotton skirt at H&M: five dollars. I remember asking myself: How was it possible to make and sell a long skirt – even with an elastic waist and lightweight fabric – for only five dollars?

I really couldn’t answer the question – though lurking in the back of my mind was the thought that labor costs must be really, really low. Despite that thought, I’m embarrassed to admit, I couldn’t resist the price and I bought it.

Now after reading Elizabeth Cline’s eye-opening book Overdressed (Portfolio/Penguin), I know why that skirt was so cheap. As as a result I don’t think I’ll ever buy anything else from H&M. (OK, I confess that that’s not that much of a sacrifice. I was never a regular H&M shopper because of the slipshod construction of the clothes – stripes that usually don’t line up, seams that looked like they would will come apart in a few washings, cheap fabric, and so on.)

The author spells out why chain stores such as H&M can sell clothes at such low prices – volume. After all when you can place an order of fifty thousand or a hundred thousand outfits from a factory, you can sell it at a low price and still make a profit. Keep in mind that people working in those factories are making their country’s minimum wage, which is likely not a living wage. For example in 2010, garment workers in Bangladesh demanded a 200 percent increase in their wages, which meant $71 a month. In the end, they got about $43 a month.

H&M in San Francisco

And with new stock arriving in some stores a couple times a week or even everyday (yes, Cline says “H&M and Forever 21 get daily shipments of new styles.”), we have “fast fashion,” which encourages shoppers to buy more clothes more often. But this also means that smaller companies can’t compete because they can’t place such huge orders and must charge significantly more for their wares.

The book is packed with revelatory facts about our gargantuan consumption for cheap fashion and its negative impact on the fashion industry and the environment. Overdressed also provides a succinct overview of how the fashion industry has changed and how our attitude toward clothes has evolved over the past century.

“We are buying and hoarding roughly twenty billion garments per year as a nation,” says Cline, who also points out that the United States “now makes 2 percent of the clothing its consumers purchase, down from about 50 percent in 1990.”

I don’t know about you, but my jaw dropped when I read those numbers.

But Overdressed isn’t just about facts and figures, the author also includes her own personal experiences as a consumer of inexpensive clothes, confessing “For a decade, I only bought cheap fashion…” paying “less than $30 per item on average for each piece of clothing” in her closet.

Cline’s fascinating book is a combination of her first-person perspective and meticulous research (interviewing many people in the fashion industry in New York and traveling to to various places, including garment factories in China, defunct textile mills in the South, and a unionized garment factory in the Dominican Republic). She also devotes a chapter to the “afterlife of cheap clothes – and it isn’t pretty. A Brooklyn Salvation Army distribution center processes an average of five TONS of outcast clothing every day. Cline notes that every year “Americans throw away 12.7 million tons or 68 pounds of textiles per person.”

We can’t recycle that many clothes, folks. It’s just not possible.

Overdressed tries to end on a positive note by discussing people who design, sew, or refashion clothes. Cline describes taking sewing classes with Sarah Kate Beaumont of Very Sweet Life, and buys her first sewing machine a few weeks later. She visits stores that feature clothes made domestically and/or produced from sustainable fabrics, including the Echo Park Independent Co-op in Los Angeles and Kaight in New York, and says that local production is growing because “designers are realizing it gives them far beter quality control and speed to market.”

It’s these last chapters that are a boon to those who make their own clothes or who buy clothes from local designers. So in the spirit of supporting local design, here’s my plug for Field Day, an Oakland company whose mission is “to create an ecologically friendly, handmade, unique and beautiful world” while “[s]triving to minimize textile waste by offering wearables made from sustainable materials.”

Who are your favorite local designers? Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section!

Chuleenan Svetvilas

UPDATE – October 15, 2012

I joined in a great Twitter chat (#EFCSRchat) today with Elizabeth Cline, Eileen Fisher, and Green Eileen, the recycled clothing initiative of the Eileen Fisher Community Foundation.

At the end of the chat I asked Elizabeth Cline (@thegoodcloset) “what do you tell your friends who are wearing #fastfashion?” She replied: “Lead by example, turn them on to ethical stores/websites. Go to Fashioningchange.com for ideas.”

She also tweeted a follow-up reply: “check out my shopping directory for a list of alternatives.” Here’s a link to the shopping directory on her website, which includes “those fashion designers/brands who not only have a strong ethical vision, but are design/style leaders as well.” (You can send suggestions for the shopping directory to Elizabeth at elizabeth.l.cline AT gmail.com.)

A few other pertinent tweets from Elizabeth from today’s #ERCSRchat:

” Even if you’re not into fashion, clothes matter! Buying responsibly has huge positive impacts on jobs/environment.”

“[W]e need to stop buying things we know are going to fall apart because textiles/fashion are huge polluters.”

“Ethical fashion has many components: Fair pay, environmental awareness, and smart/sustainable design.”

“It’s important for consumers to have their own sense of style NOT let the fashion industry dictate our choices.”

” Shopping compulsively and buying deals gets you nowhere fast. Check out my former closet: http://www.overdressedthebook.com/aboutelizabeth/

“Now, fashion is split into the super cheap vs. insanely overpriced. We need more fairly priced, well-made clothes.”

And some of the comments from Eileen Fisher (@EILEENFISHER):

“We read in the book that clothes should be viewed as investments, not as trendy throw away items. Couldn’t agree with it more.”

“Problem is that we get into the habit of asking “why pay good $ for clothes that aren’t going to be in style nxt season?”

From Green Eileen (@GreenEileenShop)

“Best tip: Think of the Future! Buying fast fashion goodies offers instant gratification, but what abt long-term?”

“our teams fave OVERDRESSED quote is: “We are all stewards of our clothing, responsible for seeing it…

And finally, from Dr. Susan Rubin (@DrsuRu):

“If our kids understood where clothing came from, they might re-think their shopping choices. Once again, similar to food.”

“As with food, stick with higher quality clothing and it will serve you better. That’s why I shop at @GreenEileenShop.”

“Many Americans use shopping as a drug. Need to become more mindful and discover that less is more.”

 

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Author:Chuleenan

Chuleenan Svetvilas is a writer who sews and collects hats and shoes. She is a fabric addict and loves classic films and vintage clothes.

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