A Review of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Recently, I took a sewing class taught by Claire Kennedy, a talented seamstress and fashion consultant. I know this seems like hyperbole, but it changed my life! I’ll have more on that in another post, but for this one, I want to focus on a book that she recommended: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline. This book was a life-changer as well.

Overdressed should be required reading for just about everyone, especially those of us who can sew. The book focuses on many aspects of the fashion industry — global commerce, copycat designs, and “fast fashion” — and it takes the reader from garment factories in south Asia to high-end couture creation centers in New York. According to the author, Elizabeth Cline, fashion has changed drastically in the last few decades. Ready-to-wear clothing used to be costly but very well-made, and most people owned only a handful of garments. Quality trumped quantity. Today, however, it is the opposite. American consumer culture is now addicted to rapidly changing trends and owning an abundance of cheap clothing.

As the book title says, all this cheap clothing has a terrible price. Most of the garment factories in the United States have shuttered and moved overseas where labor is cheap, leaving a gaping hole in the American industrial landscape and countless unemployed workers. The factories pay workers in foreign countries very poorly, and working conditions are deplorable. I had always hoped that bringing the garment industry back to the United States would save our sagging economy. Cline argues that it’s no longer possible because the world has changed too much. She believes we cannot go back, though I can’t help but hold on to the hope that maybe it will happen sometime in the future.

In addition, garment makers now use inferior materials, hasty and sloppy sewing techniques, and bland designs that workers can cut and sew as quickly as possible in order to meet demand. More complicated styles are sometimes clones of higher end goods – minus the quality sewing and materials, of course.

Aside: remember my post about “tit curtains” and gauzy shapeless tops? Those shapeless styles are exactly what’s wrong with fast and cheap fashion. They’re easy to cut and make and mass-produce. Simply dictate that tailored looks (which cost more to make) are stuffy and outdated and that shapeless unimaginative tops (which are cheap and easy to make) are in fashion, then start cranking them out. It’s easy fast money with minimal fuss.

Consumers eagerly gobble up this terrible cheap clothing, and most of it barely lasts a season before it wears out or goes out of style. This leads to people buying even more cheap clothing. Clothing chains reinforce these notions with their sales, coupons, and slogans praising the concepts of getting more for less and keeping up with trends without spending a fortune. Cline isn’t afraid to call out the offending stores: Target, H&M, JCPenney, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Kohl’s, Charlotte Russe, Forever 21, DSW Shoes, and so on. She points out that consumers fail to learn how to identify quality and will instead come to believe that cheap polyester skirts with topstitched hems are treasures with bargain prices. They also fall into a disturbing two-fold mentality: “I can have more clothes for less money,” and “I won’t pay more than $X for a certain item of clothing.”

All this leads to bloated closets full of clothes. In order to keep cramming in more cheap clothing, consumers look to charities such as Goodwill and Salvation Army as a dumping ground for their unwanted clothes. After all, surely some poor unfortunate person would love to have last season’s floral knit top from Old Navy even though it’s covered with fabric pills and it looks rather faded around the collar, right? Unfortunately, charity stores can’t always sell these cheap worn-out goods, and fast fashion is again at fault. Why pay $5 at Goodwill for a used out-of-style t-shirt from last season when you can buy a new shirt in this season’s hot color and/or shapeless style for the same price at Old Navy? Charities end up packing the unsold clothing into bales and selling them as industrial rags and fiber filler. They also sell them to brokers who sell the bales to people in third world countries, and those buyers are often able to salvage a few decent pieces from the bale. The rest is just garbage. It’s too worn-out, dirty, stained, or ripped to be of any use. The cycle continues over and over, year after year, creating a huge glut of worthless clothing, industrial waste, miserable working conditions, and empty consumerism.

Yes, this book is depressing.

There’s hope, however. I enjoyed reading about garment workers in the Dominican Republic who had unionized and won better wages and working conditions for themselves. Though they were still poor and overworked, life was improving for them. Maybe this could happen in other garment factories around the world. Further down the chain, some consumers are realizing that cheap fashion has its limits. They’re noticing the inferior fabric and the bland designs. They’re beginning to crave well-designed garments made from better materials. The “buy organic/local” and “slow food” mindsets are creeping into fashion and creating a “slow fashion” movement.  Technology is making sustainable fabrics more durable, comfortable, and affordable. Change may be possible after all, even if it’s only on a small scale.

Here’s where we, the home sewists, come into play. Though only one chapter focuses on home sewing, the entire book is very relevant to every home sewist. It gives our work more meaning and urgency than ever. We have the ability to create almost anything and avoid fast fashion consumer culture. However, sewing isn’t for everyone and it doesn’t solve the big problem.

Cline has the good sense to acknowledge that there are no easy solutions. Well-made quality clothing isn’t cheap. It just can’t be, especially if you are low-income or if you have children to clothe. I really appreciated the fact that Cline, a single woman with no children, acknowledged that parents cannot afford to put their children in expensive clothes. Low-income people rely very heavily on fast fashion. That means that the impulse for change has to come from those who can afford it.

So what should we do? First of all, Cline suggests that we should try to create our own styles instead of chasing rapidly changing trends. Buy from better boutiques, independent designers, and American clothing producers. The Overdressed website has a list of recommended shops, though I did not see much that would work for my taste and budget. Cline also suggests learning to make your own clothes or to alter the ones you have into unique garments. This is something that I can certainly do. Above all, the goal is to acquire quality garments, and that means buying fewer garments overall.

Cline put a lot of research and thought into Overdressed, though it really needed better editing to filter out some of her awkward phrasing. It was easy to read and easy to follow, and while some of her startling revelations were actually not so startling to me, they still affirmed what I knew and confirmed what I had suspected. I also appreciated her brief looks at the history of sewing and fashion and the way that she used them for context for her arguments.

As I read this book, I often thought back to the way I felt when I read A Year without Made in China by Sara Bongiorni. There are obvious parallels in the texts: China’s rise and the West’s decline in manufacturing, the fact that it’s nearly impossible to avoid cheap goods from China, and the powerful undertow of consumerism. I even had the same emotional response. I wanted to change my lifestyle, but I had a dreadful feeling in my gut that a complete change would be costly, stressful, and ultimately impossible to achieve.

I highly recommend this book because it has something thought-provoking for everyone. If you are interested in sewing, fashion, or global economics, manufacturing, or marketing, you will find it particularly fascinating. Even if it isn’t lifechanging for every reader, it’s still a worthwhile read.

I used a copy of the book that I checked out from the local library for this review, and it was not solicited by the author or the book’s publisher.

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