Book Review – Overdressed The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

overdressedOverdressed The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion
Elizabeth L. Cline
Portfolio Hardcover, June 2012, 256 pages

On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself sitting in a restaurant measuring the cost of my meal against the cost of the clothes on my back. This entree costs as much as my shirt. This tiny dessert, more than my scarf. A multi-course tasting menu can ring in at more than a pair of really well-made boots.

Like most people I’m inclined to blame this disparity on the high price of food. But I am wrong to do so, for the problem is not that quality, well-prepared restaurant food is to expensive, it’s that the clothing that we typically buy in chain stores across the Western world is far too cheap.

As Elizabeth Cline points out in her engaging and delightfully well-written book Overdressed, we like cheap clothes. A lot. Most of us have more clothing than we can ever reasonably wear, and manufacturers feed into our desire for more by creating clothing as cheaply as possible. Who cares if a shirt falls apart after two washes when it only cost $10 to begin with?

Cline gives herself up as an egregious example of a very common problem; she has a closet full of clothing – a total of 354 pieces (!!) – and nothing to wear, because despite her addiction to shopping and cheap deals, none of it is made very well, fits very well, or is of particularly high quality. And while chain stores whet her appetite by adding new items every week, it all sort of looks the same. And none of it makes her feel especially stylish.

With a brief history lesson on the evolution of fashion from a time when almost all garments were tailor-made or made at home, to the current era when almost all clothing is made overseas, Cline demonstrates how our garments have significantly simplified in their construction. We chalk this up to a desire to dress more casually/comfortably – who wants to go back to wearing corsets and panniers? – but it primarily came about as a way for manufacturers to simplify production. A t-shirt is far easier to cut and construct than a blouse or suit jacket, for instance.

Cline traces the move from domestic manufacturing – remember when most clothing was made in New York’s garment district, or regional factories around North America? – to the shift to overseas, mostly based on cheaper labour costs. Posing as a fashion designer looking for a manufacturer for an upcoming line, she visits factories in China’s Guangdong Province where a manufacturing zone is now home to 100 million people (that’s 1/3 of the total population of the USA!) that create pretty much everything the Western world uses on a daily basis.

She reports that the factories she is shown are actually clean, safe, and well-lit and even convinces a contact to send her photos of the living quarters for the average factory work, which she equates to being similar to a college dorm. In terms of human rights issues, at least based on what Cline is allowed to see, China seems to be improving conditions for factory workers.

No so in Bangladesh, where much of the world’s cheap knitwear is now manufactured. Here, violations are still rampant with health and safety issues typical of the average garment factory.

Cline also spends a chapter tracking where our used clothing goes once we donate it to charity. Don’t automatically assume that your old coat will make it to the racks of the Goodwill or Salvation Army – only about 50% of donations make it into the charity shops, and then, if they’re not sold within a week or two, they rejoin the crap donations to become rags or mattress stuffing. And all that stuff you’ve heard about your used clothes going to third world countries? Not so much anymore. Turns out that many majority world countries have a higher standard of living than they used to, which translates into more money to buy new clothing. Paired with the same chains that produce cheap clothes for the Western world opening shops in Asia and Africa, those folks have little need of our cast-offs anymore.

Of course, because the majority world is buying the same cheap crap we are, there’s even more of an environmental effect caused by the manufacturing and disposal of cheap garments.

Cline does offer solutions to this massive issue, but this is where her book starts preaching to the choir. Sure, there are plenty of people who are dedicated to buying fewer items of better quality clothing and taking care of those items so they last for years. Many of us never put away our sewing machines and still make our own clothes or at least mend/alter store-bought garments so they fit better and last longer. She also suggests buying re-purposed garments, thrift store finds, or new garments made with eco-friendly fabrics and sustainable, fair-trade practices. But the number of people willing to make those efforts, especially when they cost significantly more money (and a lot more time), are surely a teeny tiny minority.

Finding your own sense of style and appreciating quality workmanship in a garment is something that tends to happen as people get older. I’m not sure we can expect the majority of teenagers and young adults – the target demographic of the fast fashion chains – to be interested in such practices. I made about 75% of my own clothes when I was a teenager, but I was also an aspiring fashion designer, and a big freak who wanted to stand out and look different. I also knew how to sew and knit, and there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t put in a pot of fabric dye, just for fun. Mainstream kids today don’t seem to have the same interests.

The solution to our disposable society won’t be won by everyone buying a sewing machine (also, ironically, made to need replacing and not be worth repairing when they break down, unless you can find a “vintage” machine with metal parts, made before the 90s – the gears in new machines are now mostly plastic), or buying re-purposed clothing. In fact, Cline points out that the solution might actually come from the countries making our cheap goods. With a rising standard of living in China, and a shrinking population due to China’s population control laws, finding people willing to work in sweatshops for pitiful wages is getting harder. We can expect goods (all goods) made in China to go up in price in the coming years, and even if manufacturing moves to places with even cheaper labour costs such as Bangladesh, prices are still set to rise as human rights groups crack down on unsafe garment factories in that country.

As with food, it is up to us as individuals to search out quality products, made with ethics and sustainability in mind. And just as we need to help kids develop a love of cooking, we also need to ensure that our kids at least know how to replace a button on a coat or fix a hem. Or have access to professionals who can do the more complicated repairs.

Overdressed is a sharp and accurate look at the current state of the world’s mainstream garment industry. While the solutions the author offers probably won’t be embraced by the majority of her readers, let alone the majority of the population, she paints a chilling picture of an industry that is destroying the environment and is creating financial ruin under the guise of selling us happiness in the form of a new t-shirt.

If Overdressed doesn’t have readers scouring their closets and dedicating themselves to buying fewer, but better-quality garments, I will be very surprised. But unless we make this required reading at the junior high level in schools around the world, I suspect the advice – and warnings – will fall on deaf ears.