Have you ever realized how clothing is restocked so much more quickly in stores these days than a decade or two in the past? Or how vintage finds produced prior to the 1980s stand up over time so much better than things purchased only a month ago? Or that finding a trendy outfit is increasingly easier and alarmingly cheaper than its ever been?
Elizabeth L. Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion uncovers the highs and lows of fast fashion. The term “fast fashion” was actually new to me upon reading this book but it perfectly describes the current state of the US clothing industry. Comparable to the fast food industry, fast fashion is defined by the ubiquity of stores and a high volume of sales, allowing for low prices but also forcing major sacrifices in quality, social consciousness, and environmental-friendliness of the product. Certainly everyone understands the horrors of sweatshops, and while Cline explores some of the off-shored factories where our favorite US brands produce the latest trends, she goes even deeper into the history and vast repercussions of our changing clothing culture.
Largely because of projects such as The Center for a New American Dream, Zero Waste Home, and the Story of Stuff, in the last few years I became more conscious of the sheer volume of possessions I owned. I couldn’t ignore how carelessly I bought new clothes only to quickly discard them once they were out of fashion and wore out in a few washings, of how burdened I felt by the things that I owned. Part of my efforts to rectify the discomfort I felt about my consumerist habits of the past included donating as much of my stuff to charity as I could. We’ve all heard plenty of stories about the local Salvation Army being overrun with donations they could never possibly hope to process and sell. But there was something about purging my closet that felt so satisfying on a personal level and on a charitable one, I couldn’t (and still can’t) resist. Cline finally did the necessary legwork to help me realize what actually happens to all that merchandise we so generously drop off on Goodwill’s doorstep. Those colored tags on thrift store clothing correspond to the week when the item hit the floor. That way, employees can take items that haven’t sold after a specified length of time (usually four to eight weeks) out of the stores. And then what happens to them? Well I was happy to know that some of our donations are repurposed into other useful cloth items – rags, towels, and such. And some are donated to third world countries, largely to South Africa, wear the Western obsession with fashion trends has taken hold. But a sizable tonnage (literally, tons) of those clothes end up in landfills, having been deemed unwearable or undesirable. While it isn’t ridiculous to believe that someone less fortunate may be happy to take a few hand-me-downs, it is entirely unrealistic to think that there is demand for all the clothes that Americans of each and every class are trying to get rid of.
I also made efforts to source from thrift stores instead of buying new clothes with varying levels of success. While there were plenty of times when my will failed me, I also began to notice something very telling about the clothes at the thrift store. I had imagined that many of the items to be found at my Goodwill would be wearable, cast-offs in good condition but in need of a new home since their previous owner grew prematurely tired of them. In reality, most of what was to be found at these stores wasn’t in such good shape, with frayed fabric, torn hemlines, pills galore, and lumpy fits due to too many washings as the norm. Sadly, some of these clothes were ones I recognized from the racks at Target, H&M, or Old Navy no more than one season ago.
The reason so many of our clothes end up in donation bins and landfills isn’t just because we have so many clothes nowadays, though it is intimately tied to that fact. Why do we have so many clothes in the new millennium? Because we can afford sizable wardrobes built of $15 tops, $20 jeans, and $30 formal dresses. Unlike our counterparts from 70 years ago, clothing is affordable and ready to wear right out of the store. And why is it so affordable? Because the quality of our modern day garments is so significantly lower than that of clothes made in the past. From the original design to stitch and fabric selection, today’s clothes wear out faster, fit more poorly, do not wash well, and literally unravel in ways that our mothers’ and grandmothers’ clothes never would have. As Cline wisely points out, clothes that cost so little are more disposable in our minds because of their negligible price. We’re more likely to give up on a $20 shirt than a $100 one. But cheap clothing is also more disposable in a literal sense, given that it is so poorly constructed and not built to last. The life cycle of today’s clothes is grossly short, and oftentimes looking for second life at the thrift shop is a lost cause. But imagining our unwanted pieces in someone else’s wardrobe is much more pleasant than imagining them in a landfill.
Cline explains the rise of fast fashion, how affordable stores like Gap and Old Navy quickly gave way to uber-cheap and trendy lines at Forever 21 and H&M. The movement of garment production offshore, the decline of the American fashion industry, the ethical implications of fast fashion, the environmental impact of these changes, blog cultures that espouse trends, and potential solutions to these problems are all covered in Cline’s expose. From the plush carpeting of Bergdorf Goodman to the factory floor of Bangladesh’s garment manufacturers, Cline leaves few players untouched in the fashion game, fast or slow.
Though she ultimately focuses a bit more on alternate answers rather than changing the essential question (how to make more ethical clothing choices? vs. do we really need to buy that many clothes in the first place?), I do appreciate the author’s appeal to rediscover the lost art of sewing (though I can’t say that I’ve always been on friendly terms with my sewing machine – ours is a volatile love-hate relationship closely tied to the complexity of my project) and to visit tailors and to educate ourselves as clothing consumers. Far too few people understand the pros and cons of different fabrics and even less take the time to visit a tailor when the fit of a could-be-beloved item is just a bit off. She ends on an optimistic note, profiling the efforts made by talented sewers in her local Brooklyn neighborhood to transform our wasteful attitudes toward clothing and explaining how the current unsustainable system is bound to force production efforts back to the US. But I still cannot help thinking about the reality of our dilemma – where are all these unwanted clothes piling up? How can we force consumers to associate their purchase at the local mall with the overworked and underpaid factory ladies churning out thousands of identical products each day? And what will it take to make enough people change their ways so as to counter big fashion business? Here’s hoping that suggesting Overdressed to a few more readers will help.