Book Review: Over-Dressed (The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion), by Elizabeth L. Cline

I (Helen) first heard about Over-Dressed via the RELEVANT podcast. Michael is a big fan of RELEVANT’s magazine and podcast, and often when we’re doing longer driving stints, we’ll listen to a podcast or two. I was expecting Over-Dressed to be about the terrible working conditions of those employed in the factories that make much of the clothing we wear in the West, but this book is so much more than that. Rather than only looking at the human rights issues we hear about in the media following tragic factory collapses (though it is obviously an important topic), Over-Dressed gives multiple reasons why cheap fashion is damaging, both to those in the developing world, and to the consumer.

Over-Dressed by Elizabeth L. ClineAuthor photo: Keri Wiginton

Author Elizabeth L. Cline admits at the beginning of the book that she was once a fashion junkie. She tells stories of buying seven pairs of slip-on shoes that were marked down to $7 a pair, on clearance. She surveyed her closet and determined that she paid less than $30 per item on average for each item of clothing she owned. I have to admit I’m in a similar boat. Though I may not have the same affinity for canvas shoes, when I think about my closet, much of what I own was purchased on sale, and it is very rare that I spend more than $30 on an item of clothing. You might be thinking, “what’s the big deal?” Well, as Cline tells us,

“that clothes can be had for so little money is historically unprecedented. Clothes have almost always been expensive, hard to come by, and highly valued…Well into the twentieth century, clothes were pricey and precious enough that they were mended and cared for and reimagined countless times, and most people had a few outfits that they wore until they wore them out. How things have changed. We’ve gone from making good use of the clothes we own to buying things we’ll never or barely wear. We are caught in a cycle of consumption and waste that is unsettling at best and unsatisfying at its core” (p. 3-4).

Fast fashion has become a phenomenon in the last decade or two, a phenomenon that is really benefiting no one but retailers’ wallets. Clothes are made quickly and as cheaply as possible, and then sold to the consumer, who measures quality in “how many washes will this survive?” Stores no longer update their stock seasonally, but every couple of weeks in an effort to keep shoppers shopping. As new clothes are introduced every two to three weeks, clothes purchased only months ago seem hopelessly out of date, and are donated to second-hand shops. While this may seem like a positive way of dealing with an excess of clothing, the vast majority of items donated to second-hand shops do not actually make it to the shelves/racks, but end up as waste, or are shipped off to Africa.

Not only does fast fashion make the consumer into a hamster on a perpetual wheel of temporary trends, it has destroyed our sense of quality clothing. Fabrics are flimsy and seams are poorly sewn. At the turn of the twentieth century, a woman’s ready-to-wear suit retailed for $15 apiece (about $380 today). After World War I, the price of dresses came down to what would be about $200 in today’s (USD) money. So how is it that we can pay less than $20 for a dress today, when one hundred years ago, the average woman was expected to pay $380 for a ready-made-suit? Quality has come down, production has been moved overseas, and the quantity of garments produced has gone through the roof, allowing retailers to cut their costs and consequently slash their prices.

While Cline highlights several issues in her book, including the negative effects of moving production overseas, the unfair wages paid to garment workers, the impact on the environment, the difficulty of getting into the fashion industry as a designer, and the impact fast fashion has on the nations to which our fashion-rejects are carted, the issue of quality stood out most to me. I felt duped after reading this book. Though I don’t buy a lot of clothing right now for budgetary reasons, I really have no concept of what quality clothing looks like, and before, I was easily pulled into H&M every two to three weeks to see what was “new.” We think of high-end clothing as unaffordable and ridiculously-priced (or at least I did), but when we look at fashion historically, clothing was something that was prized, saved-up-for, and taken care of, not haphazardly donated after a few wears. Rather than buying a high quantity of clothing, what if we bought high quality clothing? Yes, it would mean that we wouldn’t have as many options in our wardrobes, but maybe we wouldn’t stand in front of our closets each morning thinking, “I have nothing to wear,” because we would actually love the look and feel of the high-quality clothing that we do own.

As a solution for her findings, Cline suggests that we adopt the strategies of making, altering, and mending. This means making our own quality clothing (which, buy the way, is more expensive than going to Target or Forever 21); altering the clothing we own so that it will fit us well (or even making something new out of something old); and mending those torn jeans or sending our boots in for repair, rather than purchasing new.

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2014 was to only purchase second-hand clothing, or make my own clothes. Over-Dressed has given me more fuel for keeping those resolutions. I’m especially interested in making clothing. Though I’ve made several quilts, the idea of sewing clothing is pretty daunting to me, as I have this horrible feeling that I’ll go out in something I’ve made, and it will fall apart around me. Fortunately, there are so many resources out there for those who want to learn to sew. Here are a few of my favorite sewing-related websites:

http://www.tillyandthebuttons.com/ (Tilly was a contestant on The Great British Sewing Bee, which I highly recommend you check out for inspiration – unfortunately, these shows are no longer available through YouTube, but you can go to http://www.bbc.co.uk to check out pictures of the various makes from the show.)

https://www.colettepatterns.com/ (I have made one of Colette’s patterns – the Sorbetto top – which can be downloaded for free! I love the look of Colette’s patterns, and they are rated as beginner, intermediate, and advanced. If you know how to use a sewing machine and you aren’t afraid of googling a few terms, give the Sorbetto top a try! I found the hardest part was sewing the hem.)

http://www.pinterest.com (if you need ideas, check out Pinterest – the Pinterest link I’ve included is to my “One Day I Will Sew Clothes” board, and you can go down a sewing blogs rabbit trail by clicking on a few of those pins – you have been warned.)

I do hope you will give Over-Dressed a read, and be open to re-thinking your clothing purchases; cheap fashion certainly comes at a high cost.

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One thought on “Book Review: Over-Dressed (The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion), by Elizabeth L. Cline

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Bittersweet, by Shauna Niequist | Michael & Helen Packard

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