Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline

Plot (from penguin.com)

Like The Omnivore’s Dilemma did for food, Overdressed shows us the way back to feeling good about what we wear.

Fast fashion and disposable clothing have become our new norms. We buy ten-dollar shoes from Target that disintegrate within a month and make weekly pilgrimages to Forever 21 and H&M. Elizabeth Cline argues that this rapid cycle of consumption isn’t just erasing our sense of style and causing massive harm to the environment and human rights-it’s also bad for our souls.

Cline documents her own transformation from fast-fashion addict to conscientious shopper. She takes a long look at her overstuffed closet, resoles her cheap imported boots, travels to the world’s only living-wage garment factory, and seeks out cutting-edge local and sustainable fashion, all on her journey to find antidotes to out-of-control shopping.

Cline looks at the impact here and abroad of America’s drastic increase in inexpensive clothing imports, visiting cheap-chic factories in Bangladesh and China and exploring the problems caused by all those castoffs we donate to the Salvation Army. She also shows how consumers can vote with their dollars to grow the sustainable clothing industry, reign in the conventional apparel market, and wear their clothes with pride.

Buy at: Amazon | B&N | Powell’s

Things I Liked

True confession: I used to be an out-of-control shopper. It was the early 2000s, the economy was doing pretty well, and a variety of weird family dynamics meant that my mom, my sister, and I spent almost every Saturday shopping in the nearest big city, about 30 minutes away. Recent developments (adulthood, recession) have cut my buying back substantially, but my childhood bedroom is stuffed with clothes I can’t quite bring myself to get rid of.

Despite my once-obsessive devotion to shopping (and my current tendency to window-shop for cute, custom-made clothing online), I had NO IDEA where clothes came from. I knew that mass-produced clothes were bad in a vague sense, but I knew nothing about the garment industry before I opened this book. Overdressed explains how American clothes used to be made, marketed, and distributed, and compares that to the contemporary department store and “fast-fashion” culture of Forever 21 and H&M.

The book’s basic thesis is that buying lots of trendy, low-quality clothing that gets thrown away after a little use is bad for the environment (creating mass quantities of clothing creates significant pollution and there are few viable ways to repurpose discarded clothing), bad for garment workers around the world (workers in developing nations are mistreated so that the factories can meet American demand while the American garment market is unable to compete against the low prices for materials produced overseas), and bad for consumers (who continuously buy disposable, low-quality clothing instead of well-made, quality pieces).

I loved learning about fabric and design quality, as well as the business models of various American clothing retailers, both high-end and low-end. (This makes me such a living stereotype, I know, but it’s the first time I can remember finding economics interesting.) The author interviewed members of the American garment industry in both New York City and Los Angeles, and went undercover as a potential customer in Chinese and Bangladeshi garment factories. I loved learning more about small American boutiques the produce fashionable clothing locally and sustainably.

Qualms

There is not ONE WORD in the entire 225-page book about plus-size fashion. Forever 21, H&M, and most couture designers only sell clothing in a US size 12 or smaller. Fat women have substantially fewer clothing options, especially for trendy pieces. Most women who are larger than that arbitrary number have to shop in specialty stores like Lane Bryant. Custom tailoring and making your own clothes (two options the Cline championed) do apply to fat women, but I’d bet that none of the local, sustainable designers are making plus size clothing.

Overdressed also completely ignored people who live outside of New York City and Los Angeles. Most large American cities have thrift stores and local specialty designers, even if they don’t have quite the resources people living in fashion metropolises do. But what about those of us who live in rural communities? There are a couple of boutiques in my town, but it’s a 45-minute drive (one way) to the nearest large town. I could learn to sew on my ancient sewing machine, but most of the alternatives to buying “fast fashion” are not within my grasp.

I also know from hanging around on Etsy that there are some really interesting Etsy sellers who do custom work with sustainable materials for women of all sizes. Not to mention eshakti.com, my favorite online window-shopping destination, which makes clothes to order in any size. Cline’s bio claims that she writes for The Etsy Blog, but she didn’t mention any designers who worked exclusively online. That seems like kind of a huge oversight to me.

Reads Like

Michael Pollan meets Project Runway. Interesting exploration of the American fast fashion industry, but her “solutions” mostly apply to skinny women living in New York or LA.

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