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

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion
Elizabeth L Cline
Publisher: Portfolio Hardcover
Release Date: June 14, 2012
256 pages
Author’s website
Amazon & Barnes and Noble

When I was in 11th grade (1997) I was on the speech team (actually for 3 years in high school but I digress) and my category was persuasive. I really enjoyed it, probably because I like to argue so very much in real life! Anyhow the topic I choose that year was “Sweatshops are Bad”. That point in time was the height of outrage about overseas sweatshops as well as some of the beginnings of fast fashion and decline of the American garment industry. It was incredible timing. I suspect this book has been released at a similar moment in time.

No matter where our clothes are purchased, we should buy the best we can, make good use of them, and care for them. page 199

Show me someone who hasn’t complained about crappy fabrics, crappy fast fashion and tissue paper clothes (including yours truly) and I just might have a bridge to sell you. The reality is that most people loved fast fashion at first but have gradually gotten sick of poor quality clothing. Unless we wrestle the control of our closets our of Goliath size companies who produce a swath of ill-suited and low quality clothing we won’t be left with a lot of choices. Nearly everything is made overseas (if your an American or Euro at any rate) at the lowest possible price point. And that which is made here in the States more often than not has questionable ethical production practices tied to it.

And don’t get me started on couture and high fashion. Not just the prices (insane!) but the idea they are “selling a dream”. For a lot of people in the US good quality, well made clothing (not haute couture exactly) is too expensive and out of reach. A lot of bloggers know this well, especially those that thrift and those that enjoy vintage. Vintage is made so very differently than modern fast fashion items. Even the seams, construction and fabric are different. It’s just an entirely different world. In 1929 a woman had, on average, 9 outfits. Nine. The author counted her pieces of clothing and had nearly a piece for every day of the year. I know I am no where near that but it is still much more than 9. Can you name 1 trend for the 2000s like you can for the 1920s or 1930s? Heck even the 1980s or 1990s? How did we become a country that no longer clothes itself in proper clothing and instead just keeps buying and buying? How did we become a country that barely makes our own goods and instead imports nearly all of our clothing?

This book covers a great many topics including but certainly not limited to; fast fashion and how it got started, the culture of haute couture and trends, production conditions in both the US and China as well as other areas of the world, what becomes of discarded fast fashion pieces, sewing and the general lack of common knowledge of garments and their construction.

In economics there is a principal known as “Veblen goods.” These are the products we desire more the higher their prices go because we hope this will show other people that we have wealth and status. Clothing is very sensitive to this effect since it deals directly with personal expression and ego. We see it as an extension of ourselves, and it is the most visible way we can strut our stuff. “Fashion is the most unique product in this sense because it deals with presenting yourself to the outside world,” says Park. “That is the reason why we pay so much attention to clothing. ans that is the reason why some people are will to pay so much for it.” There is no other consumer category for which such huge price extremes are driven by our ceaseless pursuit to look good and prove ourselves to others. page 72

My main issue with this book seems to be some of the language (awkward at times) as well as the flow. The author tends to to jump from point to point and back again. However the wealth of information and ideas presented supersedes my issues with the format. The end resolution is that I desire to be a better consumer. I have bought fast fashion in the past. Heck you see it all the time in the outfits I post. But while reading this I had a moment of clarity and mentally thunked myself on the forehead with a “duh!”. I know this. We all know this. How can a $6 shirt be worth $6 and yet still afford a living wage to someone in another country, or even here in the US? It can’t. It just can’t. Never mind the current socio-economic and political conditions in China. They are ready for more. And they will get it whether it agrees with us or not.

I try to be a good consumer. I always try. But I definitely do not stop and ponder what I am actually doing. It’s time to do that again. It’s time to get back to the idea that yes, I do know how to sew (I made the dress I wore for my first wedding) and I do understand garment construction. I am just lazy. It is easier to buy what I want and not make it. Ok, so buy it. Make it good for the soul, make it worthwhile, make it count.

The reason why so many of us have no kinship with or respect for anything in our closets and why fashion can seem so self-indulgent and pretentious nowadays is because fashion has become a slick, industrialized, heavily marketed industry. Loving most clothes sold today would be like loving a fast food sandwich. page 166

I do recommend this book (and nope I wasn’t asked to write this or recommend it!). I just read it and loved it. If you like fashion, if you shop at fast fashion stores, it might be time to evaluate what good you are doing.

Oh and incidentally I did very well on my speech that year in school. I didn’t make it to State but I did letter. I had a smart faculty member supporting me. 😀