Friday, January 03, 2014

Overdressed

Overdressed: the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion / Elizabeth L. Cline
New York: Portfolio/Penguin, c2012.
244 p.

This was a book I read over the holidays -- not very cheery but certainly good for inspiring New Year's resolutions! It takes a look at the fast fashion industry, and the effects that this industry has on worldwide environmental and economic realities. It was rather disturbing in its way.

Cline tackles her subject from many different angles. Rather than just talk about sweatshops (which she does, and which are real concerns) she also delves into why we seem to expect $5 outfits these days, and our assumptions that we will wear something for a season then throw it away. She follows a garment from its manufacture, probably in China or newer, cheaper places like Bangladesh, to its appearance in North American or European stores, to its being tossed into landfills or routed to charity shops -- which are overrun with cheap trends and can not sell it all. That clothing may go to textile reclaimers, who make both rags and huge bundles of clothes to sell to the African resale market -- a market that is shrinking as Africans also adopt the desire for cheap, new clothing.

She explores the marketing of trends, how it has become frenetic, and the "trends" whirl by monthly or weekly rather than seasonally. As an example she shares how she and her friends talked about the styles of the 80's -- fairly easily identifiable -- then the 90's -- a few there -- but could not clearly gauge any trends after that. There aren't any, because there are too many. She speaks to factory owners, to stylists, to designers, to extreme shoppers, to tailors, seamstresses and hobby sewists, as well as refashioners like Jillian Owens (a refashioner who I love, so it was great to see her mentioned here). She shares that the fast fashion industry not only cheapens our clothing in its quality, price and style, it also drives up the costs of well made clothing and especially high end clothing.

Then there is the whole environmental impact. From the horrible pollution that factories can cause -- air pollution, dyes in the water, toxic chemicals used in tanning and dyeing etc. -- to the enormous strain on landfills when we throw things away -- to the way that factory work affects population movement -- there are various problems with fast fashion. Not to mention the top-heavy economic model where the people making our clothes are paid barely anything (and no, it's not a "living wage" in their countries as we are often told/sold) and the huge companies make huge profits for their stockholders and CEOs.... well, there is a lot to learn in this book. Most of it we already know in some sense, but a clear vision pointing out how it all works together to make up an industry that is not sustainable reminds us strongly that our actions are part of it all.

Despite all of this, Cline's narrative is not judgemental or hectoring. She's not trying to shame the reader or pretend that she's above it all herself -- she is sharing her journey of enlightenment in this area, and acknowledges the difficulties of change. One route toward getting off the fast fashion merry-go-round that she suggests is to sew your own clothes, or to get to know a tailor or seamstress who can do so for you -- while it is more expensive than $5 H&M skirts, the quality is far superior, and you are paying a living wage to your neighbours. Of course, I am particularly interested in the "sew your own clothes" route, and this book was originally brought to my attention via various mentions on many of the sewing blogs I read. (Such as an interview at the Colletterie). While this is not the only suggestion she makes (since it won't be for everyone) it is one I can do something about. (you can find a list of her Top Ten suggestions for action, at her website)

So, after reading this, I no longer feel inclined to rejoice at my amazing shopping deals, or to buy more stuff all the time. I've been feeling a bit discombobulated by how much of everything I own (and I am by no means a huge shopper). This seems a good time to attempt to buy less fast fashion, make more of my own classics and 'reduce, reuse, recycle' in my wardrobe. The next step? Trying to figure out how to source fabrics that are sustainably made...

8 comments:

  1. This sounds fascinating. I was truly shocked when I read Dana Thomas' _Deluxe_, about what goes on in the luxury goods manufacturing trade, and especially in the 'fake' industries -- a real eye-opener.

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    1. I'd love to read Deluxe next -- this is such a necessary area to explore.

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  2. Thanks for this one! (Not only did it inspire me to think about thrift shops again but I learned that "refashioning" is a word... it'll be immediately helpful in my translation work since I'm working on a novel where someone gets a brand-new dress, not something refashioned!)

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    1. So glad it helped! Sounds like an interesting project you're working on, too.

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  3. Sounds like a really interesting book. I've always been interested in fashion (I'm completely hooked on Project Runway), and one of my goals this year is to read more non-fiction; this might be a good book to start with. Thanks for the review!

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    1. If you're a fan of PR you'll likely be interested in this book as well. Lots of info on fashion choices here...

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  4. This sounds like a very good read. I guess I'm of the generation (and background) that did not allow for many store-bought clothes; we wore hand-me-downs for everyday and Mom made us our good stuff. She was amazing at producing incredibly beautiful outfits that were classy and not frilly, thankfully. Because of her, and my stint at Home-Ec in school, I sewed all my clothes for many, many years, and still examine seams, look at the nap on cordurouy or velvet, and check labels for content before buying anything. I just can't help it! I still look in thrift stores, and one of my sisters now sells "up-cycled" clothing on Etsy. I hope many people read this book and others like it and that some at least will be influenced enough to make some changes. We have to rethink our "throw-away" attitude, and not just in fashion.

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    1. Oh, I agree with you there. "Throw Away" seems to be the modern attitude to a LOT of things, sadly. I'm trying my best to buy less and make more. Fortunately I really enjoy sewing and refashioning, as well as thrifting. It gets harder to accept cheap fashion when you are familiar with sewing yourself, I think -- something that this author points out as happening to her once she took some sewing lessons, too.

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