Overdressed: Why Cheap Fashion Is a Bad Deal
“. . . true environmentalists, who believe in reducing the amount of raw material we use up, will still be appalled by the author’s focus on the look and acquisition of clothing—that “amazingly soft” black top is from her new, reformed life—and her boast that nowadays, before she buys a new piece of clothing, she asks herself ‘if it was something I really loved and thought I would wear.’ Um, how about asking: Do I need this thing? Ms. Cline just doesn’t get it. She is still a shopper at heart.”
Elizabeth L. Cline, the blithe clotheshorse, ought to be the kind of person that Elizabeth L. Cline, the author of Overdressed, despises.
Within the opening half-dozen pages, Ms. Cline confesses to owning “sixty-one tops, sixty T-shirts, thirty-four tank tops, twenty-one skirts, twenty sweaters, fifteen cardigans and hooded sweatshirts, thirteen pairs of jeans, twenty-four dresses, twenty pairs of shoes . . .” and on and on, individually delineated up to “354 pieces of clothing”—plus socks and underwear.
She oohs and ahs over “the black faux fleece-lined hoodie at Forever 21” and tosses off lines like, “Who doesn’t know an out and proud high-fashion fanatic?” as though there couldn’t possibly be a negative answer.
But the second Ms. Cline spends the rest of the book largely castigating people like her other self for overbuying cheap junk, wearing it once or twice or not at all, and throwing it away, environmental consequences be damned.
Fashion, she scolds, is “a powerful, trillion-dollar global industry that has too much influence over our pocketbooks, self-image, and storage spaces. It behaves with embarrassingly little regard for the environment or human rights.”
Of course, criticism of Asian sweatshops, fashion slavery, and the ecological damage caused by both manufacturing and discarding virtually every type of fabric is not particularly original; however, and to her credit, the second Ms. Cline goes on to offer some sharp analysis of the repercussions of the American consumers’ demand for ever-lower prices.
Not only has this penny-pinching destroyed the quality of couture, the book asserts, but it has also upended the entire retail system. It is simply no longer possible for a designer or manufacturer to turn a profit by using fine material or adding touches like a “blind hem,” let alone sewing that hem in a union shop in the United States.
And that’s not the worst of the damage: Stores cannot stay in business unless they lure in shoppers every two weeks to buy something new, even before they’ve worn what they bought a fortnight earlier. Waste and more waste.
As Ms. Cline writes, “Americans are so convinced that cheap fashion deals are fair that we often view designers who make a well-made product that isn’t cheap with suspicion.”
To make these points, the author has done impressive research. Her reporting took her from factories in the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, and China (where she pretended to be a designer looking to place an order, a highly questionable journalistic tactic); to the remnants of New York City’s Garment Center and a once-thriving South Carolina mill town; to the retail sanctum of Bottega Veneta, where an “eggplant purple” dress “with a pleated skirt and frayed football-pad shoulders” went for a trifling $7,000 (Ms. Cline the shopper clearly enjoyed that bit of research); to the backrooms of a Salvation Army outlet (probably less fun).
Shoppers may be surprised to learn that their castoffs are often too poorly made and unfashionable for the Salvation Army or the impoverished people overseas that Americans imagine are eagerly buttoning on their rejects.
The problem is that Ms. Cline’s schizophrenia ultimately gets in the way of her thesis. Readers who care about the environmental, labor, and sociological messages will be disgusted by the designer name-dropping and Ms. Cline’s drooling over “a black sleeveless top . . . so amazingly soft I have to stop myself from running my hands across it in public.” Those who love the shopping anecdotes, on the other hand, will flip past the boring sermons.
Ms. Cline clearly thinks she has melded these two personalities (seamlessly?) by her dramatic makeover in the last two chapters: She will sew her own clothes or else buy only “ethical” garments made from sustainable materials by people paid a fair wage.
This is certainly an improvement from her throwaway shopping days. But true environmentalists, who believe in reducing the amount of raw material we use up, will still be appalled by the author’s focus on the look and acquisition of clothing—that “amazingly soft” black top is from her new, reformed life—and her boast that nowadays, before she buys a new piece of clothing, she asks herself “if it was something I really loved and thought I would wear.” Um, how about asking: Do I need this thing?
Ms. Cline just doesn’t get it. She is still a shopper at heart.