Here’s an incredible fact–I paid less than $30 per item on average for each piece of clothing in my closet. . . 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; they have been used as alternate currency in many societies. 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.
In Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline recalls her first trip into H&M, the Swedish fast-fashion giant now considered the second largest global clothing retailer, in much the same way I recall mine. With her heartbeat racing, she was wow’ed and woo-ed by “gleaming white walls and polished ash wood floors.” She quotes a fashion blogger who first walked into fast-fashion retailer Forever 21 and felt like “a kid in a candy story.” The affordable, indeed truly cheap, yet trendy clothing made shopping sprees possible for those on the tightest budgets. By the time H&M hit the Bay Area, the buzz was at a fever-pitch, and it seemed to be all fashion magazines talked about. Fast-fashion’s prices flabbergasted me at first, seeming too good to be true, but now I’ve grown to expect them. As Cline explains, we’ve acclimated to the sort of cheap fashion Zara, the pioneer of the fast fashion industry and now the world’s largest clothing retailer, H&M, and Forever 21 offer.
But what does it mean for fashion when consumers expect to pay $14.99 for a full detailed dress, or $5 for a t-shirt? Cline explores the dysfunctional state of cheap fashion from production, as clothes are made by workers overseas paid under a living wage; to the expectation of constant consumption, as fast fashion relies on constantly updating stock and huge amounts of product sold to make profit. She follows the trail of what we buy from our closets, to donation centers like Goodwill, to the textile recyclers who agree to take cubed “bales” of compressed unwanted clothing, weighing half a ton each, which become rags or get shipped off to Africa.
Cline explores the history of fast fashion, eye-opening for me in a way I’ve never really considered trade regulation and how directly it affects my life. First, let’s establish some basics–clothing is made for much cheaper in developing countries, where workers can be paid as little as $68 a month. Got it? Cheaper imported clothing means fewer jobs for well-paid garment workers in the U.S. It means more resources used on shipping clothes from across the globe to stores here. Cline explains the Multi-Fiber Arrangement, “a convoluted system of quotas that limited the import numbers of more than one hundred categories of clothing” from developing countries into industrialized ones from 1974 to 2005. The MFA expired in 2005, based on a decision ten years earlier by the World Trade Organization. This flooded the U.S. with incredibly cheap clothing, priming us to pay less in a system of great deals that is ultimately unsustainable.
I also learned how little I know about what I’m putting on every day–Cline talks about the fabrics and stitches used in much of the stuff we wear, many of which are derived from plastics and blended in ways that are non-recyclable. She interviews a 67-year-old woman whose childhood dolls wore clothing better made that what we’re wearing today, sewn with a blind hem, a “labor intensive and subtle type of stitch” that’s not often used any longer.
The blurb on the front of the book says, “Overdressed does for t-shirts and leggings what Fast Food Nation did for burgers and fries,” and this is a simple way to explain the dysfunctional fashion industry, only because we all now understand the dysfunction of the fast food industry due to raised awareness thanks to previous exposés. Like the issues surrounding ethical eating, buying fair trade and ethical clothing seems currently priced out of range for many of us. If $5 for a t-shirt is too little, then $50 for a t-shirt also seems to be quite a stretch. Cline’s message, however, is that investing in a few well made basics will save us money in the long run, as well as start a more sustainable cycle of consumption–the clothes will last longer, and create less waste as we’ll be keeping them.
She also suggests sewing, which sounded so bizarre to me when first presented in the book. That sewing would be so novel says something about the way I’ve come to view clothing. Cline opened my eyes to the power in modifying your own clothing, rather than tossing it for something new. As I read about Cline’s experience with sewing her own clothes, and offering to take in or hem something for a friend, I realized how life changing this simple skill could be.
Although published in 2012, this is a must-read for anyone who wears clothes today. Cline seemed to be more active in the media last year, and I wonder if this is because of a lack of press interest this year in this topic, or because Cline is at work on a new project. I’m interested to see what Cline’s follow up to this book will be–as Michael Pollan has shown in his detailed examination of the way we eat, this seems like just the tip of gigantic, compressed and unwanted, poorly sewn clothing bale of an issue.