A couple months ago I moved apartments, and if you’ve ever packed up all your belonging, moved them from one building to another, and then unpacked them all again, you know that everything looks and feels just a little bit different in the new place. It was during this move that I decided to reread Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline.
The first time I read Overdressed was while I was traveling for a couple months at the beginning of 2016. I had been aware of it previously, and had read excerpts and reviews from when it was first published a couple years earlier, but it’s only by reading the full book that you truly get a complete picture of how brilliantly Cline examines, considers, and questions the many, (many, many, many, many) facets of how exactly destructive cheap, fast fashion is.
Even after two full readings, and lots of contemplation, it was only when I began writing this post, and trying to provide a compelling synopsis that came under a thousand words (if nothing else, I succeeded on the word count) that I began to fully appreciate the breadth of elements that Cline covers.
The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion
In Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Cline traces the rise of America’s addiction to cheap, fast fashion, the economic, social and environmental costs of that addiction, and the beginnings of our cultural awakening to the downsides of fast fashion.
Published in 2012, Cline begins the book with her own awakening to the mountains of fast fashion in her closet, and throughout the book weaves her own story in-between the stories she tells and facts she recounts, acting as a necessary touch point for the reader thought the journey.
How did we end up with so much clothing?
Cline begins by asking in the first chapter, aptly titled “I Have Enough Clothing to Open a Store,” how did we end up with so much clothing? And what stopped us from accumulating this much clothing in past decades?
“How America Lost Its Shirt” which is the title of Chapter 2, explores garment and textile manufacturing in the United States. This chapter starts in the New York City Garment District, where clothes were (and still are) made in the heart of midtown Manhattan (this is possibly both my favorite and least favorite part of Manhattan), then moves to examine LA’s garment district, and eventually to Greenville, South Carolina, which Cline describes as “the heart of the country’s dying textile mecca.” She asks how (and why) has the US garment and textile manufacturing sector dissolve?
In a world of fast fashion, what is quality?
Chapter 3: “High and Low Fashion Make Friends” explores the widening gulf between high-end and low-end fashion. Asking questions about, what justifies designer prices? What is quality? And how would we know if (or when) the quality of a designer piece is worth it’s high price tag?
Then Cline explores the other end of the spectrum – ultra-cheap fast fashion. She asks the ultimate fast fashion question: What is fast fashion? And tying back to the questioning of ultra-high-priced designer fashion, in a world of fast fashion, what is quality?
In Chapter 5: “The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes,” Cline asks: Where do clothes go when we’re finished with them? What actually happens to clothes when we stop wearing them?
Where do clothes come from?
“Where do clothes come from?” is the topic of the next couple chapters in Overdressed. In Chapter 6: “Sewing is a Good Job, a Great Job” Cline explores questions of labor conditions in garment factories. Who is responsible for the condition of a factory (horrible or not)? Who’s responsibility is it to comply with safety standards? And who pays? Does the consumer have to sacrifice for better labor conditions?
“China and the End of Cheap Clothing” Chapter 7, follows Cline as she flies to China asking: how did so much manufacturing end up in China? What happens when Chinese manufacturing gets too expensive? When priced out of China where do companies go? Will rising costs in China force consumers to pay higher prices? Would that change the buying habits of consumers?
Are we stuck with fast fashion?
Cline wraps up the book by asking what’s the alternative to high-speed ultra-cheap clothing? In Chapter 8: “Make, Alter, and Mend” the question is: Is there a third option? How do you make the transition out of (or in to) fast fashion? What would we change if we thought we could (both in our wardrobe and in the industry)?
And finally in Chapter 9: “The Future of Fashion” we ask: What is the future of fashion? How is the conversation already changing? What would happen if we started thinking of clothes as valuable?
This is the sort of book that will change the way you view your closet
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion is not the book to read if you want to keep filling your closet with cheap clothing. It’s a book that covers a lot of ground and asks a ton of questions. It was only by trying to fully and succinctly summarize Cline’s points that I began to fully appreciate the breadth of factors she covered around fast fashion.
I believe it’s possible that the only factor she didn’t cover directly in how destructive cheap, fast fashion is, was the environmental factor, and she certainly touched on it in relation to some of the other points she covered.
This is the sort of book that will change the way you view your closet. But the beauty of the whole book is that Cline is never preachy or pedantic. Cline changes your views as she’s changing her own, and in doing so opens the door to a long-awaited, and very timely conversation.