I recently read Overdressed by Elizabeth L. Cline, a book which according to its subtitle is about the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion. From reading reviews beforehand, I knew it was a book about how the West buys its relatively inexpensive clothing, and the global systems which support the industry: about ‘fast fashion’ as the phenomenon now seems to be called. In case you’re interested, I wanted to give a short review here, and also share some reflections on the subject. I’m not really interested in ‘fashion’ per se (defined as trendy things, designer things and such), but I am interested in clothing, its history, its part in culture, and its part in how we all manage our own households and budgets and the related decisions in our personal home economies.
First of all, this book traces the rise of fast fashion from an American standpoint, as manufacturing of clothing moved overseas through the mid-late twentieth century and as prices for clothing dropped. Meanwhile, clothing stores selling cheaper clothing – in contrast to traditional department stores – promoted frequent shopping by replacing their stock at quicker intervals, effectively creating multiple ‘seasons’ per year and meaning that shoppers could return to the same store every single month and see something new. As fashionable shoppers became accustomed to lower prices, they also adjusted their expectations of what clothing ‘should’ cost and became unwilling to spend more than the amounts they would pay at places like H&M, Target, Old Navy, or Walmart. Indeed, the impression for consumers becomes that nicer department stores are simply ‘marking up’ goods far beyond their real value, or else charging more for designer labels when you could have a non-designer equivalent for a tenth of the price.
Cline spends a large portion of the book investigating the overseas factories that have made such low prices possible. In some sense, this information is now becoming more common knowledge – i.e. poor wages and working conditions, and long hours for workers in factories in China, Bangladesh, and South America. These factories don’t always have good waste disposal practices, meaning that air pollution is bad and that farmland is damaged as well. For comparison she investigates some domestic factories in Los Angeles, where manufacturing is still done, most notably for American Apparel, but even there it appears that the ‘good’ factories are perceived by employees as being merely ‘less bad’ than the others. A factory in the Dominican Republic does receive a fairly good report for working conditions and wages, interestingly staying afloat against cheaper factories because it produces college apparel (i.e. t-shirts, hoodies and the like with university branding) for colleges where students staged large-scale demands for ethical clothing.
One particular result of the rise of fast fashion which Cline identifies is the growing gap between cheaper fashion on one end of the price scale, and designer fashion on the other. She paints a picture of two types of consumers. Some, like the people she interviews in the book, have tight budgets – or simply shop frequently – and consider anything over $30 to be expensive. Others chase designer items as status symbols and pay anywhere from $200 to $2,000 for a piece of clothing. She says that designer brands have gotten wise to this and raised prices, realising that people will pay them. Meanwhile, as she points out, there’s a huge gap in the middle for mid-priced, quality, domestically (or ethically) made items which for the most part don’t exist.
But concomitant with fashion’s cheapness is not only its affordability but its ‘cheapness’ in the grander sense – it simply doesn’t last, but because it is inexpensive we don’t mind that it doesn’t last. We may also suffer a misconception that donating our worn-out clothes to charity redeems what would otherwise be wasteful, but as Cline details, charities are overrun with a surplus of clothes; there is no need that is being met by many of our castoffs.
The overall argument of the book is that cheap mass-scale clothing production has often resulted in compromised ethics, the inability of fashion companies to account for how their garments are produced, and a decrease in clothing’s disposability (and hence waste).
Finally, in light of these problems, Cline makes some suggestions for how individuals can adjust the way they buy and care for their clothes. I had a conflicted response to this final section of the book. On the one hand, Cline’s focus throughout is so sweeping and global that her final recommendations seemed a little mundane to me – not really the revolutionary approach I was expecting. She suggests making clothes last longer by altering and repairing them, planning a few thoughtful purchases of good-quality clothes, looking for sustainable fibres like organic cotton, wool, or recycled materials, and avoiding trends (and their coming and going) in favour of a more personalised style with more longevity. In a sense I felt that this was advice I already knew. However, on the other hand, I realise that her concern is to pose practical options for normal people, so in this sense I grant that her recommendations are precisely what is needed.
I really want to share a few of my own thoughts on this subject, bearing in mind that none of this represents a fully-formed way of thinking; simply some things I’ve pondered in the last few months.
First of all, lately I’ve been thinking about the value of labour and the work involved in production. For those of us who engage in ‘knowledge work’ as our profession – pushing information around, generating it, thinking about it – we can pass through an astonishing amount of our lives surrounded by the results of (physical) labour without ever witnessing or knowing anything about it. Often, the only ‘production’ in which I engage is cooking, taking raw ingredients and processing them as necessary to produce the final result. I think this kind of knowledge-work lifestyle ironically fosters an ignorance about the production of common goods and the relation of labour to the finished product. My home is full of stuff, but for the most part I have little idea how it was made, by whom, how long it took or how much it cost in raw materials, and what wages were paid to the people who physically put it together. I’m not talking about wanting some quasi-spiritual connectedness to others via my physical stuff, but rather simply wondering what human (or other) situations are being funded by my money. What factory, what working methods, what wages am I ‘voting for’ when I spend my money on a given item?
Likewise, a lack of knowledge about production and the labour involved leads to an ignorance about what things are really worth. At the end of her book, Cline asks (and I think it’s a really important question), ‘What should clothes cost?’ She’s not talking about overpriced designer items that ‘should’ cost less than their name-brand markups; she’s talking about it the other way around, normal clothes that probably should cost us more than they do, if they were responsibly manufactured by workers fairly paid and well treated, etc. If we know nothing about how clothes are made, our only system for gauging what something ‘should’ cost is price comparison, yielding conceptions of worth which can be quite skewed from the actual materials and labour involved in a garment.
I’ve been asking myself lately what I think clothes should cost. My own sewing repeatedly makes me realise all that is involved in constructing even a simple garment (and even mass production still relies on people to run individual sewing machines to stitch every seam). Sometimes I calculate the cost, in labour and materials, of what I make, and it’s rare to come in under about £60 for something simple. Now, I realise that if I were involved in clothing production, I’d have cheaper materials bought wholesale and probably faster production with better equipment and less time lost to undoing mistakes (oops). But even so, I’d never be able to make a tee for less than £20, and of course that doesn’t include any business overhead or store markups. For a dress with a lining, I reckon I’d have to sell it for £200, easily, just to make ends meet. Indeed, as I did some looking around online, I saw that Pendleton Woollen Mills in Portland – a US-based and vertically integrated clothing company – charges $200-$300 for some of their basic (albeit nice) skirts. That feels totally out of my price range – but I venture to suggest it’s probably a fair price considering the materials and labour involved.
That brings me to a final thought, a soul-searching one. One possible knee-jerk response to all of the above is this: Okay, that’s all fine for the wealthy, but I can’t afford to spend more on my clothes. Actually, this is my knee-jerk response. And Cline at least touches on how cheap fashion has a certain traction in our culture because its affordability makes it ‘democratic’ in a sense; advocating for clothing to cost more, can, frankly, seem elitist. Firstly, if that’s your thought, don’t let it put you off reading Cline’s book, because I actually found it to be quite down-to-earth in that regard; she doesn’t pose as someone who used to love designer fashion and now spends $10,000 a year on ‘ethical fashion’ instead, but as someone whose closet was full of clothes for which she paid an average of $30 apiece but who now approaches buying differently. In other words, she addresses an audience of people on relatively normal budgets. At least I felt this from her book.
But secondly, I find that knee-jerk responses – like I can’t afford that – are often the ones I need to re-examine; that they can be defensive rather than truthful. Personally speaking, my clothing budget is not huge; it’s kind of moderate, I’d say. But could I, for example, go for a year or even two years without buying anything new? I could; in fact I have done so before just out of necessity. I could save two years’ clothing allowance and in the third year buy a few excellent garments, well-made, that would last. I could also, for example, in a given year buy half the number of new clothes as I normally would and spend twice as much money on each item. I could also have fewer clothes. And those options don’t even take into account making my own clothes (which suddenly seems fantastically affordable), shopping secondhand, or taking care to ensure that things last well.
I don’t want to be guilt-mongering or suggest how you should spend your money. I have come to realise, however, that for my own part there are some ways I need to reexamine how I buy and value clothing.