Over-Dressed by Elizabeth L. Cline
Lately, I've been wanting to learn more about industries that interest me and impact the world, our health, and our planet. I started with tons of books and documentaries on food and nutrition. Some of the information I found during that learning journey has been horrifying and incredibly frustrating while other aspects were enlightening and truly life changing. I wasn't hopeful it'd be better when I decided to start looking into fast fashion.
Like food, clothing was something I consumed uncritically far too long. Granted, most of this time I was a child who didn't really know better or care, but I'm still making it a point to be more educated on these different topics. Over the years, I've seen articles here and there about sweatshops and horrible working conditions in the countries that manufacture almost everything I'm wearing as I write this and you're probably wearing while you read it. I've also heard about how the manufacturing techniques we're using and the surplus of discarded clothing is wreaking havoc on our environment. Between fleeting news headlines and the impossible math on how I own multiple shirts I bought from H&M for $5 a piece, I should've known just how bad it was, but there's something undeniably alluring about getting 15 new items for less than the cost of one dress at some stores. There's a reason that H&M and Urban Outfitters are mainstay brands, especially for teens like me. But, I figured if I was confronting the implications of what I ate, I should do the same for how I chose to shop.
I chose Over-Dressed after researching tons of books on the topic because it was the only one that the library in my small town carried. It definitely did the job. Though, at this point, it's really dated. Even though it came out eight years ago, most of the problems it pointed out had been happening for close to twenty years and had been emerging for decades beyond that. They're also still major issues today.
We've hit a crisis point with fashion that is starting to wear out even those who started us down this dangerous path. Fast fashion has conditioned us to accept clothes that will probably fall apart in a couple months made of crappy fabric and created in even worse conditions for the thrill of a deal and the ability to have more. It's the same basic idea that's lead to the downfall of basically every industry. Fast fashion is like fast food or Amazon or Costco. It warps our ideas of what things should cost or how much of it we should have until it's somewhat painful to pay a price that we know is actually fair. Once you get past how inconvenient that reality is, it's fairly easy to see.
The twist I found from reading Over-Dressed is that what I assumed- if you shell out for insanely priced designer goods you'll get higher quality, more ethically produced items- isn't always true. Elizabeth discusses going through Bloomingdale's and finding a dress listed for $994 that was just as flimsily made and manufactured in China as what you could score for $20 at Urban Outfitters. She discusses how as prices dropped to basement prices on affordable fashion, designer brands have only inflated their prices, because that's part of the allure of owning designer for social points.
So much of the fashion world is governed by the idea of luxury or giving the impression of it. People who can afford insanely priced items use it as a badge of wealth, and you can also see it on the other end of the spectrum as the rest of us brag about our $10 summer dresses.
Elizabeth takes us through the horrible factory conditions in Bangladesh and the giant factories complete with dorms in China. She also visits factories in LA that produce for Forever 21 that don't offer much better conditions than factories in Central America. Most factory workers are paid the barest minimum- often not enough to live- and have minimally safe and sanitary working conditions. Giant retailers accept that as the cost of quick, cheap fashion to meet the consumer demand they conditioned into us. It's a vicious cycle as these workers are dependent on these factories to feed their families, so they can't risk losing their jobs to demand better conditions. Steps taken by the fast fashion brands have been half hearted at best to better conditions.
The other issues with this breakneck production pace and disposable quality is that it creates tons of waste. You feel far less attached to a piece of clothing that barely cost anything, and it's easy to cycle them through your closet and into a second hand shop or even the garbage. But these clothes only have a certain amount of wear left in them, and they're difficult for shops to resell. Almost every avenue to recycle or reuse the clothing ends up with a certain percentage left to go to landfills because even rag makers won't take them. Given that almost all of our clothes are made of polyester or some other plastic derived thread, it's like piling up plastic water bottles or shopping bags or straws all over again.
We're making more clothes than any of us could ever wear, and that's going to have consequences for the environment. Beyond that, though, we're also hurting the chance for new designers to emerge and get credit for their work. It's extremely expensive to start a clothing line, and many factories are so accustomed to fast fashion retailers that they won't take small production runs or deal with designers who want to do multiple quality checks. It doesn't help that brands like Forever 21 blatantly rip off clothing from other designers and are allowed to do it because of our copyright law. Though Forever 21 is going bankrupt, a path that many fast fashion brands seem to be headed down since this book was written, it's still infuriating that they were able to profit from that practice for so long.
So, you're probably expecting some kind of answer or alternative at the end of my kinda ranty half-essay, half-book review. The problem is that there really isn't one. The book stumbles through a couple drawn out chapters that reach with tons of personal stories to draw a conclusion, but there really isn't a clean answer.
There are quite a few starts to an answer, though. The first thing Elizabeth proposes is leaning to sew so that you can make and refashion your own clothes. She tells a sweeping story of learning to sew and falling in love with the pursuit despite the tedium. Funnily enough, in the addendum written a year after the book came out, she admitted to overhyping this. From personal experience, I can tell you this path isn't as easy as it sounds in your head. I decided this summer I wanted to learn to sew and bought a couple pieces from my tiny town's second hand store (which was mostly stuffed with Target and H&M rejects). I pulled together my finds with grand ideas and an old bed sheet to practice before I realized that sewing is something I found far too nuanced to learn off of YouTube. But that effort was the initial start that got me thinking about the fashion industry as a whole.
Then there's shopping from small, independent designers who focus on sustainability or commissioning a tailer to make you custom pieces, both of which are substantially expensive and research heavy. They are ideas, though. It goes back to looking for fewer, quality, investment pieces to fill out your wardrobe for years. I love the idea of supporting designers as directly as possible when I admire their work, and I definitely want to do more research to see what's out there. It does get tricky, though, if you don't live in New York or LA and have to order off the internet.
Back to the second hand store, there's thrifting, but, like Elizabeth points out and I observed on my one trip, it's mostly the same kinds of things that are falling apart in your closet but already a few wears closer to giving out. Of course, there is quality, genuine vintage, but that's become a market that is increasingly trendy and expensive. There are places, like The Vintage Twin, who curate and do the refashioning for you. It's places like these that I'll consider splurging at when I need clothes again, but it still presents the same difficult, expensive problem.
Honestly, at the moment, I find the idea of resale apps like DePop and ThreadUp to be the best bet for cost, sustainability, and affordability along with just reducing our wardrobe size overall. Regardless, I'll be putting in a lot more thought before I buy new clothes. It is incredibly hard to know what the answer is, and looking for better alternatives reminds me why so many of my clothes come from Urban Outfitters and H&M in the first place. I've been growing most of my life, and I've dealt with my fair share of size fluctuations that come with being a teenager. I don't have fun buying clothes most of the time, and I face it with a fair share of fear and dread every time. There's a certain comfort in knowing that my clothes are easily replaceable if I need something different.
I'm using Over-Dressed as a jumping off point as I continue to educate myself on the fashion world. Like Elizabeth points out, I want to learn how to spot quality, and I want to learn how to do my part to improve the environmental impact and working conditions surrounding fashion. While I found her tone to be somewhat out of touch and the overriding memoir feel of the book to be a bit of a turn off, it did offer good beginning insight. I doubt this is the best book on the subject, but just like with my journey to making better choices with my clothes, it's a start. I'll definitely be looking into more books on the subject going forward.
If I had to pick a major take away from the book, it's that same unsettled feeling that I get at the end of every food documentary and book. It's another system that's tangled in problems that no one wants to fix because of their bottom lines. There's a certain level of helplessness to it where you feel like there isn't an option that does everything right. Just like buying organic doesn't prevent all the toxins already in our environment from getting into the food, there's no clothing source that isn't without it's own set of problems. But that doesn't mean there's no point in trying.
Do you have any thought on this problem or suggestions for good places to find clothes? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Note: Sorry this post was so long. This book sorta released a lot of pent up feelings. I did want to share one Instagram account that I've found useful as I've searched around for resources. @Fashionourfuture has some inspiring advice and pledges with the aim towards improving the fashion industry and just being more conscious of the impact of fashion. I like having that reminder in my feed as I think about what I can do to be a part of the solution. It gives me a sense of hope.
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