The Budget Babe | Affordable Fashion & Style Blog

'Overdressed' by Elizabeth Cline: A Review

'Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion' by Elizabeth L. Cline is a book about the toll that the fast fashion industry has taken on the environment, workers, our wallets and our personal style. The author argues we'd be wise to think twice before buying a cheaply constructed $10 skirt from Walmart or Forever 21 and consider the following: Where was the skirt made and under what conditions? How was the skirt produced so cheaply? Do I need another $10 skirt? Does it make me look good? And where will said polyester skirt end up when I'm bored with it (which will probably be by the end of next week)?

I think Cline is absolutely right. We should think carefully and thoughtfully about all these questions. What we choose to buy and choose to wear matters, and the ramifications go far beyond the trite Instagrams we might post about the fashions we so often carelessly buy at a voracious pace (myself included).

At the same time, I tend to take a big picture view of the world and it looks a little something like this: Change and growth are almost inevitable in any industry. Cline recognizes this fact, too, citing many historical examples where technology and innovation fundamentally changed the garment industry, from the advent of the sewing machine to cheap labor in emerging markets such as China. I don't see this as inherently good or bad, just an inevitability of life.

Should we go back to sewing our own clothes at home? I don't think so. (At least, not entirely.) Rather, much like Cline, I think we should meet change and innovation with critical thinking and new ideas. By that I mean we should look at new ways to recycle clothing and textiles. We should insist upon higher standards for construction so shirts don't fall apart in the wash and shoes don't disintegrate after one season's wear. We should continue to support workers who demand better working conditions in the factories that produce the clothes we buy. And we should limit the amount of fast fashion we purchase, whether we can afford it or not. A little restraint never hurt anyone.

Yes, I'm the Budget Babe - promoter of inexpensive apparel and accessories - but I started this blog in part as a response to the fast fashion surge I saw swelling up around me. I know consumers play a significant role in supply and demand but not to the extent that some would have you believe. I did not create Forever 21. I didn't demand $4 t-shirts at Walmart. I didn't beg JCPenney to have a sale every other day, thereby driving costs lower and lower. It's a bit of a chicken and the egg conundrum. Did we, as consumers, create the fast fashion behemoth or did it create us, the bargain shoppers, loathe to spend more whilst discounts, coupons and competitors lay just around the corner? And didn't the fashion industry create trends, which keep us thirsting for next week's deliveries, and make us that much more reluctant to spend more money on today's purchases?

As with any industry, whether it's the industrial food complex, or fast fashion, there are two sides to the coin. Let's look at both sides of the fast fashion coin.

Fast fashion is so many good things. It's excitement, entertainment, self-expression and economic growth.

Maybe it takes growing up poor to recognize these things (cue the violins). When your family scrimps and saves and you have to wear second hand clothes, or clothes made by your Mom and the only clothes you can ever even look at are the ones on the sales rack, and even those are too expensive, then you start to appreciate - really appreciate in a profound way - the thrill and joy of being able to walk into a store like H&M and buy a dress that looks cute and references some high-end designer you drooled over on the pages of your favorite fashion glossy and not have to lose sleep because you've blown half of next month's rent. And please, don't tell me I'm just buying into what The Man tells me I need to own or have to have in order to have self worth. I think the majority of gals since the time of Cleopatra probably felt a little serotonin rush from fashion - is that such a crime?

Perhaps the only part of 'Overdressed' that I take issue with is that Cline argues fast fashion has made us all look more homogenous, and that it's a bad thing. I disagree. First of all her evidence is largely anecdotal ("One week I spotted a handful of people wearing sailor-inspired blue-and-white striped shirts. Two months later virtually one in every five people seemed to be wearing the fad.") Maybe in Brooklyn, but not where I live!

I'm pretty sure everyone wore identical togas back in Roman times (based largely on Hollywood representations) so I doubt we've become more homogenous, but even if we have, I think that's a result of a "natural" human drive for belonging and self-identification. And possibly laziness. We have billions of choices, literally billions, and yet somehow, walk onto any college campus, and you'll see dozens of girls carrying their Longchamp Le Pliage, wearing skinny jeans and ballet flats. There's NOTHING wrong with that. What's wrong with wanting to fit in? Or not wanting to stand out? We're all different by birth. Just because you wear a similar outfit to the person next to you does not make you clones. Not everyone will choose to distinguish themselves from others via fashion, and that's okay. If we've become more homogenous, it only goes to show that despite what fashion companies and brands try to tell us (you're a unique individual who needs an exhaustive, individualized set of products!), we'll still end up shopping for clothes that make us feel comfortable and part of a community.

So please, read Overdressed (preferably a borrowed or digital copy), not because I'm quoted in it (pages 32, 34, 65-66) but because it's a thought-provoking read and a fascinating one at that. Fast fashion might not be around for much longer anyways, at least not as we know it. Rising salaries and standards of living in Asia, especially China, are making it harder for companies to produce dirt cheap clothing, not to mention keep up with the rising costs of raw materials. And as the middle class grows in China, so too does their appetite for the latest trends. And after a few decades of outsourcing, many manufacturers are in fact returning to the United States (via WWD). Made in America might not be a thing of the past. Wouldn't that be novel?

Disclosure: I received my copy of 'Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion' free of charge. The decision to write this review and the thoughts expressed within are entirely my own.

Comments
I'd be happy to go to a college campus where the norm is skinny jeans and ballet flats, here it's sweatpants and UGG boots.
#1 Lexi (Homepage) on 2012-09-05 10:15 (Reply)
I will definitely read this book. Even tho I am a huge fan of your site and do love the changing trends of fashion, I have become a huge proponent of buying resale. I regularly purchase great brands from my local St. Vinnies that I would never be able to afford otherwise. In addition, my friends and I have started a seasonal clothes swap party that has become a huge success. We run it like an auction with monopoly money.
#2 jonna on 2012-09-05 11:21 (Reply)
Lori Cline grew up in the same small town in south Georgia that I did. Usually the clothing choices were EXTREMELY limited. We didn't even have a Goodwill in our town! And, in the late 90s, shopping on the internet was not the norm. It was the norm for us to all wear similar things, because it was a half hour drive to the nearest clothing stores/shopping malls/thrift stores. I think she's trying to do a great thing, but I think that in places as rural as our town, your options truly are limited.
#3 Amber on 2012-09-05 12:12 (Reply)
Great post! One of my primary reasons for giving up shopping for a year (have been back in the game for 2 yrs. now) was to stop myself from devouring and disposing of high fashion low priced clothes like they were bottles of water! (Also not such a good thing btw) Anyway there needs to be a balance, not everyone can afford contemporary clothes made in America but not everyone needs 50 tank tops from Target. I like to split my closet by buying well-made investment pieces (riding boots, LBD, well fitting denim, an everyday tote etc.) and mix with trendier pieces (i.e the peplum top, the desert wedge, etc) from the fast fashion shops. (It would be almost criminal to pay $280 for a pair of brocade jeans!). Love your site and love the remodel!
#4 Ali (Homepage) on 2012-09-05 15:10 (Reply)
I've heard about the book and been meaning to get it. Nice post!
#5 Shoe Bell(i)e (Homepage) on 2012-09-05 21:33 (Reply)
I visited Barcelona a year ago and fast fashion had completely taken over the market. I even saw a sign advertising that Forever 21 was going to open a store there! But the thing is, with the Euro crisis and Spain hampered for years by a poor economy and a rotten job market, everything's expensive.

As for Ms. Cline's arguments, they have been echoed for years by fashion's elitists who deep down don't care about the environment and sweatshops. They are excuses. After all, a good amount of mid-priced and expensive clothing are made at the very same Asian factories that also crank out the inexpensive stuff. What really bothers them is making what was once high fashion accessible to "regular" people. It used to be it took years for haute couture to dribble down to the masses. Now anyone anywhere can keep up with runway trends.
#6 greenfairie on 2012-09-05 23:07 (Reply)
If you want to hear Ms. Cline in her own words, NPR interviewed her about her book. I'm sure you can look it up by typing in her name at npr.org.
#7 Target-Addict (Homepage) on 2012-09-06 08:36 (Reply)
Terrific post- thought provoking- comments equally impressive! So glad you addressed "fast fashion."
#8 M wright on 2012-09-06 15:25 (Reply)
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