Required Reading – Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Posted in: Reading List — By on February 12, 2013 12:15 PM

I’m cheap. As an example, I’d sooner wait months, or even years, for a book to be available at the library before I’ll fork over the cash for my own copy*.

(*Sewing books excepted)

And so, when I came across Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline  while browsing Chapters for future additions to my Toronto Public Library holds list, I was definitely intrigued. Fast forward to this month, and I finally got the book in my little hands. I could not put it down — this is one fascinating read!

With new clothing retailers likes H&M, Old Navy and Zara sprouting up in Canada over the last decade or so, I can easily say I spend much less on clothes now, as a 30-year-old, than I did as a teenager. While global competition and outsourcing production can partially explain this, these aren’t exactly new phenomena. So what has changed to allow us to find a cool, fashionable outfit for $10 – $30? It would be hard to even buy fabric for that amount. Overdressed explores the various stages of the clothing production process, from design to production to retailing and disposal. Cline finds that many factors have contributed and reinforced each other so the clothing industry can sustain ridiculously high volumes and ridiculously low prices. The chapter on thrift store donations, in particular, is very eye-opening. It’s fascinating to hear the stories of people working in the fashion industry, their reflections on the changing landscape and the impact it has had. On that point alone, I would recommend this book.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the book is the author’s reflection on what she learns, and the impact it has for the way she thinks about clothing, fashion and mass consumption. Although Elizabeth Cline paints herself as a pretty extreme consumer of cheap fashion, owning several hundred items of cheap clothing, I think everyone could ask themselves similar questions about what constitutes value and quality when it comes to fashion. (Or anything, for that matter!) Rationally, it’s hard to justify the low prices we can pay for clothing when we need to replace low-quality garments after a few wears or don’t wear them at all because of a bad fit, and the working conditions and the environmental impacts of this practice simply can’t be ignored. But, so many of us are suckers for a sale or a buy-one-get-one promotion. Even though I rarely buy clothing, it’s hard to spend money on one high-quality garment when I know I can multiple lower-quality pieces for that same amount.

From what I’ve seen lately on many sewing blogs I follow, particularly the Colette Patterns blog, a lot of us are trying to bring more perspective and practicality to acquiring or making new things, by focusing on quality, craftsmanship, repairability and usefulness. In addition, by learning about sewing, pattern making, alterations, mending, and how to care for clothing, we can sustain the life of our garments and will need to shop less. (I should note that Cline herself decides to learn to sew as a response to her new perspective on fashion — huzzah!!)

I really enjoyed this book and still find myself mulling over many of the questions it raised for me about fashion and mass consumption. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in business, DIY, sewing and/or fashion. Rather than rambling on anymore, here are some great resources that have recently appeared related to this book that I hope you’ll check out!

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