Last month we wrote about Slow Design, specifically in contrast to Fast Fashion, as the death toll from a collapsed garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh rose by the hour, reaching 1,127. During the three weeks the tragedy made headlines, NPR’s “Fresh Air” broadcast an interview with Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, where Cline and Terry Gross discussed Overdressed and how the Dhaka tragedy has affected global consciousness of the Fast Fashion issue. The interview ushered us to (finally) read Cline’s book, and we’re glad we did.
Overdressed is often compared to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for its social influence, and is a book we feel is a necessary read for anyone wanting to better understand the negative impact Fast Fashion has on our environment, our humanity, and our personal carbon footprint.
She opens the book by airing her own dirty laundry, admitting to an obsession for great buys, aka cheap clothing. Her wardrobe count was 354 pieces of clothing when the project began. She writes, “My sister will pay $400 a month to drive a nice car, but don’t try to charge her or me more than $40 for a dress.” Over the last couple of decades, most Americans have come to believe clothing shouldn’t cost much, and we don’t seem to care if it doesn’t last. But those low receipts, Cline argues, carry a much higher cost than we might readily see, or be willing to acknowledge.
According to Cline, roughly 100% of the American closet in the 1950’s and 60’s was made in America. In the 1990’s that number dropped to 50%, and today, it’s a paltry 2%. She points toward the change in free trade agreements, beginning with NAFTA, and focuses on import limitation regulations that expired in 2005. Those expired regulations were put into effect specifically to protect American manufacturing by capping the number of overseas garments allowed into the U.S. for sale. Now it’s a free market enterprise open to the lowest bidder, which today is primarily Bangladesh, where salaries for garment workers are roughly $38 per month.
Cline goes beyond politics and statistics in Overdressed. She also looks at cultural changes that help feed Fast Fashion, naming television shows like HBO’s Sex and the City, which debuted in 1998, for contributing to a generation of women who crave high end fashion that’s way beyond their means. In the show, Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Carrie Bradshaw, buys a pair of $500 Manolo Blahniks whenever possible, and Kim Cattrall’s character, Samantha Jones, covets a $5,000 Birkin bag. Both the Blahniks and Birkins now sell for approximately twice that, “with no corresponding upgrade in materials or craftsmanship,” Cline writes. Enter H&M, Zara, and Forever 21, to name a few; all retailers aiming to fill that desire with $40 designer knock-off dresses. Cline points to the show Gossip Girl with its upscale fashion, and Project Runway for bringing designers, both established and emerging, into the public eye. The Internet, of course, pushes everything to the consumer the moment a thing exists. No longer do we wait for the glossies to show us the latest haute couture that walked the Paris runways at the spring fashion show. We’re watching it live on our computers.
Cline discusses American garment factory sweat shops at the turn of the century and a 1909 strike by New York City garment workers, known as the “Strike of 20,000,” that ultimately helped establish minimum wage and overtime laws in the U.S., as well as the forty-hour workweek. And in a later chapter, she tells us how she decided to learn how to sew and to make her own clothing.
Another chapter touches on the precarious new garment industry in Bangladesh and their rush to keep up with China, which is not an easy feat given the country’s small size and relatively primitive capabilities. Terry Gross asked Cline about this during their “Fresh Air” interview, to which Cline explains, China has the machinery and skill for advanced sewing, like embroidery and more complicated, finished seams.
If you check the labels of garments that aren’t necessarily Fast Fashion – maybe an $80 blouse from J. Crew or a $200 dress from Anthropologie – they are likely to have been made in China, though a subtle but noticeable difference in quality is evident.
Cline doesn’t purport to have an exact answer to this dilemma, especially when it comes to low income consumers. She does draw a direct line from our nation’s new love of farmer’s markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and grow-your-own urban gardens to the possibilities those same principles could apply to fashion. The conversation has grown louder and wider and more consumers are taking conscious notes on what they’re wearing.
On her website, Cline posts a list of fashion designers and brands with “a strong ethical vision” and clear stance against Fast Fashion, under a Shopping Directory (thank you, Ms. Cline for including Alabama Chanin) and a list of ten things we can do to mitigate the effects of cheap clothing in our lives and make the move to better, more conscious living.
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion is published by The Penguin Group (USA).