Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

This book came to my attention through one of the fashion blogs I follow, FashionAtForty. In this post she (not only looks really cute) but also gave a pretty good overview of what she had found in the book thus far, having read only the first half.

I have  conflicted feelings about clothing. On the one hand, I'm very aware that I should be able to look great with fewer items than what I actually own; on the other hand, all of my sources for current trends -- blogs, magazines, style shows, and shops -- show people in an almost infinite mix of shapes, colors, and prints. How much is reasonable to carry in my closet? How much is a reasonable clothing budget?

Overdressed didn't give me answers to these questions, but it did offer more meaningful factors to consider when I make purchasing decisions than simply "do I want it?"

The book focuses primarily on "fast fashion," defined as "a radical method of retailing that has broken away from seasonal selling and puts out new inventory constantly throughout the year. Fast-fashion merchandise is typically priced much lower than its competitors'." The introduction, "Seven Pairs of $7 Shoes," and the first chapter, "I Have Enough Clothing to Open a Store," describe the shopping habits of the author herself and of young women known as "haulers," who make YouTube videos of their shopping hauls. The focus of these two chapters is the consumerism that breeds from the price and abundance of fast fashion.

I watched 3 minutes of a 15 minute haul video in the interests of research... I have never seen anything so incredibly painful in my life. She didn't even try on the clothes, just sort of held it up enough to see the fabric, but not the shape of the garment, and talked about what she liked about it.

Chapter 2, "How America Lost Its Shirts," describes the history of the garment industry in the United States.

Chapter 3, "High and Low Fashion Make Friends," examines the relationship between price and value. Summary: there isn't necessarily a correlation between high cost and high quality.

In Chapter 4, "Fast Fashion," Cline recounts the history of fast fashion and its impact on the retail world and also the United States garment industry.

Chapter 5, "The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes," was perhaps the most painful section of the book. Cline debunks what she calls "the clothing deficit myth." So often we buy clothes thinking that if they don't work out, no problem, we'll pass them on to a donation recipient like Goodwill and they will find their way to some needy person grateful for our cast-offs. "Of all the clothing that we dump off on charities' doorsteps... less than 20 percent gets sold through stores. About half of it doesn't even get a shot at the stores, going straight into the postconsumer waste stream and on to such facilities as Mid-West Textile" from where it will be sorted and sold by the ton to secondhand clothing dealers, rag companies to be pulped and made into insulation or carseat stuffing, bundled to be sold by the ton to Africa, or put into landfills.

Chapter 6, "Sewing is a Good Job, a Great Job," describes the industry conditions for garment workers and some innovative business efforts.

In Chapter 7, "China and the End of Cheap Fashion," Cline recounts how she went undercover to various clothing manufacturers in China and Bangladesh to learn more about the overseas industry. She found many of her assumptions about garment manufacturing were outdated and misguided, and that seeing the conditions, not only of the factories themselves, but of the environments in which they operated, changed her understanding of the fashion industry. She also predicted the coming end of fast-fashion as we know it: the rising standard of living in China will drive prices up, and other countries will not be able to move into the void as national infrastructure in places like Bangladesh will prevent them from being able to operate under just-in-time principles on short deadlines, as fast fashion requires.

Chapter 8, "Make, Alter, and Mend," is perhaps the weakest chapter of the book. This is not entirely Cline's fault. The conditions she describes that led to the rise of fast fashion -- international agreements such as NAFTA, pricing conditions, the intense marketing practices to which consumers are susceptible, and the economy generally -- are not conditions that can easily be altered, no matter how alert consumers are. Where we can make alternate choices in food purchasing practices by choosing to buy organic or local or at a farmer's market, no such alternate clothing marketplace exists. I can attest myself that it is difficult to determine the manufacturing practices of any given clothing brand, and the "fast" nature of fast fashion means that no single brand has consistent practices among its entire line of offerings. Eaters can grow even a small amount of vegetables in their own homes, but learning to make clothing is much more complicated, expensive, and time and labor intensive. Cline spends a lot of time talking up the possibilities of making one's own clothing, or buying refashioned vintage (a possibility that erodes with every passing year), but even she admits that she doesn't know if she'll be spending time sewing her own wardrobe two years in the future. Her most meaningful suggestion is to slow down, to buy more intentionally, to pay closer attention to fit and quality of construction, to be willing to spend more per piece while holding total amount spent steady.

Clines ends the book on a hopeful note in Chapter 9, "The Future of Fashion." She lists a few conscientious designers and clothing retailers who are working to bring quality and morality back to the fashion industry and describes their methods for achieving those ends.

In all, this was a fascinating, eye-opening read. Cline has an engaging voice. She used the contents of her own closet and her own shopping habits to illustrate the nature of fast fashion. She did an amazing amount of research, including, as mentioned, her trips to China, Bangladesh, and the Dominican Republic, but also research into historical shopping and manufacturing practices, public policy conditions, post-consumer processing practices, and the environmental impact of textile production.

I would really have loved it if she could have offered more guidance into choosing labels and researching the values that guide brands' manufacturing practices. Illustrations would have been incredibly helpful -- both of the factories she visited, and also of the clothing construction she described. It should be noted that I read this book on my Kindle, and I do not know if such illustrations were available in the paper copies.

Other reviewers have commented on some of the editing issues in this book. As I read, I did note where those came up, but in many cases they were misused words rather than formatting or copy-editing mistakes, so I chalk that up to a failure with the publisher. I appreciate Cline putting together such a well-researched, eye-opening book, that will certainly guide my future purchasing decisions.


  1. Cindy, I think others would be interested in this book. Please drop me a line on if it is ok if I link to it on my blog, Carole's Chatter. Cheers

  2. Sounds like a good book....thanks for sharing.

    Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved April Edition. I am in the list as #21.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Book Entry