What I Am Reading: Clothes, Inc.

Sep 13 2012 Published by under Fashion (or not)

Last week I trolled Amazon for something new to read. The omniscient suggestion algorithm there led me to Over-dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline. I hit the one-click button and downloaded an entertaining yet disturbing book that leaves me with few great answers.

The book starts with the dilemma many of us face each day, a large closet bursting with clothing and a feeling that we have nothing to wear. We then journey through a brief history of clothing, from the days when store-bought duds cost a significant portion of income through the middle of the twentieth century, when more expensive brands brought the promise of higher quality to those who could afford them. Over the last 20 years, mass-market clothing took the world by storm. Inexpensive off-shore labor and cheap materials allowed our clothing to become disposable. Why spend time or money mending a $7 shirt? Spending more no longer means moving up in quality, as most manufacturing has been outsourced. We are left with a two-tier system with the H&M items at one end and the high-end designer clothing at the other.

Particularly sobering were the visits to Salvation Army. There, only 1 in 20 donated garments goes on the floor for resale, and the best of these may go to resale boutiques. The rest get compressed into half-ton bundles that are sold for processing into industrial materials, like wiping rags, or shipped to third-world countries. At present, less than 1% of our cast-offs goes to landfills; however, as cheap fashion becomes available in Africa and the Asian nations that manufacture the garments, disposing of our old  attire will become more problematic.

Our addiction to cheap wardrobes brings other problems. Most inexpensive fabrics contain petroleum-based fibers which cannot be easily recycled and use nonrenewable resources in their manufacture.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer in the final chapter. The author explores small local designers who can produce more unique clothing options, as well as making our own clothing. I must confess, I sewed a lot of my own clothing through high school and even into my residency (the birth of my first child stopped this hobby). I loved being able to buy a pattern from a designer I could never afford and make it from the fabric of my choosing. By the end of this book I felt like I should start up my habit again.

Of course, I simply do not have the time to make a blazer anymore (yes, I stitched at that level), given my professional responsibilities and blogging habit. I do mend and hem  my own stuff, something many women interviewed for the book do not attempt.

I guess I am lucky because my experiences making clothes let me judge quality well. I value natural fibers like wool and cotton plus the odd smattering of rayon and silk. I try to buy most of my suiting pieces to these standards. Accessories can be high or low end; I rarely toss out jewelry or scarves. But I cannot completely avoid cheap clothes! I now feel a bit guilty about living in knit dresses from Target, the most expensive of which can be had for about $25. However, with some degree of care (washing on the hand-wash cycle and drip drying) these polyester garments have resisted major pilling and destruction for up to 3 years! I have "designer" knits that have held up less well (and there's the real problem).

Bargain by Bruno

I am now working on my shoe habit. I have often picked up cheap shoes, figuring that if they ate my feet I could pass them on to Goodwill without guilt; after all, they were less than $20! Now I try to purchase well-made ones that are worth reheeling and repairing periodically. There is no challenge in scoring cheap shoes at Target, but getting $400 Maglis for $80? Now that was something to brag about!

Just as we have begun to examine our cheap food habit, we need to explore the disposable and wasteful aspects of other purchasing habits. Over-dressed has no easy answers, but it will make you think.

2 responses so far

  • Monisha says:

    Does the book comment on the practice of purchasing from thrift/salvation army stores? does that help or would it help?

    interesting post.

    • WhizBang says:

      Buying used clothing can help, but when only 30% of donations make it into stores and most doesn't sell, it can only take care of a tiny bit of the stream. Good vintage garments command a premium price, and they are few and far between.

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