Cheap fashion has fundamentally changed the way most Americans dress. We buy a new garment a week on average and make regular pilgrimages to outlet malls, cheap chains like Forever 21, and the sales racks of department stores and off-priced retailers like TJ Maxx. Retailers are producing clothes at enormous volumes in order to drive prices down and profits up, and they've turned clothing into a disposable good. But what are we doing with all these cheap clothes? And more importantly, what are they doing to us, our society, our environment, and our economic well-being?
In Overdressed, Cline (a former fast-fashion junkie herself) sets out to uncover the true nature of the cheap fashion juggernaut, tracing the rise of budget clothing chains, the death of middle-market and independent retailers, and the roots of our obsession with deals and steals. She travels to cheap-chic factories in China and Bangladesh and looks at the impact (both here and abroad) of America's drastic increase in imports. She even explores how the pressures of cheap have forced retailers to drastically reduce detail and craftsmanship, making the clothes we wear more and more uniform, basic, and low quality.
Cline shows how consumers can break the buy-and-toss cycle by supporting innovative and stylish sustainable designers and retailers, returning to custom clothing, refashioning clothes throughout their lifetime, and mending and even making clothes themselves. Overdressed will inspire you to vote with your dollars and find a path back to being well dressed and feeling good about what you wear.
How did you get the idea to write Overdressed?
In 2008, the economy was in shambles and I had lost my job, and yet I was still buying lots of cheap clothes. I realized I owned more clothing than anything else (more than 350 pieces) and knew the least about it of anything I bought! Then I discovered that I wasn't even an extreme shopper, I was an average clothing consumer. Americans are buying about 68 garments and 7 pairs of shoes per year, and clothing has gone from something very personal, locally-made and kept for years to a disposable good made in low-wage foreign factories in the span of a generation. Why wasn't anyone writing about this?! I really wanted to find out how clothing was turned into a throwaway commodity and aside from the obvious environmental and human rights consequences of buying so much cheap clothes, I wanted to know what we'd lossed in terms of our relationship with and knowledge of clothes. In other words, how have quality, design, and self expression been compromised by the age of cheap fashion.
How did you research Overdressed?
I had countless conversations with people who work in the fashion industry. I had never written a single article about fashion or clothing retailing, so I had a lot to learn. This is why I wrote the book from the perspective of a consumer learning about the product they buy, and i think that's what makes Overdressed particularly effective. I interviewed people who work at garment factories, designers at big companies like Gap and Forever 21, production and sourcing experts, and quality control analysts. But I knew I wouldn't get the complete picture unless I went overseas to some factories where cheap clothing gets made. So, I went on alibaba.com, made up a fake fashion sourcing company, and went to factories in southern China and in Dhaka, Bangladesh "on business." The experience was eye-opening to say the least.
Where do you shop now? What do you wear?
Overdressed is a book about overconsumption, so I shop a lot less than I used to. And I could probably never shop again and still have plenty to wear. But researching Overdressed made me want to own better clothes, clothes that I loved, that a great story behind them, and that had a level of design and craftsmanship that was missing from my cheap fashion.
When I shop now, I use these principals:
- I support brands that use ethical production, this includes clothing that is made in the U.S. or uses Fair Trade and living wage structures.
- I ask myself if I'm actually going to wear something before I buy it and if I really need/want it. I take responsibility for caring for it and mantaining over it's lifetime.
- I ask myself why something is cheap? Is it the materials and sewing or is it the low wages that were paid to the garment workers? Usually the answer is one of the two.
When I shop now, I shop in these places:
- Kaight, an independent boutique that I wrote about in Overdressed. All of the designers Kaight carries are either locally made and/or made from sustainable materials. She has an online store.
- Designers who use at least some local production and make high-quality, long-lasting pieces. Some of my favorites include Nanette Lepore, Helmut Lang, Theory, and Rag & Bone.
- Thrift stores, vintage, eBay, and . The second hand market is usually how I afford "luxury" items and luxurious fabrics, like silk and cashmere garmetns. This is also wear I buy trendier items that I know are going to date.
- Higher-end department stores like Barney's Co Op, Saks, Bloomingdales, and Neiman Marcus. These clothes can be pricier, so this is where I look for signature and special occasion pieces like dresses, slacks, blazers, etc. that are an investment.
Where do you shop when you're on a budget?
I get this question a lot. Most Americans own a lot of clothing and much of their wardrobe is underutilized, so if you're really on a budget, shop your own closet. Every season, it's a good idea to go through your closet and pull out anything you haven't been wearing. Try all of it on. If you really don't like it, donate it. But you'll also find gems that you forgot about. If it doesn't fit, have it altered. If it's damaged, have it repaired. Would you wear it if you shortened the hem, took off the sleeves, etc.? Other budget ideas: thrift stores, flea markets, and clothing swaps.