I was once quoted in the Daily Mail calling the First Lady “ridiculous” for rocking Target frocks. What I actually said, in an interview with a HuffingtonPost reporter, is that we, the American public, are ridiculous for celebrating Michelle Obama for wearing cheap, imported fashion. Perhaps not the best choice of words, but here’s what I meant:
Cheap fashion has set a trap for us, where retailers like H&M, Target, Old Navy, and Forever 21 lure us into stores on a continuous basis to keep their profits up. Americans are hooked on buying 20.5 billion garments a year or 68 garments and 8 pairs of shoes per person, and the fashion industry’s enormous environmental footprint is growing by the year. We nurture our overconsumption by expecting our style icons to wear something new every single day. Marie Antoinette was rumored to never wear the same thing twice, but she didn’t live in an age of overpopulation, strained environmental resources, and out-of-control consumption. One thing I love about Michelle Obama is that she’s not afraid to recycle certain wardrobe items, including, yes, a Merona print dress from Target that she wore in 2009 and again in 2011. But as a style leader, our First Lady should be more vocal about buying less, buying clothes that are well-made, and caring for what you own.
Americans love cheap clothes in part because so many of us are broke, but in a sense a Target dress is both a symptom and cause of our economic woes. Here’s what I mean: Huge chain stores like Gap, H&M, Forever 21, Target, and Old Navy now dominate the clothing retail market and are so focused on growing profit, opening new stores, and minimizing costs that they scour the world looking for the cheapest places to buy fabric and sew clothes. As a result, between 1996 and 2011, more than a half a million American garment industry jobs were lost to foreign competition. We went from making about half our clothes here in the U.S. in 1990 down to 2% today. While writing my book, I visited shuttered textile mills in South Carolina and toured anemic garment factories in New York City and Los Angeles. Should downwardly mobile sewers and textile mill workers find consolation in a cheap dress at Target?
Hillary Clinton bought her wedding dress off the rack at a local Dillard’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas and as First Lady, she preferred medium-priced labels like Dana Buchman, known for tailored career garb and good fabrics. As of 2008, Buchman exclusively designs low-end products for Kohl’s using polyester and rayon-spandex blends. Mid-priced lines have dwindled in recent decades. In February, Michelle Obama wore Jason Wu for Target and we loved her for it, but it also symbolized our shrinking clothing choices where we’re largely left with cheap knockoffs of unaffordable designer fashions–it’s Jason Wu or Jason Wu for Target–and not a whole lot in between. In this way, our fashion landscape is actually less fair and less democratic than it used to be.
I find our former First Lady brilliant and gorgeous, but I do think our national wardrobe needs to be rethought. Instead of applauding Mrs. Obama for sporting cheap clothes, we should look at the bigger picture of how ultra-low-priced, corporate fashion (especially at the pace we’re consuming it) undermines our environment and our economy. The shopping habits of American consumers have changed in disturbing ways in recent decades—we once aspired to own the best clothes we could for our money, supported domestically made brands, and took care of what we wore. We now view disposable trends stitched together in far-flung factories as patriotic, and that is ridiculous indeed.