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Book Reviews

Too much, too cheap – Tales of American fashion consumerism

Overdressed - Elizabeth Cline Overdressed – The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion
[UK Edition: Overdressed: Responsible Shopping in the Age of Cheap Fashion]
By: Elizabeth L. Cline
ISBN: 9781591844617

The ethical fashion world is divided. This is old news. Only: I’m talking of geographical and linguistic divisions rather than those of opinions. Even on a European level, one consequence is that English books are hardly ever translated into any of the other languages. And vice versa. Another consequence is that each book – logically – tends to focus on what the author know best, i.e. his or her ‘home’ market.
In this post, hence, I would like to take a step to remedy this by reviewing a book that to-date is only available in the American market, although the European edition is scheduled to be published sometime in the upcoming months.

Overdressed is the American equivalent to Lucy Siegle’s 2011 book ‘To Die For.
With one substantial difference: While Siegle’s book was bordering on academic writing style at any one moment, Cline’s voice is ‘nearer to the people’, and her writing style more illustrative, if not to say purposely blunt. And where Siegle’s book seems written for the generation 35+, Cline clearly aims to include anyone above the age of 18 in her target group. She does that by drawing most examples either from people her own age group (early to mid 30s at the time of writing), or women (sic!) in their early to mid 20s.

If just skipping through ‘Overdressed’ based on the titles of each chapter, one would think that the book has very little news to add to the global ‘sustainable fashion’ discussion. The topics, in short, are common and recurring in the analysis of consumer behaviour and fashion consumption, and encompass subjects such as: over consumption, the contrast between cheap and luxury fashion, the fast fashion phenomenon, clothing waste, outsourcing of clothing manufacturing, and hands-on options how to address – even remedy – the situation by what could be called ‘quiet activism’.

It is but when reading – as opposed to skimming – the book when its value becomes clear: while the topics covered are far from novel, its angle no doubt is. It is a distinct American angle: the vast majority of statistical and factual data documents the American consumption behaviour; the chapters about historic developments document the changes in the American clothing industry; the case studies of modern brands or manufacturing units portrait American – often even more specifically: New York City – manufacturers; and many a retailer’s name seems to be a house hold name in the US but barely a notion on our side of the Atlantic.

The book is divided, when including the introduction, into 10 chapters, each of which addresses a very specific ‘slice’ of the US fashion industry and the US fashion consumption behaviour.

US Fashion Facts

US Fashion Facts (click to enlarge; (c) Second City Style: http://www.secondcitystyle.com/tag/elizabeth-cline/)

  • The Introduction gives the reader a taster of what is to come. It many ways it is a summary of the 9 following chapters in different words, and personalised to the authors personal experience.
  • Chapter 1 gives us a brief review of the status of US consumption behaviour with a little bit of recent history of how availability of of clothing and style has changed in the last few decades. The chapter looks specifically at how social media has facilitated the take up of fast fashion, and to some extent also helped promoting continuously lower prices.
  • Chapter 2 reviews the developments in the US apparel manufacturing industry, including that of labour rights, pricing developments and the profitability of what remains of it in the present.
  • Chapter 3 reviews different Haves and Have Nots: those that can buy designer clothing and those that can’t; those that have the skill and knowledge to differentiate between good quality and those that haven’t. This chapter is in as far interesting, because we are made aware of that the decrease of price has come hand-in-hand with a degree of consumer ignorance of what are quality fibres and what is a quality product.
  • Chapter 4 is dedicated to the context of and the development of fast fashion specifically in the US.
  • Chapter 5 jumps right into the middle of clothing waste and the ‘rag industry’, again from an American point of view. The chapter is reminiscent of a similar chapter found in Pietra Rivoli’s book ‘The travels of a T-shirt‘, but since Rivoli’s book came out in 2009, Cline’s accounts update and reinforce Rivoli’s findings from well over 4 years ago. Cline also gives this chapter her very own spin by focusing on the developments in the recycled clothing industry that are related to the proliferation of cheap and low quality clothing that is donated and enters the recycling stream.
  • Chapter 6 sensitizes us to the context of labour in apparel manufacturing. And that from a variety of angles: what ‘producing under fair conditions means’, the expertise needed to produce quality, and that ‘made in the US’ doesn’t necessarily imply sensible salaries or working conditions.
  • Chapter 7 neatly continues where Chapter 6 left off, by taking us into China and Bangladesh to look at both flip sides of overseas apparel production: the existence of best-in-class units that are beyond what is habitually found even in the West, and the dodgy bottom where the labour conditions, salaries and health & safety is what periodically hits Western newspaper headlines.
  • Chapter 8 & 9 are about how to rebel in style against the apparel industry as we know it. These chapters resuscitate on the hand the DIY (make your own, as well as alter-it-for-you) approach to better fit and style; and on the other they make the point that what cheap fashion lacks in individuality and style is precisely where ‘better fashion’ can make a business case, attract and engage with consumers.

Personally, I think that book is slightly on the weak side in the last two chapters, specifically in Chapter 8 (DIY), and could have made a much more compelling case for better fashion behaviour, not the least by possibly trying to track down and talk to a generation-early-20s make-my-own fashion advocate (they do exist!). Why? As we grow older, we gradually find out style, and consumption does decrease to some degree, if only a little. People in their 30s and 40s are more prepared to try and fix a good fitting garment than those in their 20s. Hence, to talk the ‘odd one out’ of the early-20s-generation might have resulted in some surprising results and insights.

Also, while it has been hinted at repeatedly, the issue of sweat shops ‘Made in the US’ might have been worth a much more thorough investigation. The topic is mentioned a number of times, and in at least one occasion in quite critical light – but it is but scratching the surface.

This all said, the book is no doubt worth a read. From a European perspective, it is the first time that anyone has chosen to look at the problems and issues with the current fashion system from a distinct American point of view. Each and every country as suffered the consequences of the development in the past 50 years differently. Some story are of course recurring – that of the loss of jobs, for instance – but the specifics invariable vary, as do the approaches of how the local industry copes with them, or how designers try to create or maintain the viability of their businesses.
It is equally interesting to read a book that is in many ways more direct, I would go as far as to use the word ‘blunt’, in addressing the consumers, in pointing out their behaviour and its consequences, and in demanding change, at every level. It is a language that, I personally think, would not be acceptable from a European author in a European context, but does work exceptionally well for this book. The book is the straight talking, and all but academic, advocate of ‘better fashion’ that at this stage was missing.

The two points taken together justify this book’s existence, and are the reason why the book complements what else is already available on the ‘sustainable fashion’ book shelf.

This book is available from your nearest book store as well as online from Amazon.

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