Monday, January 7, 2013

Naptime Reading Material: Elizabeth Cline's Overdressed

Two weeks ago, two things happened to me.  I read Elizabeth Cline's Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion and my pants ripped while I was taking Reese to the Children's Museum.

I was surprised how much one helped explain the other.  Let me back up.

I heard about this book, a Fast Food Nation slash Omnivore's Dilemma for the H&M set, from New York Magazine and Jaclyn Day's blog.  As someone who loves clothes and a heaping helping of guilt, this book was made for me.  But even knowing the premise going in - that cheap trendy clothes are reducing the value of human labor, working conditions and the quality of our clothes - I was surprised at how much I was affected by this book.

Cline lays out the clothing landscape in the U.S. as a vast, trend-driven economy where consumers cannot tell the difference between well made garments and rags and frankly aren't willing to pay for any kind of quality.  She examines the fashion industry that has pushed for ever faster cycles to ensure that customers will buy new things and cut costs to the point where it will always be less expensive to buy new than to replace what we already have in our closets.  Further, the industry producing these clothes has moved to cheaper and cheaper labor in countries where standards are low and there is no incentive to look at anything besides the bottom line.

If that sounds depressing, it's because it is.

Which brings me back to my pants.  They were a pair of navy Gap corduroys that I picked up last year.  I really liked them.  They fit me well, they looked good, and I wore them a lot.  Apparently too much, because the fabric wore out and they ripped.  I would guess that I got 7 months of solid wear out of them, that's it.  I've noticed this more and more with clothes I've bought recently.  A tee shirt from Madewell that has holes in it after two washes.  Threads on a J. Crew shirt that were never cut and end up getting pulled.  Buttons that fly off and are never found again.

One of the things that resonated with me in Overdressed is the fact that while cheap fashion chains like Forever 21 and H&M offer extremely low prices and admittedly less than excellent quality, mid-to-high level companies like J. Crew and Gap are not offering much better quality for much higher prices.

So, the big question is always: what to do with this information?  Here is what I am planning.

Buy less.  Look, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I'm not going to shop any more or will never buy something cute and trendy at H&M.  But, I am certainly going to think long and hard about it before I do.  This book did open my eyes to the costs associated with an impulse splurge and they are just too high.

Buy better.  At several points in the book, people compare fashion with the food industry where the "slow food" movement has taken over. Consumers are willing to seek out organic and ethically raised foods and are willing to pay a premium for these products.  Cline herself advocates for this approach to reduce the fast-fashion lifecycle.  I'm a huge fan of farmers markets and slow food, mostly because it just plain tastes better.  I am hoping to reap the same rewards from the clothing industry.  Taking the time to find clothes that are well made and from good fabrics, will hopefully last longer and look better.

Pay attention.  I've noticed the "Made in..." labels in clothing and, you know, patted myself on the back when it says USA or France, but never really cared beyond that.  I think that time has passed.  I plan to spend more time and effort seeking out clothes that were made in countries with solid labor standards and minimum wage requirements.  Maybe that's naive and simplistic of me, but it's something.  Plenty of my favorite labels are made in the USA, like Milly and Rag and Bone, and you can easily search sites like Neimans and Modcloth for the Made in the USA label.  Also, I've noticed that very few companies (even those that are vocal about reducing outsourcing) make everything in any one country, so caveat emptor.

Wear what I have.  I have plenty of shoes and clothes that look great...I just need to wear them instead of seeking out the newest thing.  Instead of looking for a new scarf that looks just like the one another blogger is wearing, I should really head to my drawer and pull out my vintage Hermes.

Take better care of my clothes.  I've never really been a "hand wash" kind of girl, and that was before I had a baby.  I've become a strictly wash-and-wear or dry clean only person.  I am going to try to do more washing of sweaters and invest in a garment steamer to reduce my dry cleaning bill.  I also am planning to tailor and repair more clothes and shoes to get them to wearable shape.

Buy used. I live within striking distance of some of the greatest consignment stores in the country.  The internet is a gold mine of vintage treasures.  I resolve to try to find a vintage version of what I want before dashing to the Gap.

I know it's easy to write off a book like this, to say that it's too hard to do better, that the problem is too massive, etc.  But, as I read Overdressed, I kept thinking about my closet.  I thought about the things I really liked.  My vintage pink dress.  The Petit Bateau tee shirts that I bought in Paris while studying abroad.  My grandmother's Chanel necklace.  I want more clothes that I will love and that will last me a long time, not something that will leave me wrapping a sweater around my waist in the Dora the Explorer exhibit.

Has anyone else read this?  What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Amen! Speaking of Milly, I wanted a white dress for winter. Bought one at a mid-level store (like J.Crew), but returned it because the quality was less than great--the seams were clearly not long for this world. Bought the Milly one when it went on sale at Saks, and was actually blown away by the great seams and heavy weight of the fabric. It was $50 more (would have been $250 more if not on sale), and definitely worth it. Shop smarter, and things will last longer and save money!


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