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Review: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline

Cline introduces this book in a world of fast fashion consumerism fueled by chain stores such as Forever 21 and H&M. Cline, considered an average American fashion consumer, purchased at least one new item of cheap clothing a week and had overflowing cheap clothing in her apartment. Accordingly, Cline found herself a statistic. She was a young woman who purchased large quantities of cheap and low-quality clothing that either went out of style too quickly to wear or fell apart after only a handful of wears and washes. In this book, she examines the world of her own fashion buying habits and thereby the average American consumer.

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What is Overdressed about?

Overdressed is about one woman’s journey to find out just what her cheap fashion habits are costing herself, the fashion industry, and the worldwide fashion manufacturing employees. Cline describes her journey as one of mostly self discovery, but also discovery of facts. Most of what she learns was readily available to her, and though she takes several extra steps to learning about her fashion consumption she learns information that most of us are at least somewhat aware of. By experiencing some of these things first hand, she transformed her own fashion habits and made some major life changes to her spending, closet, and style opinions. This book details that journey while also advocating for some of the paths she took, despite the lack of feasibility in some of them.

Genre: Nonfiction, fashion and consumerism

This book reads a bit like journalism and a bit like memoir. Some chapters focus heavy on the facts, citing articles and the personal experiences of Cline who visited factories in China, Dhaka, and across the US among other locations. Other chapters were very much focused on Cline’s personal revelations about sewing, recycling, and cutting down on how much she bought from cheap fashion lines. Overall, it very much calls out the consumerist behavior of the fashion industry as a whole.

Focus: Cutting down on cheaply produced clothing

The goal of this book is definitely to encourage others to cut down on their consumption of unethically sourced and cheaply made clothing. Cline doesn’t dig very deep past the “average American clothing consumer” and presents her findings and changes for her life as near perfect fixes that will eventually put the pressure on the fashion industry to adapt or get out. The afterward does address some of this oversight, saying that she understands not everyone has the time to make their own clothes from scratch. But she still very much has an agenda and a targeted audience.

Insight: Almost there

As I just mentioned, Cline has an agenda and a target audience. The agenda: reducing the amount of fast fashion cheap goods that people consume, and subsequently the amount that is produced. The audience: middle class Americans. The advice that Cline gets and gives is exclusively from the mouths of middle class American women. Women who buy beyond their means and have to reform their spending habits while in debt, women who realize they don’t need nearly as much stuff as they have, and women who develop a hobby based around clothes. Ultimately, though well meaning, none of Cline’s advice is applicable in my life for example. She concedes in the afterward that most people don’t have time to do the amount of sewing and making as others, but she never quite touches base with the fact that so many of us have been hit hard by recession, economic hardship, medical bills, unemployment, and being underpaid.

The Good

Cline clearly did her research. She has informal interviews with individuals from several levels of the fashion industry, and she invented faux fashion businesses in order to see factories around the world. She’s candid about her own fashion faults, touches on the long history of fashion unions and sweatshops, and discusses the lives of actual factory workers rather than lumping them all into a universal group. For what seemed like largely a self help project to reform her own closet, Cline did go all out to track her wardrobe and learn how much human labor went into her clothes. Having done a similar exercise for an anthropology course, I can appreciate the difficulty of her task.

The Okay

This book is presented as though it has a broader target audience than it actually does. Cline writes with a certain amount of self help guidance and motivation that transforms this book from just reporting the facts of the modern fashion industry, to outlining steps to take to participate in it more ethically and environmentally responsibly. The first portion of the book is largely Cline presenting the facts, anecdotes, and conditions that she learns of in her quest to track her own cheap fashion habits. The second outlines how Cline changes her fashion consumption habits, from learning how to sew for herself to shifting her shopping habits in both time spent and location shopped at. She presents this as an almost how-to in moving away from fast fashion, but does so without the understanding that not everyone is in her position. The afterward addresses a small sliver of this, by her acknowledging not everyone has the time to sew and mend their clothes extensively. But she still presents the idea of owning a sewing machine as an affordable one, and that waiting to save up for one nicer item of clothing is a luxury most people have. The book lacks a certain amount of self awareness of how trapped to “bad” consumerist habits people in poverty are, because they don’t have the options that the “average American consumer” does.

The Bad

Once again, my larger issues with this book are the perspective. Elizabeth Cline approaches fashion from a very privileged place. No, she can’t afford high fashion prices–and she discusses the consequences for consumers who attempt to own high fashion and overspend–but she discusses buying a piece of cheap clothing every week absentmindedly. She’s able to go shopping for leisure, and this book is about her journey towards stopping that behavior and conscientiously and ethically consuming fashion. This book is a self help book for middle-class American consumers of cheap fashion, and it completely ignores the fact that many people cannot afford to buy more expensive items in lesser quantities. She advises getting one good shirt rather than five cheaper ones, but if your wardrobe isn’t equipped for a new job and you need five days worth of clothes for twenty dollars, guess what choice you’ll make. I found that a lot of the hope and enlightenment that Cline attempted to inject into this book was lost on me because I’m not in the financial position to make the same choices Cline does. And then I felt mildly guilty for not being able to do the same things, despite the fact that I can’t even afford my bills right now due to the global pandemic. That this book caused guilt in me is what sits wrong. It would be one thing if I could simply say “that’s interesting, but not the lifestyle for me,” but Cline’s pleas and targeted writing made me feel like a bad person for purchasing larger, cheaper quantities of clothes in order to have appropriate clothes for the minimum wage jobs I’m attempting to work.

Final Thoughts

It’s always a good idea to know where your consumption comes from, and to attempt to make ethical choices for what you purchase. I admire Cline’s hard work in learning more about the fashion industry that she consumed so much of. However, this book is very much from the perspective of white middle class American consumption. The suggestions at the end for ethical consumption of fashion aren’t wholly applicable, and though I found learning more about the topic interesting I felt the second half of the book too preachy and unattainable for my financial situation.

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By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

2 replies on “Review: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline”

I watched a documentary about something like this! It’s crazy how fashion changes and what it does to countries that make all of these products. I’ll have to check this book out!

Liked by 1 person

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