Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Book Review)

“I bought a ton of cute clothes today and guess what I spent!” This is a phrase that my sisters and I have said dozens of times to each other over the years. The few times I directed my fashion purchases towards my father however, the first thing he would say was, “What’s it made out of? Polyester? They don’t make clothes the way they used to.” This echoed a comment a customer made to me one day when I worked at an Ann Taylor store in college.

Years ago, my customer remarked how she had shopped at the original Ann Taylor store when they first opened in Connecticut and as she felt the material on the sleeve of a blouse, said “Boy, how the times have changed.” Though I could nod my head and accept what they were saying as true, it wasn’t until I read Elizabeth L. Cline’s 2012 book, “Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” that I truly understood what my dad and this customer understood.

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Book jacket image by Tom Schierlitz. Courtesy of Amazon.

Today, we can go out on a lunch break and instead of opt for a coffee, we could elect to purchase a $10 dress instead. This is a phenomenon that would never had been imaginable in the early 20th century. With retailers such as Forever 21, H&M, and Walmart, bringing new clothes to market at a faster-than-ever speed, we have gone from a generation that treasures clothing, to one that throws it away each season.

Cline’s book was exceptionally shocking so I want to share a few quotes from the book that resonate:

  1. “Carbon monoxide and other pollutants from Asia have been documents on the West Coast since the late 1990s are are actually affecting weather patterns there as well. Global climate change as a result of global industrialization is now a reality no matter where we live (124)”.
  2. “It’s a natural assumption that a book about cheap fashion will cover the grim issues of sweatshops and child labor. A common refrain is that garment workers should be glad to have jobs. Our expectations and standards for ethics in the fashion industry are embarrassingly low, but the potential for change is also grossly underestimated” (159).
  3. “China’s garment industry operates on an intimidating scale. It’s several times bigger than any garment industry…they have more than forty thousand clothing manufacturers and 15 million garment industry jobs [and there are 1.45 million garment and textile industry jobs that United States had at peak employment some forty years ago” (169).
  4. “Not shopping was not a total solution….human beings have been sewing for thousands of years; some peg it to the last Ice Age” (191).
  5. “Localism and more thoughtful, slow approach to eating [like with farmer’s markets] the movement has a huge following, and slowly but surely the movement is spreading to fashion” (208).

Though taking down the whole fashion industry is not a feasible goal, making more educated choices about the fabric and craftsmanship of our clothing is what this book advocates. The above quotes are just the tip of the iceberg for what Cline’s book delves into. She thoroughly investigates the Chinese textile markets, working conditions in mills domestically and abroad, and deeply delves into the ramifications of having so many clothes thrown away. Alternatively, the book discusses how we choose to re-use, mend, and place more thought into pieces that are meant to last.

To learn more about this book, visit overdressedthebook.com.

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