It’s not often that I read something that changes my life, but this book honestly falls into that category. I’m just sorry it’s taken me so long to discover it. If you haven’t read Overdressed by Elizabeth L. Cline, here’s a synopsis:
“Cheap fashion has fundamentally changed the way most Americans dress. Stores ranging from discounters like Target to traditional chains like JCPenny now offer the newest trends at unprecedentedly low prices. And we have little reason to keep wearing and repairing the clothes we already own when styles change so fast and it’s cheaper to just buy more.
Cline sets out to uncover the true nature of the cheap fashion juggernaut. What are we doing with all these cheap clothes? And more important, what are they doing to us, our society, our environment, and our economic well-being?”
I read this book in literally a couple of hours and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Andy must feel like he’s read it as well as I talked him to death about it for days afterwards.
I’ve never really been a follower of fashion, so I’m not someone that has ever bought into a trend only to throw it out and buy into a new one six weeks later. However I have definitely been guilty of over-shopping and treating some of my clothing as disposable in the past. A decade ago I’d have thought nothing of going into Topshop, H&M or Primark pretty much every weekend to find something to wear for a night out. Some of these things I’d wear once or twice, some a few more. I couldn’t sew back then, so if buttons came off or hems unravelled, I’d get rid of things. I had no interest in really looking after my clothes because they were so cheap. The most I ever paid for anything was £50 for a couple of Topshop dresses.
It sounds like my younger self had quite a bit in common with Cline, except my journey away from this excessive consumption coincided with learning to sew. I think this could be a similar story for a lot of the sewing community. I don’t think many of us make a decision to stop buying clothes, we just like making things ourselves and therefore take care of what we’ve made and appreciate the quality, which in turns means we don’t need to buy as many things.
Personally, I’ve never really been on a mission to create my entire wardrobe. There are some things I’m not confident in making and some things that I just don’t want to. Sewing basics hasn’t given me much joy and I’d rather chew my arm off than sew lingerie. Then there are the things I can’t sew; specific school uniform items and our karate gear. This made this book very relevant to me as I’m still a consumer of fast fashion, even if I don’t really want to be.
The frustrating thing about the fast fashion industry is that there are no easy answers. It seems to me like the genie is very much out of the bottle. Consumers expect their clothes to be low priced because we’ve all been conditioned to think like that. This means that companies can squeeze their manufacturers on price and it’s the workers who continually suffer. It’s profits over people every time. Buying high end isn’t even the answer because even designer clothes are often made in similar sweatshop conditions. Yet my assumption before reading this book was that the more expensive the clothing, the better it is for those who made it. Naive huh?
As this books lays out, fast fashion is bad for everyone except those at the top. It’s bad for the economy as so many local producers of fabric and garments can’t afford to stay in business, which in turn leads to job losses and a decline in quality of life for people. Although the facts in the book are America-centric, the same has happened here in the UK. How many factories here have closed because they can’t compete? Fast fashion is also bad for the environment as well because we’re using up all of our resources and creating huge amounts of pollution during the constant, excessive production of garments.
I was really surprised to learn about just how shady some of the biggest producers of clothing are as well. I had no idea that there are “show” factories set up in places like China which are used to show visitors around, and then the actual clothing is produced in far worse conditions. Some companies are aware of this, some just don’t care. Plenty of large companies seem to think it’s enough to pay lip service to transparency with a statement on their website about ethics, distancing themselves and blaming the factory owners for poor working conditions.
As sewists we can do something though. We can boycott so many fast fashion retailers by making our clothes which is fantastic. We can also use our skills to repair and refashion clothes, including second hand clothes. Sewing really can be our super power in the fight against these fast fashion retailers.
Having said that, my thoughts turned to the fabric we all buy when making our own clothes; is it actually made in better conditions than fast fashion garments? Is it good for the environment? I have to wonder whether we’re moving away from one problem to another similar one to make ourselves feel better. Buying endless amounts of fabric, that we don’t really need, isn’t exactly a solution and something I’ve long had a problem with.
Every Fashion Revolution Week, which is a wonderful initiative, I see so many sewists taking great photos and telling the world that #imademyclothes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s brilliant when people make their own clothes, but is it enough to have a borderline smug attitude about that when you are constantly buying and hoarding yards and yards of fabrics that have possibly been produced in unethical ways? Fabric you buy knowing you might not even use it? I’m not saying that anyone I know and follow has this attitude, I’m just playing devil’s advocate really. I think if this is an issue that we care about, enough to give us the drive to move away from fast fashion, then as well as asking #whomademyclothes we need to be asking #whomademyfabric?
As I said, reading this book was life-changing. Shopping is ruined for me and that can only be a good thing. I can’t bring myself to buy into this industry at all and if it means saving up and spending more then so be it. I’ve been looking into retailers offering an alternative to fast fashion which I’ll blog about and I also have an amazing documentary to share with you, suggested by one of my Instagram followers, which I’ll write about in another blog post too or this will turn into War and Peace!
If you have any suggestions for further reading on this topic please leave me links and book titles in the comments. If you’d like to know more about the book, or about Fashion Revolution, scroll up and click on the photos.