Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost Of Cheap Fashion



“Clothing is valuable. It should be valued. Cheap clothes not only undermine those who sew, sell, and design them, they’re the pitiful result of decades of price pressure that has erased the craftsmanship and splendor of what we wear. Incessant deal hunting has also erased our collective knowledge of what clothing and style could be.” – Overdressed, pg. 221

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost Of Cheap Fashion describes how we’ve gotten to the point of being able to buy more clothes than ever before in history, and the effects of expecting to pay little to nothing for them. It’s a fascinating yet sobering look at the history of our increasing consumerism in relation to “fast fashion” clothes, and the effects that they have on textile workers, the production of clothes, and ourselves. Elizabeth Cline briefly mentioned the environmental effects of producing clothing in an unprecedented volume, but I wish she would have gone into more detail on this. Cline does goes into detail though about how stores like H&M and Forever 21 are able to sell clothing at rock-bottom prices, and how that actually isn’t a good thing.

So what’s a consumer to do? For a long time, I had thought that buying higher-end brands of clothes at outlets was a good compromise- better quality clothes at a lower cost, right?

Not really. There’s a TV show called Adam Ruins Everything that debunked some of the myths around outlet stores. Namely that stores may make completely different clothing lines for their outlets (they often aren’t producing “overstock” or “slightly irregular” versions of their regular items by the thousands or tens of thousands) and that’s why the items are so cheap compared to their regular store counterparts (but this comes with cheaper quality).

Instead of shopping outlets, I realized it’s a better deal to go directly to stores that are known for their quality and shop their clearance, or look for specific quality brands at secondhand stores. It takes time and patience to find what you’re looking for, but I’ve gotten some amazing deals on quality items that way. (One of my favorites was a barely worn red wool pea coat from Plato’s Closet that I got for $30; when I looked up comparable coats online, they were selling for anywhere from $200-$400 dollars. Another favorite was a barely used Vera Bradley duffle bag for $20; they usually retail for $85 and up).

Cline offers the tried and true advice of buying better, but buying less: “Instead of buying three $20 shirts…[buy] one that is durable, beautiful, and carefully made. Most consumers don’t realize how much of their money is going into disposable fashion, so they could spend less money over time on clothes by cutting out the cheap impulse buys all  altogether and investing in pieces that can be worn season after season” (231).

Today the average American has over 300 pieces of clothing, according to Cline. (She had about 350 herself before narrowing down to 90). This is a stark contrast to 85 years ago when people owned a handful of items by comparison: nine work outfits for the “average middle class woman,” with a midprice dress costing around $200 in today’s money (20-21). So I was curious: after a major wardrobe downsizing of my own (you can read about that here), how many items did I actually own?

I had 166 with a few in the laundry pile, so let’s say 175. I was surprised since it all fits easily in half a closet with a shelf, plus 3 drawers and a few small bins. Cline writes about how much of what we wear is rags, which sounded quite extreme to me. But when I actually looked through my clothes, the items I had with tiny holes, pills, or fabric so thin I could see through it were items from the fast fashion stores mentioned in Overdressed. I could see what Cline was talking about.

Cline does mention that some clothing companies are offering “fair trade” certified items that are better quality and produced by workers making a decent wage in decent conditions. However, buying a $200 ethically produced, organic, fair trade, high-quality shirt isn’t realistic for most of us because of the cost. But reading books and articles like Overdressed does inspire me to consume less and be a more thoughtful consumer in general. They are reminders to consider if I really need something, and if so, to search for the highest quality item I can find that still fits my budget.

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