There is a thread hanging off a shelf on my closet. When I pull it, it seems surprisingly thin and elastic, impossibly thin, really, for something that is supposed to hold a piece of clothing together. When I try to break it off, the thread just gets longer and longer. Eventually I realize that the thread is attached to — of course — a black dress from Forever 21 that I bought one frenzied evening in January on the way to the airport to attend a funeral. My casual pulling has unraveled the reinforcement on the hem of the dress, so now the dress is still hemmed, but only loosely. The dress is nice, but it feels and looks a bit like a really tight sweatshirt: that oddly thick, warm, stretchy polyester that so many of Forever 21’s products are made of, which looks great in the store, looks good three washes in, and ten washes in, looks like a silver dollar.
But the cap sleeve detail of the shoulders! There is always some selling point of Forever 21 clothing, apart from the price, or rather, the price creates a dazzling halo around the selling point. The price is the subliminal message. After looking at the price, we are suddenly able to say: This is a really unique and special piece of clothing. It’s true; this is a really unique and special piece of clothing — for this price, which is absurdly low, uniquely low. And because Forever 21 makes so many thousands and thousands of styles in a given year, it’s probably true that not that many people will end up owning this dress — maybe a few thousand or so. Who knows. But how long will I keep it, and how many times will I really end up wearing it?
Elizabeth Cline, the author of the fast-fashion exposé Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, just released in paperback, like so many of us found herself a slave to fast fashion in her twenties. She had never considered herself a fashion plate or even a follower of fashion. But as she writes near the start of the book, “One need not have the sharpest fashion acumen or know a single thing about clothes to accumulate massive amounts of them.” Indeed, she would hoard cheap, seemingly identical hoodies from stores like Forever 21 and H&M, and one afternoon, she bought seven pairs of those summery canvas shoes that were a fixture of K-Mart a few years back. She didn’t even wear three of the pairs before she went off the style, but the thrill of getting a pair of them for $3 was too much to resist. So she bought seven pairs.
Millions of us are guilty of similar, if not such extreme, behavior when we walk into fast-fashion stores. Buying eight new items of clothing for a total of something like $90, which is pretty easy to do in Forever 21, appears to solve all our wardrobe needs at the time. But sometimes we don’t even know what we’re buying, or how it fits into the grand scheme of our (probably overstuffed) wardrobe. It’s like a drug trip. The trip is fueled by price, and by novelty.
Cline inventoried her wardrobe at the start of writing the book, and after conducting some market research, she found that she owned about as much as the average American. Well, the average American owns way too much, and the glut is continually fed by stores like JC Penney, Target, TJ Maxx, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, H&M, Forever 21, Aeropostale, Old Navy, and several others, whose advertisements usually only focus on one thing — price — and who are forever holding sales, and sales on sales, for no particular reason. These stores are appreciated by the poor and the wealthy alike, but it’s the middle class that is usually pulling in “hauls,” as Cline describes them, and as we know, the American middle class is really big. Cline says that we now dedicate “less than 3 percent” of our annual household income on clothes. “The price of just about everything in America,” she tells us, “has climbed in recent decades — housing, gas, education, health care, and movie tickets. Meanwhile, clothing is a better bargain than ever.”
Say you earned $40,000 per year. That means that on average, you spend about $100 a month on clothes. When it comes to those clothes, more is more for a great lot of us, and quality is rarely considered. It doesn’t bother most of us that clothes have gotten lighter over the years, according to Cline’s research, or that the fabrics are more often man-made, derived largely from plastic, or that they die a small death every time they go through a cycle in an industrial-strength dryer.
Cline wrote Overdressed to try to educate and influence Americans on what they’re wearing, where it comes from, how it’s made, and what happens to it when we don’t want it anymore. It’s been marketed as fashion’s answer to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and there are many similarities between the two books. The trouble is, our increasingly health-conscious country is probably never going to think about fashion as consciously as we think about the food we’re putting in our bodies. Still, I guarantee you will think differently, and more guiltily, about clothes when you finish this book. It will expand your mind beyond seeming no-brainer price tags to include the hazardous, pollution-causing factories where bargain clothes are made and the overrun Salvation Army storerooms where so many of our cheap duds end up. What you do with your more enlightened outlook is up to you. But consider this piece of data:
The United States now makes 2 percent of the clothing its consumers purchase, down from 50 percent in 1990.
China makes 41 percent of our clothes, according to Cline’s research. She visited factories in China, and found surprisingly good conditions (though she wondered whether she had been sent to “show” factories intended to please clients and inspectors). Foreign factory conditions are said to be improving on the whole, mostly thanks to a huge movement on college campuses a decade or so ago, which targeted the working conditions at factories used by companies like Nike. But the quality of the products coming out of China is said to be decreasing. An L.A.-based designer named Michael Kane, who runs the line Karen Kane, and who has been working with Chinese factories for 20 years, told Cline that:
he is forced to inspect every single piece of clothing coming in from their Chinese suppliers, down from an inspection rate of just 10 percent when the company first moved production overseas. “All of a sudden, really in the last three or four years, the dynamic has completely changed,” says Kane. “There’s more competition there. They have rising labor costs, yet they need to produce things at the same price that they’ve always had to.” The factories are reducing their costs at the expense of the Karen Kane product.
And something Cline doesn’t discuss too much in the book: established domestic-made companies including Patagonia, Frye, and Australia’s Blundstone have recently stopped making their products at home. Yet the prices are the same. A Patagonia Down Sweater, the company’s popular lightweight down jacket, still costs more than $100, but it is now made overseas. Blundstone boots, a popular work boot, are now made not in Australia but in China. Frye boots, which can cost upwards of $250, are also now made in China, not the US. Fine stitching and quality outer materials have been replaced with glue and cheap, plastic heels. These are not the only respected brands outsourcing to China, Bangladesh and elsewhere. And the difference in quality in all these products is clear, even to the untrained eye. Now these companies make products that don’t last as long, and which often disappoint their customers (check out the Zappos reviews for pretty much any ladies’ Frye boot). These products will be piled on landfills far more quickly now. The items don’t have the longevity to cycle through a few thrift stores the way a decent American-made wool sweater made 30 years ago does.
As Cline writes:
Every year, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which also estimates that 1.6 million tons of this waste could be recycled or reused.
The turnover in thrift stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army is as high as the turnover in stores like Forever 21. Cline suggests that the trend-focused nature of stores like Forever 21 means that even if something from these stores isn’t falling apart after six months, it might not be of a style that anyone wants anymore, so it will disappear from the racks of Goodwill as quickly as it arrived, thrown into a bin and wheeled to the back of the store, where it will be suctioned into a tight rectangular package with a hundred other items, and stored on a shelf indefinitely.
Cline spends some time lambasting the high fashion world, believing that without this fast-paced, aspirational industry, bargain stores like H&M wouldn’t be able to tempt consumers with a cheaper version of what they saw in the pages of Elle last month. But this is a very blinkered view. Cline has a point when she says that the price of designer items like handbags can be inflated, and that the prices remain high even if a designer brand starts outsourcing cheaper labor. But to blame high fashion for the existence of fast fashion is to just entirely ignore the important values that many fashion houses still care about: good craftsmanship, longevity and versatility. If you buy a well-made $400 designer shoe made in Italy, for instance, that shoe is going to have a much longer life on this earth than a China-made Frye boot. If fashion designers are producing ethically-made and well-made items of clothing, these items are going to cost more. But if fast-fashion stores keep pressuring designer brands to cut costs in order to compete, those brands are going to start compromising on quality while keeping their prices the same. Everybody loses — except the bargain stores.
Cline thinks that fashion trends are driving purchases, trickling down from on high, but she forgets that for the average consumer, price trumps everything, even trend. Are we really buying something from H&M because it looks like something we saw in Elle, or because it looks like something we saw [insert celebrity name here] wear? Or are we just buying it because it’s there, and we like it? If Cline paid more attention to fashion magazines and blogs, which she mostly looks down upon in this book, she might appreciate that fashion’s anointed tastemakers — people like Tavi Gevinson, Daphne Guiness and Elle Fanning — are respected for eschewing big, obvious trends, and for combining old pieces from their wardrobes or their forebears’ wardrobes with vintage and bargain items. No good personal shopper ever advised a woman to go on a shopping spree; having a decent wardrobe is about investing in well-made, versatile clothes and sprinkling in a few trendy and unique items among them.
As Sara Bereket, a vintage dealer based in Brooklyn, tells Cline, “We blame companies. But at the end of the day we have to be responsible for our actions.” Forever 21 may be offering us every iteration of every trend, from sailor stripes to floral jeans to pastel silk (“silk”) blouses, but that doesn’t mean we need to buy all of them, or even two of them. It’s about self-control. It’s about recognizing that buying something cheap is a thrill with diminishing returns. If we don’t care for fashion, then surely we don’t need to wear something different every day of the month. In the long run, we’ll just be wasting money anyway, because we’ll have to replace last Tuesday’s Old Navy hoodie in a few months, once the trend or the fabric has worn out, whichever happens first. Fast fashion requires little real thought. If people don’t have time to think about what they want to buy, they should at least take the time to think about the long-term implications of devoted Forever 21 patronage on their wallets. And if we do care about fashion, then we should just make more use of the diverse options at our fingertips, several of which Cline highlights in the book: eBay, Etsy, vintage stores, flea markets, clothing swaps, and maybe even the a good, old-fashioned sewing machine.
Fashion is simply more interesting than the bargain stores would have us believe. Cline doesn’t seem totally convinced of this point, but her important research drives it home, whether she intended to or not.