Ever wondered where your clothes were made, or the conditions under which they were sewn together? In the book Overdressed, author Elizabeth L. Cline takes a whirlwind trip around the globe to see how fast fashion was made, as well as the impact that perpetually popular cheap clothing has had on the environment and on the labor force.
The book starts with a history lesson that establishes how consumers have gone from purchasing expensive yet well-made separates and dresses to gobbling up perennially available clothing that falls apart if you look at it wrong. With that crash course, she looks at why so many jobs have gone overseas, and how our outsourcing has made parts of countries like China and Bangladesh all but uninhabitable. She explained import laws in an accessible and humorous way (never underestimate the power of a well-placed Monty Python reference). Likewise, her trip to the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic did justice to the complex issues of overseas labor and its positive impact on international economy. As a crafter, I found the final chapter – in which Cline learns to sew – galvanizing, but I recognize (as does Cline) that not everyone would be able to give up shopping for affordable clothing and just make their entire wardrobe from scratch. (Some additional issues related to making one’s own clothes, such as buying ethically-sourced thread and fabric, are implicitly dealt with in other parts of the book, but I kind of wish she’d drawn that into the final chapter a little more explicitly.)
In the back-cover blurb, book critic Katha Pollitt compared Overdressed to Fast-Food Nation for its thought-provoking look at an industry that affects various, seemingly unconnected areas. I found the book less shocking than FFN, in part because I’ve read a fair amount about the global problems associated with industrialized textile production. While Cline does write about the human cost of cheaply-made clothes, I do wish she’d gotten into greater detail about the labor and safety issues in many unregulated third world sweatshops. (The afterword addresses the fires and deaths at Bangladeshi shops in 2013.)
Cline’s first-person style does a great job of keeping the reader engaged through some tricky subject matter. That said, I did find her inconsistent use of the first person frustrating. While her early love affair with stores like Forever 21 and H&M makes her a relatable narrator, the inclusion towards the end of the book of her sewing lesson suggests the trajectory of a person who turns her back on fast fashion and moves towards a DIY approach to her wardrobe. The first-person narration would have worked better for me if Cline had a more conclusive personal narrative.
Overdressed makes the hidden costs and complexities of fast fashion comprehensible to its audience. If you want to know more about how your clothes get from the sewing machine or the cotton fields to your closet, definitely check it out.
Now reading: Fugitive Denim by Rachel Louise Snyder. Review forthcoming.
And now, some new-to-me links:
On her podcast The Dork Forest, comedian Jackie Kashian interviewed Brittnee Braun about her love of cosplay. In the interview, Braun discusses clothing construction for women at great length.
A few weeks ago, Rookie interviewed Sheila Heti about a new book she co-authored, Women in Clothes. I like what she has to say about personal style and clothing consumption, and I can’t wait to read her book.
While I’m not a huge fan of Brain Pickings (long story), this excerpt from Worn Stories definitely piqued my interest.