Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

I finished Overdressed (link goes to Goodreads; the cover photo above is linked to Amazon) over the weekend.  The author explores various angles of our addiction to cheap clothes:  the poor quality of clothing, the enormous waste generated by throwaway items and the (lack of) secondary market for used clothing, the loss of American (and most first world) textile jobs and production capacity, and the pressure on third-world garment-makers to keep worker wages as low as possible.  It was a good complement to Deluxe:  How Luxury Lost its Luster (and actually cites Deluxe).  

By the end of the book, the author is a convert to "slow clothing" over fast fashion:  fewer good quality pieces produced by well-paid workers in the U.S.  She even learns to sew.  She thinks if we could all just realize how poorly made fast fashion is, we'd all see the light on good-quality, more expensive clothing (which can end up with a *lower* cost per wear than fast fashion).

But I think she misses the major point to fast fashion.  She admits that she is not a fashionista herself; she's not a trend chaser and doesn't enjoy shopping.  She also lives in Brooklyn, New York, where there are thousands of options that aren't Target, Old Navy, Wal Mart, and other retail behemoths.  

So she can be forgiven for not realizing the essential problem:  Fast fashion isn't about clothing or fashion.  Fast fashion is about shopping.  That sounds like a tautology, but hear me out.

 The thing is, for a large majority of people in this country, there is nothing to do but go shopping. Literally.

I am very fortunate to live in DC and I can go for a bike ride, visit a museum, run, hike, or just walk around--NOT to stores, though I sometimes feel like I am "wasting" my time if I don't have a destination, i.e., a store, i.e., something to buy--very easily and without a car (well, the hiking part requires a car). However I moved from places where (a) you had to have a car to get anywhere, so you had to have a destination, and (b) the only anywhere to go was a mall or shopping center. Even with all DC's rich resources, it took me years to break the habit of going shopping most weekends. It is our primary leisure activity, other than watching TV.

Convincing people to buy fewer but better clothes has almost nothing to do with money. It has to do with entertainment.  

Sculpture from Artomatic 2012
Where my parents live, there are virtually no sidewalks and no bike lanes.  So when teenagers who can't yet drive want to meet up with their friends, it needs to be a central location and they must be driven there by parents.  And the only central location is the mall.  So you beg your parents to take you to the mall, where you spend hours shopping.  Now, as a teen I didn't have enough money to actually buy anything on most visits.  But it creates this idea that the place you go for fun is the mall.

Then when you can actually drive, it doesn't occur to you to go to museums (which are an hour's drive away and have high admission charges).  And there is no hiking within a reasonable drive because it is suburbia as far as the eye can see.   No, when you get your license it's so exciting because now you can drive yourself to the mall.  What started out as a central destination convenient for parents to drop you and teens to meet up, becomes the destination.  The only one.

At some point you get out of school and have more money but fewer people to hang out with all the time.  So you start going shopping by yourself.  Sure, you try to arrange to do it with friends when you can, but if you can't find anyone to go with you, what are you going to do, not shop?  What else is there to do?  It's considered weird to go to a movie by yourself, or to eat in a restaurant by yourself.  But if you need to get out of the house by yourself, it's not weird to go shopping alone.

That's when the buying really starts.  Because if you're shopping by yourself, it's not socializing disguised as shopping.  It's just shopping.  And if you don't buy something while you're out shopping, then what's the point?  It's like it never happened at all. 

Sculpture Detail
To feel like something happened in your life, you need to have a bag and a receipt and something to cut the tags off of.  It feels like you were being productive.

I am not pretending I am above it all here!  I love clothes.  And I am definitely still in the "productivity" mind set.  I prefer to sew a new item every week.  That is not any different than buying a new item every week, though my items are generally better quality than what you'd find at Forever 21 and their ilk.  

When I put a lot of work into one project, like my Seersucker Social dress, it drives me crazy to be working on it week after week.  I could have made so many other things!  Never mind whether I need them or not and whether they fit in my closet.  The slow pace of acquisition kills me with those projects.  And we all know how much fabric I buy (but I've not bought any for over three months now, which is very exciting).

I don't know what it would take to get people to go for a bike ride or to picnic in a park for fun and a way to get out of the house instead of going shopping, but it would require a huge, huge, HUGE cultural shift, infrastructure changes to offer entertainment alternatives to the mall, and a reconfiguring of the idea of "productive" away from having something tangible to show for your weekend.

In my current job we have a staff meeting every Monday.  The staff is pretty small so at the end of the meeting if we have a little time we all go around the table and give a little synopsis of our weekend.  When I started I was joking with some of the longer term staff members that I was going to have to start planning more exciting weekends so I'd have something interesting to recount.  

It was kind of a joke but kind of not.  If everyone had to give a report on their weekend every Monday morning, would we want to be able to say more than "I went shopping and got a great deal!"?  Or is that really enough?

There is a discussion of this book on Pattern Review.


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