Over-dressed

Recently I read a book called Over-Dressed: The Surprisingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline. I’m not much of a reader, but I made it a goal to read more this year, so when I was shelving books at work and came across this one, I figured hey, why not? It ended up being not only surprisingly interesting, but also even more eye-opening that I could have imagined.

Here are a few key things that stood out to me:

1. America’s number one export is used clothing.
  • But with that said, this export is mostly just ending up in landfills. Our garbage bags of donated clothes aren’t going to homeless people in need. Well, maybe some of them are, but there are literally not enough people in need of clothes to take ALL our donated items (and then, of course, there is the additional mass of clothing that is just being thrown away at the consumer level).
  • The loads of cheaply made clothes we drag to the donation boxes are likely not going to African children or families in need, or being recycled and made into tennis shoes and plastic bottles, etc.
  • Places such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and thrift-stores are never short of clothing donations. In fact, even they end up throwing away large amounts of clothing after a certain amount of time has passed.
2. We live in a culture where “fast fashion” has taken over, meaning we buy clothes that are in-style only for a short time, and then new styles are in and those old clothes are out.
  • Fast fashion has changed the clothing industry so that clothes must be made as cheaply as possible (and those that are not are outrageously over-priced, but are still often made to a much lower quality than has been the standard throughout history).
  • Usually, the clothing, bags, jewelry, and other accessories we buy are being made and produced in horrible factories with horrible conditions because of the fast-fashion demand. Slave labor, slave wages, and other inhumane practices are common aspects that exist throughout the clothing supply chain.
3. Nearly everything we are wearing is made from synthetic fibers, such as polyester and rayon, which are more awful than we realize (look into it if you don’t believe me).
  • These fabrics undergo significant processing that often involves: detergents, petrochemical dyes, formaldehyde to prevent shrinkage, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), dioxin-producing bleach, chemical fabric softeners, etc.
  • These additives are often toxic to the human body, may contain heavy metals and can pollute our environment. (Note: even natural fibers are usually chemically treated at some point, but they are still better choices than synthetic fabrics that are extensively chemically treated.)
  • Try instead fibers/fabrics made of: cotton, silk, linen, hemp, wool, and cashmere.
4. Fast fashion decreases quality and worsens economic conditions, and in turn, increases the price of anything vintage or good quality!
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  • Vintage clothing is becoming harder and harder to find, and none of the clothes we are now giving away are going to hold up long enough to ever be reused or re-fashioned in the future. The idea of vintage could be quickly dying if we continue to follow this fast-fashion trend. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you think about it, we are losing the individuality that comes through expression of fashion due to a loss of choice. We may not really care now, but don’t we so often fail to realize what we’ve lost until after the fact?
5. China is now becoming more like the US and the Western world in that they are now following this fast fashion trend as well.
  • That is a LOT more people producing a LOT more waste.

So what do we do about this? This isn’t another rant regarding waste and sustainability, but about re-discovering an art that has been lost in essentially one generation. Some people still have unique styles, but when it comes down to it, most of us look exactly the same. The prints, the cuts, the styles, etc., are just slightly different versions of the same thing. Yes, clothing has always followed trends and people wear the popular ones, so you could say this is always the way it has been, but there used to be an art in the way people wore their clothes. They were made for them. They were tailored to their own bodies. There used to be more choice out there. And what you bought lasted, so people put much more thought into what they purchased and probably had pieces that you couldn’t find just anywhere. Many women and girls even sewed their own outfits.

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In fact, sewing has always been a very great job, and it was standard for women to know how to sew quite well, or at the very least, be able to adjust, alter, hem, replace buttons, and patch tears. I can say that I have no idea how to do any of that—I could probably just barely figure out how to sew a new button on a shirt, but I would most likely just wear the shirt with a missing button or put it in the box to be donated. The item was probably so cheap that it wouldn’t be worth my time to figure out.

Part of re-discovering this lost art may look like learning to sew, or it may look like finding someone who does, taking your clothes to get tailored, and/or shopping at local boutiques that hand-make their items. We can even shop online for re-fashioned or re-done vintage items, or find fashion-forward designers who create hand-sewn versatile clothing from natural materials sourced ethically and made fairly.

My commitment for the next year is to go through my closet one piece at a time, look at the tag to see what it’s made of, and decide if I really truly love this item: Does it flatter me? How often do I wear it? Would I even notice if it was gone? Can I take it to get tailored or fixed? Would this lead me to love the piece and wear it often? …You get the point. At the end of the year, I will hopefully have a smaller closet filled with the things I actually wear. From there, when I want to buy something, I will search for clothing that is vintage or made from natural fibers, that is quality-made and, when possible, locally produced. I will look for things that are going to last a long time and that give me a sense of choice and individuality. My clothing will hopefully become more of an investment, but a worthwhile one.

What about you? I encourage you to do the same or to come up with your own plan of action, whether that starts with reading the same book, doing other research, or starting with my summary. Either way, I hope this motivates or inspires some of you at least a little, and causes you to rethink all those $5, $10, and $20 purchases. I really believe that changing the way we shop can give us far more satisfaction than what we have from our current clothing circumstances.