Some books are life-changing because they contain epic stories which are forever emblazoned upon your memory. Some stories lose their shape over time becoming blurred at the edges, but will always be remembered for the feelings and emotions they evoked within you. The book Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline is neither of those things, but it is undoubtedly one of the more life-changing books I will ever read as evidenced by the shift in daily habits and overall practices it is responsible for in my own life.
Fast fashion is something I have been aware of to at least some degree for much of my life. As a kid, our dad refused to buy my brothers and I anything made by Nike as a result of their use of child labor and low wages for factory workers. At the time, even though I knew he was right, I just wanted that cool thing (shoes, jacket, whatever) because all of the other kids seemed to have it. Dad wouldn’t budge and that message stuck with me.
Of course, as I transitioned into adulthood and gained financial independence, the last thing on my mind was researching the labor practices of the companies making the clothes I wore. Particularly as I started earning more, it felt so satisfying to finally be able to afford the J.Crew wardrobe I had literally dreamed about since middle school. Plus those enticing “sales” and “deals” all these companies hawk were so irresistible. It was much easier to just not think about it.
But even when I wanted to not think about it, that gnawing feeling was there in the back of my mind. Each time I saw a tag stating “Made in Cambodia”, “…Vietnam”, “…China”, I was reminded to consider the people behind the product. I knew I probably wouldn’t like the answer so I continued to push the feeling aside.
My eventual shift began for a couple of reasons. One was partnering with Fair Trade Certified and realizing that there were at least some companies out there considering the well being of their workers and the planet while manufacturing their products. Another was my increasing love for knitting and sewing, and realizing that I am capable of making from scratch garments fully customized for me that I absolutely love to wear. Eventually, I knew it was time to pull back the curtain so to speak and read the book I had been avoiding for fear of fully realizing its contents. Many thanks to my friend Anna Maria for giving me the nudge I needed!
To say this book is well researched feels like a massive understatement, but read it and see for yourself. Learning the truths of the fast fashion industry was simultaneously shaming but also empowering. To be clear, the author’s intention is not at all to shame the reader, but you will almost certainly feel shame since these are behaviors nearly all of us have engaged in at some point. To be armed with knowledge and understanding of how we got here, where things are headed, and what we can do to help change it is a really big deal.
There is way too much in this book that is important and relevant to adequately summarize here, but it is worth highlighting a few key points made. While the retailer side of the fast fashion equation is obvious (companies always want growth and increasing profits), one component I hadn’t much considered before was the psychology on the part of the consumer that lurks behind so-called sales, deals, and steals. This exploration was fascinating and enlightening. I was enthralled and saddened by the chapter detailing how so-called high-end fashion and low-end fashion actually intertwine and feed off of each other. This answered many of my long burning questions regarding whether these pricey designer handbags everyone just has to have are actually worth their hefty price. (Spoiler alert – they are not.) The author also makes the point that over the past decade or so, we have seen people begin to prioritize localism and the slow food movement, yet we are only now beginning to consider the origins of the garments we wear. I was also truly sickened to learn what really becomes of the vast majority of clothes donated to secondhand shops. This portion of the book is almost sure to shock and educate you, and make you realize that simply donating some items when you purchase new things is not an adequate remedy to the crisis we are facing. These are just a few of the many topics that captivated and educated me within this book.
I can say now on the other side of it that I highly, highly recommend this book. It can be a bit difficult to make yourself pick up at times because the truths it contains are not pleasant, and as a result, I switched to the audio version about halfway through my reading.
I read some negative reviews of this book online that I found intriguing. One in particular relates in great detail the deep shame this reader felt recognizing her own purchasing behaviors reflected in the pages. However, she then goes on to say that she felt the book didn’t offer any practical solutions to the fast fashion world of today. I completely disagree with this assessment. The book offers two main strategies which are arguably the only real ways to solve this issue, but I think the reader was hoping for more simple, quick fixes (you might even call them “fast”.) Unsurprisingly, one of the approaches offered is relearning the art of garment making and employing these skills to create a partially or fully handmade wardrobe. While this may seem impractical, it simply isn’t. Just because you haven’t done it before doesn’t mean you are incapable of learning. Motivation may be another matter, but it doesn’t negate that very valid solution. Not to mention, there is an extreme gratification in wearing something you made entirely on your own that is unlike any feeling you will ever have wearing something you purchased. It feels like an accomplishment to be proud of because it is!
Additionally, the recommendation is made to purchase better, not more. It doesn’t have to cost more to build an ethical wardrobe. Saving money that would have been spent on countless cheap clothing items to invest in quality wardrobe pieces bought with intention is the goal. When this occurs and we are able to know more about garment construction, treatment of workers, and environmental impact is, I think, the only real answer to the fast fashion epidemic. It requires a shift in priorities and mindset, but we are all fully capable of this.
This becomes more and more feasible as more writers and bloggers highlight ethical fashion brands. I am trying to do my own small part toward this end, both by using my platform to highlight good companies doing good things, as well as investigating potential purchases. I recently had the desire to purchase a swimsuit from a practically made-for-Instagram company with tons of cute styles. I reached out to the company to inquire about their manufacturing process including location and treatment of workers since their website didn’t even mention country of origin for any of the items I was considering. I was flabbergasted when the first customer service rep I encountered said that while the company has begun to move their manufacturing from the US to a factory in China, but it was “fair trade and ethical and all that” (her exact, and completely false words). I followed up and inquired again, asking if I could see some proof of their Fair Trade certification, and reminded them they shouldn’t be using that terminology unless they are truly certified because it is a process that actually means something. They basically side stepped the question and said “Thanks for the suggestion!” Needless to say, I didn’t need the suit that bad. And that’s the point, really. Want isn’t need. And we can make the decision that we need our garments made in a way that ensures fair treatment of the workers and the planet.
If I can make this shift, anyone can. I was very happy to learn that the author Elizabeth Cline will have a follow up book next year with detailed, accessible steps on making these changes. This will surely help all of us make strides in this necessary transition. In the meantime, Overdressed is a fantastic place to start.