Are You Overdressed?

Posted by Susan Liane, The Smuggler's Daughter on 11/2/2013 to Book Reports
Overdressed - The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline
Every woman in America should read Elizabeth Cline's examination of the fashion industry because it shines a light on the true costs of the cheap clothes that we have been buying in great volume for over twenty five years. Whether environmental, economic, political or moral, the costs have been much higher than we have been willing to believe as we have spent less per item and yet acquired more volume in clothes at Old Navy, Target, Walmart and other large chain retailers across America.

Perhaps the environmental costs should be obvious, because it is fairly simple to recognize that the more cheap clothes are produced, the more energy and water are used, and the more waste is produced. The textile world has never had a particularly flattering environmental profile, but the increased pollution has been easy for us to ignore as clothing production has been “outsourced” more and more to third world countries. Many of us tell ourselves that excessive amounts of clothing is not an environmental concern because clothing can be re-used – donated to the Salvation Army or the local thrift store. Cline does a great job of blowing the lid off of that inaccurate assumption with her report on the clothing operation at major thrift stores around the country.  They can never sell all the clothing donated.

Perhaps the economic costs should be obvious, since ridiculously cheap goods of any sort depend on even cheaper labor. But Americans who are under 40 years of age and are consuming cheap clothes in record volumes probably don't even know that the garment industry once thrived in the United States and provided decent jobs. Decent pay and safe working conditions were hard-won for American garment workers who once raised families while holding down garment industry jobs. Now, of course, the cheap fashion industry depends on stunningly low wages and mostly sub-standard work conditions for poor foreign workers. Americans would do well to remember that when we buy cheap clothes we are able to do so because of a system that is abusive to impoverished workers abroad with very few choices.

Most large American retailers have refused to sign on to standards that would establish and enforce decent standards for work conditions in foreign factories, hiding behind their contracts with manufacturers and telling us that the conditions in these factories is not their direct responsibility. But after some of the more highly-publicized and disastrous results of these conditions, like the deaths due to the fire in the Bangladesh garment factory, the moral consequences of cheap fashion are increasingly difficult to ignore.

What can we do about it? First, most of us can stop buying cheap clothes altogether and we can adjust our ideas about how much clothing we need. Cline points out that the whole “organizing” product industry has developed in response to the fact that our wardrobes have outgrown our closets. Second, we can acknowledge the cost of cheap fashion that may not be as obvious as the others – home sewing. Cline describes very well how sewing machine ownership has gone way down in this country, over the same period that cheap clothing has become more and more available. Most professionals in the fashion and textile world agree that cheap fashion has been the near death of home sewing.

Why is home sewing an important part of the solution to the cheap fashion disaster that has flooded the market? As Cline points out, sewing has become a lost art among the young, but it does not have to be that way. Sewing teaches us to recognize and appreciate quality in materials and workmanship. In the past, it was a skill that was handed down from one generation to the next, partly because it took time to learn. Sewing requires concentration, memory, attention to detail, math, geometry, constant adjustment and decision making. Sewing a garment is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, sometimes it can be simple and other times it is complex, but it is almost always incredibly satisfying. The person who sews has the power of a fashion designer and a clothing manufacturer. Sewing allows you to dress exactly as you would like and in a way that actually fits your form. It allows great individuality and it teaches basic self sufficiency. In a nutshell, it is an ideal skill to teach all of our children.




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The Conversation So Far
N. Lihach Date 11/4/2013
Amen. I'm reminded of George Carlin's routine on "stuff." Flying in to a city or town, he noticed that houses are just roofs to protect your stuff, and he was amazed that there was a whole industry--storage lockers--to protect your extra stuff. The whole closet organizer phenomenon--shops that sell nothing but organizers--says it all. Yes, teaching children and even adults to sew is to transfer an invaluable life skill. I spent one morning this weekend repairing items on my old Viking, and this morning thought about picking a day to invite friends to bring their clothes and other items that need repair to my house for free repairs, coffee, and cake. How about that for a community activity? Thanks for your thoughtful blog, Smuggler's Daughter.
Susan Liane Date 11/4/2013
Thanks Nadine. As I understand it, the storage business stayed strong and even grew during the great recession. That speaks volumes about having too much "stuff." I like your idea of inviting a group over for mending and visiting. That is something I did once many years ago in San Francisco and it was fun. Maybe we can come up with a catchy name for it, then try to spread the idea...
Kathy Herold Date 11/22/2013
This is sad, but so true. I am becoming increasingly aware of the cheap clothing produced out there as I search for the perfect job interview outfit. I have a closet full of both cheap and quality items, many of which I haven't even worn because they don't quite fit *sigh*. Regardless, I am beginning to think that thrift stores and home-made garments may be a better option for my search for the perfect interview outfit. Thank you, Smuggler's Daughter, for bringing this issue to light.
Susan Liane Date 11/22/2013
Thanks Kathy. A wise sewing teacher taught me that fit is a feeling, not a fact. So of course, fit changes over the years, along with everything else. I'm not quite sure why I hang on to so many clothes that no longer fit. It would be much better to give them away than to lug them around through two or three moves. And much funner to get to sew new things!
Wanda Date 7/3/2014
First time, a few minutes ago, that I visited your site. I thoroughly enjoyed the visit and plan to return. Note: I saw your ad in the new Threads Magazine. First page inside was great placement for immediate attention.
Mae Conatser Date 7/22/2014
I, too, have just seen your ad in September Threads #174. I visited your shop, perused your product line, then advanced to your blog. I will revisit your shop and place an order later. I am happy to see your commentary on Elizabeth Cline's "Overdressed." I have it as a "saved for later" item at Amazon.com. You have inspired me to actually go ahead and purchase it. Thanx for your insightful views on this and other issues, not to mention your delightful sewing adventures.
 
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