"Fashion largely deserves its bad reputation. It's now a powerful, trillion-dollar global industry that has too much influence over our pocketbooks, self-image and storage spaces. It behaves with embarrassingly little regard for the environment or human rights."
—Elizabeth Cline, in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion
The most inspiring sewing book I've read in years is not really a sewing book at all—it contains no patterns, no tips, no brightly colored how-to diagrams or pattern-matching instructions.
Instead, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion is a trip into the heart of the clothing industry of today—and yesterday—a personal history, and maybe even a bit of a slow fashion (or even slow sewing) manifesto.
This book was a more compelling call to get back to my sewing machine than any of the adorable and colorfully packaged sewing how-to books and pattern books I own. Thrifting, making and mending our own clothes won't solve the global environmental, labor and human rights disaster that is the rise of the cheap fashion industry--but they can't hurt, either. (And they may be the only way that those of us on a really tight budget can opt out—to some degree, anyway—of giving our hard-earned dollars to the undeserving cheap fashion industry).
Cline does an excellent (and even entertaining) job of breaking down the life (and afterlife) of cheap fashion, and its effects on the planet, human rights, domestic clothing jobs, the economy and more. As aware as I'd like to think I am, I quickly realized I knew very little about the history and present-day reality of retail clothing production.
She visits New York and L.A.'s Garment Districts, clothing factories in China and Bangladesh, thrift store charities overwhelmed with unusable donations of cheap crap, textile recyclers, vintage sellers, shuttered garment factories throughout the U.S. She talks to fashion designers, factory owners, cheap fashion addicts who post their large hauls on Youtube and luxury fashion addicts with soaring credit card debt.
She also gets into the nitty-gritty of how garments are priced (underpriced at the low end, and overpriced at the luxury end), and what those costs do—and don't—include.
A smart and inspiring read--and call to action!--Cline's book has been aptly called the Fast Food Nation or Ominivore's Dilemma of the fashion industry. A few surprises for me:
- New York's Garment District—which I tend to think of mainly as an excellent fabric shopping resource—was once actually the main factory center of retail garment manufacturing in the U.S. (Sorry if this was obvious to all of you—I never really thought about it!).
- One of the reasons the cost of good-quality vintage clothing has gone up so much is that it's one of the last ways textile recyclers (who purchase unsold second-hand clothes and rags from Goodwill and similar charities) can actually make any money, since most of the clothes they receive are worthless poorly-made H&M-esque crap.
- In the 1990s, 50 percent of clothing purchased in the U.S. was still made in the U.S. Now it's more like 2 percent. (Quoting this from memory, as I don't have my copy of the book in front of me).
Throughout Overdressed, she also talks about the rise and fall of home sewing and mending—which used to be the main way women of modest and middle incomes were able to afford to keep their clothes up-to-date and in good repair. Towards the end of the book, Cline talks about the resurgence in home sewing and interviews a few sewists and make-do-and-menders, and even buys her own sewing machine.
"My opinion on home sewing is that it’s already so much more sustainable than buying off-the-rack clothes from a huge chain store. Home sewers are part of the solution, not the problem. I know that resources for home sewers have dwindled over the years. Parts of the country don’t even have fabric shops. I think the more immediate goal should be to grow the number of home sewers before we tackle issue of where their fabric is being sourced."
—Cline, in a recent interview on Pattern Review
After I finished the book, I was so fired up I immediately:
- whipped up the polka dot dress I shared recently
- began an obsessive inquiry into life, the universe and the meaning of STUFF and the materials economy, including reading Annie's Leonard's fantastic book The Story of Stuff (you do NOT want to know what goes into the making of a simple "cheap" white T-shirt or the costs to the environment, human rights and human health that get left out of that "low" price tag!) and checking out Greenpeace's "Detox Now" campaign
- made a gazillion trillion plans for next projects, which were then promptly derailed when...
- my 2-year-old learned out to climb out of her crib at night and we had to convert it to a toddler bed... upon which point she decided she wanted to party around the living room singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" until past midnight. Every night. And even when she does go to bed, by 2 a.m. we hear the pitter patter of little feet and she's crawling into our bed to kick us in the back all night long...
Sigh. So it goes.
What inspiring sewing reads have you picked up lately?
P.S. Did any of you watch the Project Runway All Stars episode a while back featuring the fabulous Nanette Lepore giving the contestants a lesson in estimating costs and designing garments to be sewn in a New York Garment Center factory? I've always admired her designs, but found it especially cool that she's one of a few "mid-range" (i.e. sadly way out of my budget but what a good quality garment ACTUALLY costs to make) designers who still manufactures here in the U.S...
P.P.S. One thing to remember—which I forgot to mention above—is that no matter how cheap a garment is, it was NOT spit out by a magic garment-making machine. Someone, somewhere, somehow, physically sat down at a sewing machine and sewed every seam on that $2 tank top or that $5 T-shirt.