An earlier version of this article contained a quote that was incorrectly attributed.
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion
By Elizabeth L. Cline
Penguin Portfolio; 256pp; $25.95
In the 2006 film version of The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly, the Anna Wintour stand-in played by Meryl Streep, berates her frumpy assistant for imagining that high fashion doesn’t affect her. Priestly explains how the cerulean color of the assistant’s sweater trickled down over the years from haute couture runways to department stores to the bargain bin in which the poor girl doubtless found her garment.
This top-down conception of the fashion business couldn’t be more out of date or at odds with the frenzied world described in Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline’s three-year investigation and indictment of “fast fashion.” In the last decade or so, advances in technology have allowed mass-market labels such as Zara, H&M, Uniqlo, and Forever 21 to react to trends more quickly and anticipate demand more precisely. Quicker turnarounds mean less wasted inventory, more frequent releases, and more profit. These labels encourage style-conscious consumers to see clothes as disposable—meant to last only a wash or two, although they don’t advertise that—and to renew their wardrobe every few weeks. By offering on-trend items at dirt-cheap prices, Cline argues, these brands have hijacked fashion cycles, rattling an industry long accustomed to a seasonal pace.
The victims of this revolution, of course, are not limited to couturiers. For H&M to offer a $5.95 knit miniskirt in all its 2,300-plus stores around the world, it must rely on low-wage overseas labor, order in volumes that strain natural resources, and use massive amounts of harmful chemicals. One day last August, Reuters reported, 284 workers in a Cambodian factory that made clothes for the Swedish chain collapsed after “smelling something bad that came from the shirts.” (The exact cause of the problem wasn’t determined, which illustrates the difficulty of proper oversight in such sweatshops.)
Overdressed is the fashion world’s answer to consumer-activist bestsellers like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Self-deprecating about her own lack of style—she has a thing for fleece-lined sweatshirts—Cline writes with the zeal of a reformed shopaholic. Like Pollan, she traveled extensively to follow her subject along the whole chain of production. She visited factories in China, gaining entry by masquerading as a clothier; learned sewing from Dominican seamstresses; and went shopping in Manhattan with “haulers,” fast-fashion addicts who brag about their purchases in YouTube videos. Haulers are Cline’s antiheroes.
Americans, she finds, buy roughly 20 billion garments a year—about 64 items per person—and no matter how much they give away, this excess leads to waste. The “clothing deficit myth” is what she calls the notion, comforting to fashionistas, that giving discards to charity offsets consumption. In fact, Cline reports, “charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable used clothes.”
Cline traces the fast-fashion ethos to Amancio Ortega Gaona, who founded Spanish powerhouse Zara in 1975. After a wholesaler canceled a big order, Ortega “got to work taking the risk out of selling clothes.” Since then, Zara has improved communication with factories to the point where it can now design a product and have it on shelves around the world within two weeks. Another advance was to have its 250 designers approximate existing runway looks, “as it did with French luxury label Céline’s spring 2011 collection.” Zara, like most of its cheap-fashion peers, has thus far steered clear of copyright infringement by making sure the clothes it sells are never exact replicas. Earlier this month, a French judge dismissed shoemaker Christian Louboutin’s 2008 suit against Zara, ruling that a red-soled stiletto sold by the latter for $70 could not be confused for the former’s $700 pump.
Fast fashion has made high style available to the masses. As Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld once told the London Independent, with uncharacteristic populism, “Everybody today can be well dressed because cheaper clothes are well designed, too. OK, so maybe the material used might not be extraordinary, but it’s no longer a fact that lower-priced things are lousy.” Granted, he was promoting his own line at H&M at the time, but he had a point. As far back as 1997, Consumer Reports rated a $7 polo from Target higher than similar items from established brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Cline argues that high-end labels have had to lower their standards to compete with fast fashion.
Toward the end of Overdressed, Cline introduces her ideal, a Brooklyn woman named Sarah Kate Beaumont, who since 2008 has made all of her own clothes—and beautifully. In her monastic dedication, she’s reminiscent of Joel Salatin, the fanatical grass farmer whom Pollan hails as a model of sustainability in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But as Cline is the first to note, it took Beaumont decades to perfect her craft; her example can’t be knocked off.
Though several fast-fashion companies have made efforts to curb their impact on labor and the environment—including H&M, with its green Conscious Collection line—Cline believes lasting change can only be effected by the customer. She exhibits the idealism (or naïveté) common to many proponents of sustainability, be it in food or in energy. Vanity is a constant; people will only start shopping more sustainably when they can’t afford not to.
That day may come sooner than we think. China makes an astounding 41 percent of the clothes America imports, including half of the dresses in our stores. As that country develops, labor costs will rise, which will inevitably drive up the price of that miniskirt.