Dressed to destroy: A skeptical look at cheap fashion

Elizabeth L. Cline goes for the jugular straight away in this exploration of the consumer love affair with cheap clothing.

"Fashion," she writes, "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."

In her new book, "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion," Cline begins with a mea culpa. A New York journalist, she reveals that she too was once one of those naughty consumers who snapped up multiple pairs of badly made $7 shoes because they were cheap.

She then admits that she used to be intoxicated by the rock-bottom prices of brands such as H&M and Old Navy. "For a decade I only bought cheap fashion," she writes.

This confessional, personal tone runs through the book, published by Portfolio, and whether it will grate or ingratiate probably depends on how much the reader already knows about the topic.

The process by which cheap clothes lost their stigma and were embraced by magazines such as Vogue began in the 1990s, Cline explains. She compares the thoughtlessly acquisitive way some people shop now with the more considered regional department-store experience of the 20th century.

More interesting is Cline's chapter on how the U.S. lost most of its clothes manufacturing industry. Big brands, driven by the pursuit of cheaper labor, sent the production of their clothing overseas, in a process that she points out was accelerated in the mid-1990s by trade liberalization and the removal of quotas.

Cline links the relationship between high and low fashion and the polarization between the two to the widening gap between rich and poor, suggesting that it is symbolic of a broader social issue.

There is a sense that this opinion might be rooted in the fact that Cline is intimidated by high fashion — she describes a visit to the Fendi store that ends with her thinking: "I wasn't supposed to be here. There was nothing I could afford."

Cline's target is, therefore, broader than her book's title implies. She is almost as skeptical of designer fashion as she is of affordable fashion — criticizing the whole industry for its over-accelerated trends and lack of individuality.

The most urgent, engaging chapters are about the factories in which cheap clothes are made in places such as Bangladesh, China and, yes, Los Angeles.

Cline also visits the exemplary Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic — where workers are unionized and paid a living wage — which is operated by South Carolina-based Knights Apparel, the leading producer of college-logo clothing sold at U.S. universities.

She talks to Gemma Castro, one of the factory's production managers, and finds that "in her experience, big clothing brands are very strict about following health and safety codes and the local labor and wage laws in the countries where they source their goods. But when it comes to wages, the legal minimum is as far as they take their responsibility."

Cline cites several sources that say companies could raise wages with little or no resultant rise in prices for the consumer.

This certainly isn't the first book about the consequences of cheap fashion — British journalist Lucy Siegle published "To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?" in 2011 — but "Overdressed" focuses less on the environment and more on a holistic overview of the fashion industry.

It suggests that over-shopping is as bad for our souls as it is for the planet. Served up as evidence are the young female shopping addicts who prove the power of cheap clothes and the psychological sway of consumer desire. "My friends say I have enough clothing to open a store," says Lee Councell, a 23-year-old shopaholic who owns 16 or 17 blazers but is still on the lookout for more.

By the end, Cline's manifesto for change involves customizing and mending your clothes and a call for a return to quality, mid-priced, ethical and sustainable slow fashion. For some readers it will feel like preaching to the converted. For others, it will open the door to a whole new wardrobe.

Carola Long is the deputy fashion editor of the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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