Book Report: Overdressed — the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion

Done any shopping for clothing lately? I bet you have. Satisfied with your purchase?

Have you noticed changes in the quality of your favorite brands?

I lost some weight and in my quest to find a pair of black slacks and a pair of jeans that fit me, I went shopping. I tried on slacks at the Van Heusen outlet, and it made me mad. Is it just me getting middle-aged and grumpy, or is the quality of much of the clothing available to us getting worse and worse? I mean to say! Loose threads everywhere, fabric you can just tell won’t hold up to many launderings, pucker-y, crooked seams. And, yes, the price is low, but I’ll have to do this whole process again in only a few weeks if I buy these.

I recently read a book called Overdressed: the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion. Katha Pollitt at The Nation said, “Overdressed does for T-shirts and leggings what Fast Food Nation did for burgers and fries.”  I read this in fits and starts and find I can’t stop thinking about it. The author, Elizabeth L. Cline, posits that we are trading quality garments for cut-rate overseas goods and labor. She says my guess that those Van Heusen slacks would need to be replaced after only several wearings is right on – where manufacturers and retailers used to entice consumers to buy new clothing annually or seasonally, now they produce and market their wares to encourage shopping every week or two!

Learning how to properly care for clothing extends its life. It is a domestic art worth resurrecting if we are to wean ourselves away from cheap fashion.

That’s just silly if you spend ten seconds thinking about it, but then ten more seconds’ thought makes me realize that is exactly what too many of us do and have done – shopping first became more hobby than thing we did to procure necessities and retailers quickly responded by giving quicker and quicker turnover of new things to browse. Quality plummeted, and now even those of us who want a life beyond shopping find ourselves having to hit the stores more often to keep ourselves supplied with decent looking and functioning clothing, home goods, and even what are un-amusingly still called “durable goods.”

When is the last time you saw matched plaids at the seams of a commercially-produced garment?

Also, according to Cline, this decades-long descent from quality clothing mostly made in America to disposable clothing mostly made first in China but now increasingly in very poor countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam is totally unsustainable. She points out that for the first time in a long while clothing prices in the US actually rose in 2011 because of higher costs for fibers and growing demand in developing countries. And yet the quality is still low and in many cases got even worse. She predicts that we may see a trend in the opposite direction, one in which consumers will have to re-learn the previously-assumed principles that clothing is valuable, must be saved for and invested in, and can and must be cared for to make it last.

Time to resurrect the mending basket, too!

Whether society accomplishes that shift in mindset or not, it is one that I appreciate more and more in the last few years and am trying to adopt for myself. I am done with badly-constructed garments that fit poorly, are made with inferior fabrics and notions, and die too young. I am starting to demand better of myself and for myself. I have decided I will pay more for fewer pieces and appreciate what I do have more.

Some of these items are high quality and some are decidedly not. It is probably a fact of life in our time that not everything I wear will be truly well-made, but I am aiming to increase the percentage.

In the days since I started this essay, I dug out my old pair of black slacks that I loved (Talbots, lined, and with washable fabric that has held up well) but are now a size or more too large. I had reluctantly added them to the donate-to-charity bin, but I realized I can have them altered to fit my new frame and keep using a basic garment that brings me pleasure and has a lot of life left in it. I took them to a local seamstress yesterday and she pinned them up and will call me when they are done. Before my appointment with her I went to a Joanne’s fabric store to check out the fabrics and patterns. I was pleased to see they have wrinkle-resistant cotton “bottom weight” fabric for a fair price. I asked the seamstress if she makes clothing for people. Sadly, she said she only does alterations. I haven’t really enjoyed sewing in the past, but I just may take it up again.

Cline herself recommends sewing as a viable antidote for the sorry state of today’s garment industry and a skill that deserves resurrection. My mother made all of our clothes except jeans when we were children, all of her own clothes, and even some of my dad’s. She used her creativity, ability, and time to make beautiful, durable outfits for us. Many people today think sewing is too expensive when ready-made items are available for so little. I thought the same thing, but maybe the expense is justified by the quality end result.

What about right now, however? Mom and I are leaving in a little while to go to an outlet center. She has a Coldwater Creek gift card to use and I need some jeans that fit. I do not know if I will come home with a pair today, but I do know I will be scrutinizing seams and fabrics and labels much more carefully than I used to do.

Talk to me. What brands do you like? What do you think about this idea of demanding higher quality in our clothing, owning less, and loving what we do have more?

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16 Comments

  1. Felicia Collie
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    More and more things are being made very cheaply. For Christmas we always try to get as much American made gifts as we can, and the quality is far more superior than those being made in foreign countries. I have not checked for woman, but for men’s socks Eddie Bauer has some American Made socks, you need to look at the label to make sure. All the pairs I get for Chad are amazing!! They have been thru the wash so many times and yet they come out just like the day I bought them. Chad has several pair from over a year ago, no holes, no fabric coming apart. Chad loves Texas jeans, they are 100% made in USA, and they are well priced $30-40, they sell woman’s jeans as well. To sum up all of my rambling we have found that buying American Made goods when you can, is best!!!!

  2. Posted January 7, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your informed comments and recommendations, Felicia. I especially want to check out the Texas jeans.
    Lori recently posted..Goals for the 2013 Hibernating SeasonMy Profile

  3. melaine
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I have really found this as the case and also found myself falling prey to this mentality of it’s cheap that means when it goes wonky I”ll just get another one. This statement that you made earlier in your post “shopping first became more hobby than thing we did to procure necessities” Really hit home to me and has been on my mind as a change I need to make in my life. I found myself shopping t have something to do, a day out of the house and could sort of justify purchasing a few “new” things because they were only $3, $5, or $10, knowing that they probably won’t last into next year, but also justifying this mentality by saying “hey, trends and styles will have changed by then anyways”. I am trying to break this spending, shopping mentality in myself for multiple reasons. 1. To be more thrifty, even if clothes are cheap it’s still spending money where I don’t need to. 2. To be more aware of where my clothing comes from and what kind of principles it is promoting by buying it (i.e when I buy super cheap clothes from say Vietnam I am more likely than not encouraging the exploitation of workers). 3. Like you said before I want to invest in something, to only purchase something when I NEED it, not simply because it’s cheap and also when I know that I’m investing in a classic piece of clothing that will last the ever changing trends.

    Anyways not sure if that made sense or not, I know I’ll still probably fall pray to the bargain tees every now and then but I am wanting to break this habit.

    p.s. I don’t think anything I sewed for myself would work out to be durable or long lasting :)

    • Posted January 7, 2013 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

      Love your assessment of your sewing skills — LOL! I spend about as much time ripping out as I do putting in seams when I sew, I’m afraid.

      Your comments are along the lines of what I’m thinking about, too.
      Lori recently posted..To Love, Cherish, and Paint: the Unspoken VowsMy Profile

  4. Cherie Loewen
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been buying Lee Side-elastic jeans for well over 20 years, probably close to 30 years. I have noticed a definite decline in their quality. They used to last me for about 2 years even though I used 3 pairs and wore jeans daily, so they pretty much got washed twice a week. Probably about 5-10 years ago I noticed they started using a thinner denim when making them. Now they only last me about a year before the seams wear thin and rip in the inner thigh. I still buy them because I know that style fits me well and is comfortable and I don’t have to go shopping to buy them. I order them online from JCPenny and they arrive in my mailbox. But definitely a decline in quality!

  5. Lorrene
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    I find that I am more likely to find affordable, reliable clothing at a thrift store than at any outlet or retail store. But try finding jeans for a bean-pole like my youngest… it ain’t easy!

    • Posted January 8, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      I used to feel that way about thrift stores, too, Lorrene, and I do still shop at them some, but I’ve been noticing that the trickle-down effect is in play there. Lower quality new garments translates to more worn-out, less-life-in-them donated thrift store garments! Frustrating!
      Lori recently posted..Mr. and Mrs. Lanza and the Rest of Us: Parenting in the TrenchesMy Profile

  6. Posted January 8, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Well, now, I think I’ve got a legitimate bone to pick with the hobby-shoppers. Thanks for pointing that out, Lori. I’ve never been one to “go shopping.” I prefer to “go buying” — get in, get what I need, get out. It’s not enjoyable for me. Among my siblings, my sister and I failed to get the “shopping gene” as I call it. Our brother got enough for all of us, though he’s been curbed a bit since marriage/child. It WAS a hobby for him when single. Online stores are a blessing to me in so many ways, especially when wanting to compare prices. So much less hassle and I can do it without exhausting myself.

    As for quality, since that was your primary point — yes, I started to notice that when attempting to keep my young boy in non-torn pants. I remembered Mom getting double-knee pants for my brother, but was entirely unsuccessful in finding such things for my boy, who was in much more dire need of them than brother dear ever was. And shoes — they’d wear out so fast. Not just the boys, but mine too. Still do.

    The last couple times I bought undershirts for my husband, I was appalled. He’s a big guy, not too many choices to get his size, so I got them from the B&T store at our outlet mall. The quality was shocking, and I’m not exaggerating. A couple shirts weren’t even close to the right size (way too small — our son wears those now, if you can imagine) and some weren’t hemmed — hadn’t even been cut to the right length to BE hemmed. And I couldn’t take them back because I failed to open them immediately, and the receipt had been lost by the time I did. Won’t let that happen again.
    Bobbie recently posted..No matter where you go, there you areMy Profile

    • Posted January 8, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Unlike you, Bobbie, I do enjoy the occasional shopping day by myself or with my mom or a friend, but I never want it to be a major activity of my life. I enjoy shopping MORE, however, when I can be reasonably assured of finding what I want. :) The undershirt story is extreme! JC Penney used to have heavyweight (heavier fabric) men’s undershirts in big guy sizes that were well-made. I think they had to be ordered, but I thought they were worth the cost for their longer wear and comfortable fit. I don’t know if they are still available or not.
      Lori recently posted..Past Blast: Mayor, SchmayorMy Profile

  7. Sylvia
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Matched plaid seams is unheard of (or unseen!) now … I need to resurrect the faithful sewing machine for more than one reason – price, quality and modesty. By the time you find quality and modesty, the price is often out the roof.

    Or maybe I could just lose some weight to fit into some classics *read old things* that I already have. Go fitness challenge!!

    But that won’t help the 12 year old ….

    • Posted January 9, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

      Modesty — yes! Another continual shopping frustration. There are actually a lot of pretty skirts and even some dresses out there, if only we could talk the designers into another inch or two of hem length!
      Lori recently posted..Past Blast: Reality CheckMy Profile

  8. Posted January 10, 2013 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    We try to “make do and mend” as much as possible. One of my favorite tricks is to freshen up a wool sweater with a sweater shaver. And battery powered one is very inexpensive at the fabric store and it can make a sweater look brand new.

    My boys hate shopping and I hate dragging them around and in and out of dressing rooms. That has helped cure me of shopping for entertainment. :) When I really need something I tend to buy online these days. Interesting review! I hope you found your jeans!

  9. Rachel
    Posted January 26, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    I wonder if anyone else has a “here’s where you find some well made clothes” ideas like Felicia. I certainly would like some more options like that! I haven’t liked to go shopping since I had children and already knowing that you won’t have to take it back the next day is HUGE!

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