Monday, 20 May 2013

Book Review

Overdressed:  The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion
by Elizabeth L. Cline
ISBN:  978-1-59184-461-7
Published by Penguin Book 2012
Canadian price $27.50

I first heard about this book last year. It is not a book that has been discussed in the staff room with co-workers. I work deep in suburbia where shopping malls, Old Navy, Joe Fresh and Mark's Work Wearhouse rule the suburban fashion landscape. Rather, I discovered the existence of this book through other sewing blogs.

I won't say that I was captivated by Cline's writing style, rather the historical references and modern-day observations kept me turning the pages. Also the positive book reviews I've read in the past kept me plugging along to see what all the hype was about.

Cline is quite clever in writing this book. She avoids preaching to the reader about the pitfalls of cheap fast-fashion. Instead, she holds up a mirror at her own shopping habits and bad shopping decisions allowing the reader to recognize themselves in these activities. Cline takes the reader on a journey into the dark side of the fashion industry and tells her tale stylized as new journalism. Cline travels to far off lands fictionalized as the business owner of Fashion Forward Inc. looking to produce a line of garments she plucked out of her closet.  

Along the way, Cline also examines the by-gone days of department stores with "bigger fabric departments than ready-to-wear sections, and affordable patterns, some inspired by couturiers" (81). Cline not only examines the significant shifts in ready-to-wear fashions but also the shift in plastic-based fibres. "Fabrics have become compromised" in order to save costs. Cline argues that "about half of our wardrobe is now made out of plastic, in the form of polyester" (123). She examines the environmental impact of producing "Frankenfabrics" that take hundreds of years to biodegrade. She also points out that even natural fibres have an environmental impact that is hard to swallow.

The earlier mentions of home sewing peaked my interest in reading one of the final chapters, "Make, Alter, and Mend," only to be let down by this chapter. The chapter should have been named "Alter, Mend and Re-fashion" instead. Cline's foray into the world of sewing was minimal as she describes sewing lessons that produced a pillowcase and the desire to patch jeans and hem skirts. It was as if it were an after-thought to inject more of her own personal experiences into the book. I came away with the feeling that Cline was a supporter of vintage and thrift fashions rather than the make it from scratch DIY aesthetic.

It is a powerful read especially after the recent garment factory collapse that killed over 1,100 people in Bangladesh. This book came out before this horrific event but it echoes the tragedies that plagued garment workers in by-gone years. It is a book with important statistics and history that help to understand the working conditions in these oversea factories.

Will this book go down as a great read, no. I wouldn't put it up there with Fast Food Nation by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser. Someone was using a bit of creative licence when designing the book cover with the Katha Pollitt quote. But it is an interesting and insightful read into the dark side of fashion considering the recent debates surrounding fast and cheap fashions filling many closets today.

If you don't mind the grammar mistakes and typos this piece of fast-non-fiction might make it on your summer reading list.


  1. Yep; it's a good book in terms of the research and the message, probably a very valuable book, but I wish that a more aggressive editor had been involved to smooth it out. And I wanted some actual _sewing_ in the sewing chapter - I think that that's one place where the author should have looked outside her own experience and addressed someone else's in more detail.

    I read it, I appreciated it, I read it again, it inspired me to look up fair trade clothes... but then I had a craving to re-read Linda Grant's _The Thoughtful Dresser_. (A very different look at fashion, but it fulfilled my leftover cravings.)

    1. "The Thoughtful Dresser"... I'll have to look up that book. It also inspired me to look at Fair Trade fabric. There is not a lot to be found in Winnipeg, but I did find some fair trade cotton knit at that is way superior than the cotton knits found at the chain fabric store in the city.

      Cline's book certainly mades you think when you're out shopping.


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