Elizabeth Cline’s cure for throwaway fashion: ‘slow clothes’

Cline visiting a unionized factory in the Dominican Republic. (Elizabeth Cline)
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Elizabeth Cline is calling for a “slow clothes” movement.

In her new book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, which she'll be reading and signing tonight at Powerhouse Arena, the New York-based journalist and author argues that America’s current addiction to shoddy, trendy clothes is leaving us as unsatisfied as junk food, while simultaneously hurting garment workers and polluting our environment.

“Fashion’s race to the bottom,” as she puts it, can’t be fixed overnight, but she shows that we need an extreme makeover of our attitude towards clothes as disposable goods.

Cline’s book is as personal as it is polemical, and it follows her journey from a Forever 21 fanatic to an educated, careful consumer. She confesses her sins early on: the moment she realized that she had to change her ways was when she hauled home a heavy bag of identical shoes from K-Mart. She had seen a bargain she just couldn’t pass up—$7 a pair—and, in the thrill of the hunt, bought out the store in her size. The shoes soon fell apart and fell out of fashion, and the remainders languished in her closet.

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“That might be an extreme example, but I think it sort of gets at the psychology of cheap,” she said when we spoke by phone a few weeks ago. “You see something that costs so little that you’re like, ‘Why not?’ And after ten years of shopping on this ‘Why not’ kind of basis, I ended up with hundreds and hundreds of pieces of clothing.”

Cline said she realized that impulse-buying clothes and shoes at rock-bottom prices wasn’t making her happy; it wasn’t even making her fashionable. Prioritizing cost over quality meant that she had a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear. She knew many of her friends felt the same way about their buying habits.

“My wardrobe ultimately left me feeling slavish and passive,” she writes in the introduction to her book. “I was devoting too much time and way too much space in my house to a habit I know shamefully little about.”

It wasn’t always like this, of course. When factory-made clothes started to be sold in America around 1900, Cline notes in the book, the average American family spent over 15 percent of their yearly income on clothing for just a few pieces that they wore frequently and repaired often.

“In 1929, the average middle-class man owned six work outfits and the average middle-class woman nine,” she writes. Today, many women buy dresses on their lunch breaks with as little thought as they give their sandwich purchases (and, in many cases these days, far less thought than those artisanal sandwiches).

Even in the 1980s, shopping for clothes was more of a seasonal investment, rather than a year-round grazing. According to Overdressed, it was really only in the mid-1990s that chains such as Gap, Target, and, later, H&M and Forever 21, started to create and dominate the low-end clothing market. These brands, and many others like them, make their profits in tiny slivers and in huge volume. They have driven down prices by moving production overseas, while continually manufacturing obsolescence by changing their stock more and more often. Fast turnover encourages shoppers to visit more frequently; it also contributes to the psychology of the “treasure hunt” that Cline herself experienced in the K-Mart shoe section.

To uncover the implications of this hamster wheel of consumption, Cline visited factories in China and Bangladesh, where the American clothing industry has exported most of its production but not its labor-protection oversight. She learned about the toxic pollutants released into those countries’ rivers and air and land as byproducts of the making of the cheapest synthetic fabrics. She also discovered the depressing truth of the afterlife of all of those ill-fitting tank tops and plastic-soled shoes: most of them eventually end up as trash, in landfills, leaching more chemicals into the ground.

The portion of Cline's research that she says was most surprising to her was on the second-hand market.

“I think that many people assume that there’s someone else out there that wants your old clothes,” she said. “But the reality is that charities have been overburdened by the amount of clothes that we are donating…. Something like 20 percent of what we donate gets sold in charity shops, and then the rest of it gets sent to a textile recycler, and then from there most of it gets shipped overseas to the African second-hand market.” Yet even overseas demand for used clothing has decreased as prices for clothes have dropped. And, Cline added, the quality of the clothes that people are donating now is so low that shredding it for the wiping-rag industry is sometimes the only option.

There is no easy solution for all of this. As salaries stagnate and the prices of just about everything else continue to rise, cheap fashion will be a constant temptation. But Cline says that small changes can add up. Like the slow food movement before it, slow clothing means buying local, paying attention to labels, and favoring natural materials like cotton and silk over plastic-based synthetics. She also recommends repairing, rather than replacing, clothes and shoes whenever possible.

Cline told me she has personally kept her clothing budget the same, but has switched from non-stop bargain-hunting to buying a few high-quality, non-trendy pieces that will last. At the same time she has worked with her local seamstresses to alter thrift-store finds so that they will fit her perfectly, and she even took a sewing class in order to learn to recognize quality when she shops. She also runs a blog on which she shares her tips for taking clothes seriously and where to shop.

Of all of the dangers that fast fashion can bring, Cline said there is one problem in particular that is especially timely.

“For me, the most poignant issue is the fact that the United States gave away its entire garment industry,” she says—an industry that this country previously dominated. Where the United States once made 90 percent of Americans’ clothes, it not makes as little as 3 percent, she said.

“And you know, if I had written this book before the recession, that point probably wouldn’t have hit quite so close to home…. One of the main industries that allowed people to move up in the middle class, especially in a place like New York, was the garment industry. It’s largely gone now.”