Overdressed: A conversation with author Elizabeth Cline
Author photo: Keri Wiginton
There is no doubt that fast fashion rules the world these days. Discount and big box stores churn out a never ending stream of garments at rock bottom prices, while we as consumers don’t get to see the many hidden costs, from environmental impact to underpaid labor to the death of affordable high quality clothing.
This is the side of the fashion industry that Elizabeth Cline reveals in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.
I first heard about this book because several of you mentioned it in comments. Later, I read a review on Tasia’s blog, and couldn’t wait to pick it up. I was especially intrigued because the book actually discusses the possibility of sewing your own clothing as a way to develop a stronger relationship with what you own and wear. This seems to be completely left out of most discussions on the subject of consumption.
As soon as I finished the book, I rushed over to my laptop and shot off an email to the author, hoping to hear a little more of Elizabeth’s perspective on today’s fashion industry and particularly about sewing. Today’ I’d like to share that conversation with you.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I’m not sure if you know this, but your book has taken the online sewing world by storm. You seem to have addressed many of the issues and questions we grapple with around clothing production today, issues that led some of us to sewing.
A point you make in the book is that women used to have some knowledge of sewing, but that those skills began to die out with the baby boom generation. How do you think this lack of knowledge translates into consumer behavior? In particular, how do you think it’s affected our taste in clothes?
These are things you notice when you sew, and things that are harder to pick up on when you don’t.
There’s such pleasure to be had in buying a garment because of the feel and grade of the fabric or buying a skirt or a blazer for example that is tailored so expertly it actually makes you look taller, trimmer, more put together, etc. These are things that aren’t immediately noticeable to anyone other than the wearer. They enhance your private experience of wearing your clothes.
These are things you notice when you sew, and things that are harder to pick up on when you don’t. Consumers tend to buy based on trend or print or price now, and ironically those aren’t the qualities that make a consumer want to wear a piece of clothing forever. We return to clothes that fit well, flatter our figure, and feel good next to our skin.
One thing I’ve written about before is fast fashion retailers like J. Crew trying to rebrand themselves as luxury labels by talking a lot about quality, where their yarns are milled, and offering some products at very high price points. What’s your take on this strategy?
The quality of mass-market clothing has gotten so abysmal, that to some degree I think brands like J. Crew and H&M offering “high-end” lines is them taking advantage of a void in the marketplace that they themselves created!
But, in general, the idea of luxury in fashion today is quite manipulative. Cheap, cute fashion is so easy to come by that consumers are being duped by the idea of “exclusive, luxury” fashion that they overpay for.
Consumers need to know what a fair price for fashion is — I’ll give you an example from the J. Crew website. Their $268 wool houndstooth pants are a wardrobe staple and a good investment piece, while their $600 Fair Isle turtleneck is a joke. The website says it has handknit construction, which is trying to make the consumer think it’s handknit. I bet it’s not. Secondly, it says it’s “imported.” If it was imported from Italy, the website would say as much, and the price would reflect Italian wages and craftsmanship. Most likely, it was made in China, which means even if it’s made out of great yarn, it should cost less than $200 or $300. The sale price is $279, so you can see just how much it was originally marked up.
Author photo: Keri Wiginton
A very different trend for the last few years has been the “heritage” trend. People are shopping for labels that have a history and a reputation for quality. Here in Portland, local labels like Pendleton are huge. Do you think this trend is being driven by consumers, and why?
I think there is a general trend towards nostalgia, support of domestic brands and manufacturing, and classic clothes that aren’t trend-driven. I think it’s driven by fatigue from trends changing constantly (what’s the point of keeping up with fashion if it changes every week?) and it comes from a place of genuine concern for the economy and jobs here. Let’s hope it sticks. I love Pendleton.
You talk a bit about personal style and the way sewing can free us from the homogeneity of fast fashion. Do you think this desire for self-expression is at odds with the desire to have less?
Fast fashion feeds off consumers not knowing their own style. It depends on us just slavishly buying whatever these stores dictate as “fashion.” I think expressing yourself through clothes is about knowing yourself and your own personal style and knowing what kinds of silhouettes, colors, or prints that you like to wear. Knowing that means you naturally stop buying things that only get worn once or sit in the back of your closet; Instead, you buy things that you wear all the time and return to season after season. It’s far less less wasteful and disposable.
I recently read a review of Overdressed on Goodreads that questioned whether the solutions to fast fashion that you offer, particularly sewing your own clothes, are realistic. Why do you think a practice that was widespread just a few decades ago is now considered by most women to be completely impractical?
I think the goal with sewing should be to increase the percentage of home-sewers and to make it accessible to more people, but it’s not going to be like with food, where everyone fancies themselves a chef nowadays.
I never say in Overdressed that all women should return to sewing and sew their own clothes, as an alternative to fast fashion. I talked about the decline of sewing to show a contrast to where we are today–where, as you say, it’s seen as so foreign and impractical.
I think learning to sew makes people better consumers, and that those who have no interest in it should still consider using a seamstress or a tailor to make sure their clothes give them the best fit. I think people see it as impractical because it is very time-intensive and takes a lot of time to be good at it.
It’s definitely skilled-labor–another reason why I harped on it. I know that more than ever, having tried my hand at it for several years now. I think the goal with sewing should be to increase the percentage of home-sewers and to make it accessible to more people, but it’s not going to be like with food, where everyone fancies themselves a chef nowadays.
Towards the end of the book, you talked about learning to sew yourself. I’m curious about how that’s gone for you! Are you still finding it satisfying?
Yes, I still sew, but I mostly use my machine to alter my clothes versus sewing from scratch. I have a collection of about 50 band t-shirts, and when I buy a new one, I sit down and refashion it into a tank top or something similar. Before I go to a concert, I’m often on my machine resewing a shirt that I’m going to wear that night. I also still like to buy items from the thrift store and tweak them; usually I take the sleeves or the hem up.
As I’ve said a number of times in this interview, learning to sew completely changed me as a consumer. I am obsessed with tailored pieces now. I own a blazer and tailored skirt by Helmut Lang that I could run my hands over all day and just sit and study. These items are impeccable: The way they are put together, the seams, the linings, the details, the trim, everything is so perfect. I would never have noticed something like that before learning to sew. And now I’m OBSESSED with clothes that are carefully and thoughtfully constructed with all those little old-school details. Seriously obsessed.
Thanks so much to Elizabeth for taking the time to dive into these questions with me.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Overdressed.