Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth L. Cline (Portfolio Hardcover, 256 pp., $25.95)

Earlier this month, the Ralph Lauren apparel house unveiled its designs for the U.S. Olympic team. Outrage soon erupted. The outfits—replete with berets—were made in China. House Speaker John Boehner said Lauren should have known better; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that the clothes belonged in a bonfire.

On one level, it makes zero sense for American politicians to be surprised that our Olympic athletes wear clothing made by young Chinese women most likely living in dormitories (the labels don’t identify the particular factory). As Elizabeth Cline writes in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, “a staggering 41 percent of our [imported] clothes are now made” in China, a figure that has more than doubled in a half-decade. America manufactures only 2 percent of its own clothes these days, “down from about 50 percent in 1990.”

Chinese clothes—and, to a lesser extent, Bangladeshi, Indian, and Dominican clothes—are cheap. “We pay less for clothes, when measured as a share of our income, than ever in history,” she writes: 3 percent today, a fifth of the percentage we spent a century ago. “Clothing is a better bargain than ever,” so much so that buying clothes “often feels inconsequential.” Because buying a sundress can be cheaper than buying lunch, Americans now purchase 64 garments, annually, on average—more than one per week. Since 1950, world fiber use is up more than eightfold, while the population has less than tripled.

Terrific, right? Everyone has more variety and choice than ever before. Well into the 1980s, Americans spent their clothing dollars at boring stores like Sears—and only when the seasons changed. Now, they see cool emporiums, such as H&M and Forever 21, everywhere they look. The stores, open late, feature the latest designer knockoffs at low prices. “Where is the Zara?,” a tourist asked me breathlessly outside Lincoln Center last week. I had to calculate which of three that I walk by nearly daily was closest.

You get what you pay for, though. “Half our wardrobe is now made of plastic,” Cline writes, as Chinese-made polyester now dominates closets. Cotton and wool cost money. The plastic isn’t well-stitched, either. Massive factories use cheap, simple stitches to get the product out the door. One 67-year-old woman tells Cline that the hems on her childhood dolls’ clothes were better than hems on modern human clothes. Look around, and you’ll see people wearing ill-fitting or sleeveless garments, because tailoring takes work. “The more basic clothes are, the less it matters where they’re made,” Cline notes. “A tank top can be made anywhere in the world.” And if you ever wondered why today’s adult women often look as though they just came from hosting a child’s make-believe party, it’s because retailers hide bad fabrics and stitching with glued-on bows, sparkles, and trinkets.

As for accessibility and variety, Cline notes that you can’t compare what a nice dress cost three decades, half a century, or even a century ago—a few hundred dollars in today’s inflated currency—with what it costs in 2012. Why? Because back then, people could sew. If a middle-class or working-class woman wanted a designer knockoff, she wouldn’t go to Zara and buy one for $10; she would select a pattern and a fabric, and get to work. Women’s and girls’ magazines featured sewing tips. Poorer people, especially children, had higher-quality charity castoffs. Look at an archival photo of a postwar kid at Coney Island, and you’ll see that he’s better dressed than today’s kids.

Sure, the rich can pay up for a nice outfit—thousands of dollars for a well-made dress or suit. But even the wealthy must practice caveat emptor; a top designer will try to sell you a $1,000 sweater made in China, with the label better hidden. And less-than-rich luxury seekers who choose a name-label polo top over a generic one aren’t getting higher quality. As Cline puts it, consumers have learned to ask themselves, “Why buy a $75 Ralph Lauren polo shirt when it’s not any better than the store-brand polo on the rack at Target?” When a Shenzhen factory finishes its two shifts for a label, it often will run an identical third shift for the generic market.

The sure fix for a shopaholic is to visit a charity store’s intake warehouse. You may think that when you get tired of that glitter-glued blouse, a poorer person will benefit from looking stylish. You dutifully bring the garment over to the Salvation Army, feeling virtuous. Well, the Salvation Army intake center for Brooklyn and Queens takes in five tons of the stuff you don’t want to wear any more every day. Most of it doesn’t go to the secondhand store. It’s baled like yesterday’s paper and sold by the pound to salvage shops. These modern-day rag-and-bone dealers sort and sell last season’s dress to rag-makers, mattress-fillers, and the African wholesale market. In a few years, our U.S. team’s 2012 Olympic attire will end up not on Harry Reid’s bonfire but on a container ship headed to a sub-Saharan port. That’s why a SoHo banker on a weekend jaunt to Eataly is dressed the same as an African famine victim or a Cairo protestor on TV. Even the poorest of the world’s poor can afford to be choosy: Africa has its own brand-new Chinese imports today.

The rollicking story Cline tells after having traveled to two continents and visited factories in Latin America and Asia is emblematic of a bigger problem. The West is awash in poorly made junk, and not just clothes. A poor person has her pick of furniture, televisions, and accessories, too—many of them new. Just try giving “gently used” furniture to the Salvation Army. They won’t take it if it has the slightest scratch to the finish or misaligned drawer. “They only want Fabergé eggs,” my husband snorted after the stewards of the downtrodden rejected bedroom furniture that suited us perfectly fine for a decade—and another decade before that for the woman from whom we bought it.

And who can blame the care centers for being choosy? What the poor need isn’t cheap clothes or end tables, but goods much harder for middle-class people to bestow: quality educations and safe, quiet neighborhoods. So unless you want to dump your stuff illegally on the street or invite Internet strangers to your house, you’ve got to pay to have it taken away—and you’ll often pay more than new stuff costs.

Overdressed should appeal to conservatives, liberals, and people who just want tips on how to dress better for less money and time. Conservatives will blanch at the fact that much of the cheap purchasing Cline describes was done with borrowed money. How many people still carry credit-card or home-equity debt for clothes now sitting in an African dump, and how long can we sustain an economy based on disposable consumerism? Liberals will recoil at the environmental cost of making faddish clothes out of oil byproducts and chemically treated trees. And regular people are tired of looking dumpy—and underdressed, not overdressed—after spending all of that money and energy shopping.

Cline’s solutions aren’t top-down, but bottom-up. She doesn’t want the government to close the market to Chinese imports, and she makes no strong appeal for better environmental and labor regulations. Instead, quoting a secondhand clothing dealer who says that we should blame ourselves, not the stores, she urges people to think more before they act. She points out that we can derive much joy out of sewing our own clothes, and that over time, it’s cheaper and faster than constantly shopping (I’ve found this to be true: my handmade dress shirts last for years, and making one beats spending a day shopping for constant replacements).

Cline acknowledges, though, that most people don’t have the time or the inclination to make clothes. Instead, people can build “a wardrobe over time, saving up and investing in well-made pieces.” People should also look at fabrication labels inside clothing before they buy, paying a few dollars more for cotton than for polyester. People should buy shoes that can be resoled and seek out a local tailor or seamstress—there’s usually one at the dry cleaner’s—who can alter or mend your clothes when necessary. (One tip she doesn’t mention, but that helps extend clothing life and saves money, too: don’t use a dryer; instead, use a foldable wooden rack.) Now that she’s reformed from buying nearly a dozen pairs of shoes only to see them fall apart within weeks or months, Cline writes, “I don’t spend more per year than I used to, and yet I own much nicer stuff that looks better on me. What a concept.”

She’s right: buying wisely works. About half a decade ago, I told myself that I wouldn’t buy clothes made in China. Looking at labels for the country of origin has long been more fun for me than actual shopping. The “Made in China” marker has stopped me from buying $8 tank tops and $800 dresses. I’m for free trade, but I’m also for personal responsibility. Since I help make the market in my own small way, I ought to know what I’m buying and where it came from. Being more discriminating saves money, time, and space as well. In one midrange store a few years back, a saleslady was helping find things she thought I might like. To save her time, I told her that I didn’t buy China-made. She said cheerfully that “you must not buy very much.” That has become truer over the years.

I’m not alone. The recession and stagnant recovery have curtailed apparel spending. Profits at H&M and other stores are way down. Chinese labor costs—and the cost for raw materials, even synthetic ones—are up. When Chinese factory workers start earning enough to buy the clothes they make, we’ll all pay more. The market works, but in the meantime, people might wise up faster.


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