Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book Review: "Overdressed"

My wife and I recently read "Overdressed; the Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion," by Elizabeth Cline, and we can recommend it with some reservations.  First the excellent; with what seems to be pretty keen instincts for reporters these days, Ms. Cline details the collapse of the U.S. clothing industry and some fairly shocking conditions and realities at clothing manufacturers and clothing retailers.  Those who wonder how "fashion" houses with little to add like Abercrombie and Fitch, Gap, and Old Navy manage to survive will marvel at the marketing acumen used by these stores.

The book also details a process I commend; Ms. Cline's transformation from an addict of cheap fashions to a careful selector of better quality clothing--often vintage clothing.  This is something I can heartily commend, as I am wearing a 25 year old sweater right now.  (gift from my mom, Irish lambs-wool)  Apparently, she want from over 350 garments (pants, skirts, shorts, shirts, jackets, everything but undergarments) to a bit less than 100, and I can only say "well done."

While Ms. Cline has demonstrated quite well how to reform her own life, however, it's my opinion that she short-changes the reader in terms of the real costs suffered by those who are in a way "addicted" to the latest thing from their favorite store. 

Specifically, my 100 or so garments (not doing as well as Ms. Cline in this, sad to say) fill the top three drawers in a dresser and about four feet of closet space--including about two feet of shelves partially shared with blanket storage--take approximately 20 square feet of storage space.  Now if I triple that, my clothes would require about 60-80 square feet of storage space.  With a "cost to build or buy" of about $100/square foot, a "primo" A&F or Old Navy wardrobe for myself would cost me somewhere between $4000 and $6000--enough to buy a custom suit from a bespoke tailor, my wife reminds me.  Multiply that cost by my family size of eight, and it's enough to buy a brand new SUV.   Which, by the way, we recently did--one could argue our family's thrift in clothing has a very real benefit to us.

(we heartily recommend the GMC Acadia, by the way....solid all the way through)

Along the same lines, there is a cost in comfort.  Our family's mostly "natural fiber" wardrobe simply performs better in cold weather and hot, allowing us to keep the house a bit cool (65) in winter and a bit warm (78) in summer, saving us a good chunk of money on utilities--and my employer on space heaters that I do not use.  (there is that gift from my mom again)  The linen shirt my wife made me is cooler than a bare chest in the sun. 

This leads to a third major savings with good clothing; while other families are gathered around the TV in winter and summer to take advantage of climate control while they wear their poly-cotton blends and polyester stretch knits, my family is out skating, skiing, bicycling, and the like.  So just as a $10,000 bicycle has a pretty decent ROI (return on investment) when you consider the medical benefits of physical activity, so does decent clothing.  Just take a look at Lileks' pictures of men waiting for the trolley fifty years ago; think about doing that in poly blends and shiver.  Consider where people are at the church picnic in the summer--think that some people in the shelter might do well to consider real cotton?  I think so.

Two other places where I disagreed with the author were about her position on unions, and her position on natural fibers.  With regards to unions, her consistent refrain assumes that if only the workers in Bangladesh were unionized, things would be better--but the reality is that when the Maersk Line is ordering ten ships that dwarf the Emma Maersk, a union in Bangladesh will only result in production moving to Pakistan, India, or other developing countries.  Unions work well with capital-bound industries, but not so well with industries that can move as easily as clothing production.

Regarding fiber, is often claimed that there are not enough natural fibers to clothe the world, and just for kicks, I looked it up.  Between cotton, wool, linen, and hemp, there are about 27 million tons of natural fibers produced worldwide each year--about 8-9 lbs. per person, or about (assuming average of 6 oz. fabric) about 23 yards per person.  It takes about two yards of fabric to make a shirt or pair of pants for a large adult--so if you're keeping your wool shirts for 20 years, cotton shirts for 3-5 years, and your slacks for a decade (as I do), you're going to have little problem getting most of your clothing in natural fibers.  This is especially the case when you consider leather for clothing as well.

Plus, you'll be more likely to be able to afford that nice new SUV and the high end bicycle to ride when  you're not in the SUV.  Your doctor will be happy to wait for the business, I hope, and maybe it'll help prevent further debacles like the collapse in a clothing factory in Bangladesh last year that took over 1000 lives.

Well done, Ms. Cline, and may your reporting grow to understand the nuts and bolts of corporate governance, and may your wardrobe grow ever more delightful.

1 comment:

Hearth said...

I really enjoyed that book - I keep trying to press it on my friends and family. It's shocking to think that I spend about as much on a blouse at a department store today as I did when I was in highschool... if not less.

-thinks happy thoughts about setting your wife loose in the garment district-