I am the antithesis of a fashion guru. I spent twelve years in sweats and T-shirts as stay at home mom. If I don’t like the colors of the year, I don’t buy clothes. I wear what I like, whether it’s gypsy skirts, rhinestones, boatnecks, or a tiara. I have a 20-year old bridesmaid’s dress that has more miles on it than my “regular” clothes, and a 15-year old coat with a broken zipper that I repaired with velcro and folk-art trim. I go to a mall maybe twice a year, when I can’t avoid it. I have a hoard of patterns I’ll pull out and whip up shirts or shorts or skirts from old clothes or sheets. So I am at a total loss about why I like reading books about fashion and purchasing. Maybe because it’s so foreign to me, it becomes a peep-show into another world.
My curiosity began with the book Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster by Dana Thomas. Thomas traces the rise of super-elite fashion items, from Vuitton to Chanel to Burberry and more – names I know only from magazine ads. What began as high-quality, individually hand-crafted merchandise, as was almost inevitable, is now made almost exclusively overseas to boost profits. The quality has decreased along with it, but not the price. After reading how these super-designers began as simple sewers who went home and made their own creations, I pulled out my sewing machine, designed and sewed my own custom-tailored handbags, and vowed never to purchase someone else’s design again.
In Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth Cline, Cline focuses on how the clothing industry has taken a dive since the 1990’s. By 2000, almost all clothing production has moved overseas in an attempt to maintain high profits and offer low, low prices. The 2000s saw the rise of Fast Fashion, meaning stores try to be in perpetual production, having new items every week instead of seasonally at the sacrifice of quality, style, and size, with some companies able to follow trends from concept to store in as little as six weeks. The marketing scheme of low, low prices is disastrous for the environment and for the economy, balanced on people who compulsively buy more than they can afford and possibly wear, items that fall apart after three washings and then are thrown away at the rate of hundreds of tons per month – mostly polyester, which is uncomfortable, not recyclable, and not even useful as rags – and no, neither the Salvation Army nor the poor of Africa want these useless third-rate garments. It creates the sweatshops and child labor of Asia, where the focus is on ever-cheaper labor costs to maintain profit – modern slavery. It has destroyed the US garment industry, and put thousands of US workers out of jobs.
In Cheap: The The High Cost of Discount Culture, by Ellen Ruppert Shell, Shell covers much the same idea but in the concept of our press-board, Ikea-Walmart-Dollar Store culture. Instead of buying fewer high-quality goods that may last decades, our instant-gratification society is held up with super-cheap garbage that might last a year, if lucky. As forests are cut away to make the pulp that goes into throw-away furniture, as the demand for metals goes up to furnish wire or aluminum for lamps and chairs, the ecology of entire communities can be laid waste – let alone trying to find landfill space for all the broken cheap items. Cheap is nowhere near as cheap as you think it is. While Shell makes many interesting and valid points, at times her book slipped into heavy economics, which made my head spin. Skip the numbers, read the rest of the book.
In Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value and How to Take Advantage of It, William Poundstone discusses the psychology involved in pricing items and making purchases. Do you remember the gas crises of the ’70’s, when gas stations waged war by dropping to 48 6/10ths, or 54 and 3/10ths instead of 9/10ths? And we rushed to save a quarter of a penny? Do you wonder how stores can afford to give 60% sale and stay in business? Or why you jump for joy when you snatch an item at Marshall’s that reads $59 – Compare at $135 and think you’re getting the steal of the century? Did you know that people will work for chocolate with the same behaviors as for money? Poundstone discusses how consumers are manipulated by very precise, controlled, and deliberate pricing strategies meant to maximize profit and induce you to buy – and how you can avoid those traps.
Nothing in this world comes without a price. Fashion, art, craftsmanship, and superb quality are becoming lost to generations in our quest not for beautiful items that will last years, but for more, more, more, more, an unsustainable chant fueled by governments that don’t know what else to say, most of which winds up in landfills where it may take more than a century to degrade. Choose wisely when making purchases, think about where the product is made, is it made with fair trade wages, is it good for the planet. If you do buy, no matter what quality or price, always remember: reduce, reuse, recycle.