Salon has a great review of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline. The environmental and social impact of inexpensive, mass-made clothing is an issue that is finally gaining some much deserved traction. Cline has been called the “Michael Pollan of fashion” and both her book and her Tumblr pose a number of eye opening questions for fashion companies and consumers alike.
Over my trip to Madrid last week, I found myself thinking of Cline’s book as I passed store after store near Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, offering deals on tops, dresses, and skirts for a mere 2-5 Euros! While I love a great bargain, I was turned off by seeing the same trends repeated in a multitude of colors and prints in the same synthetic fabrics and didn’t bother to approach the garish storefronts.
How did fashion get so cheap? Corporations like H&M and Forever 21 manufacture massive amounts of clothing using inexpensive, low quality fabrics and cheap labor in developing countries and don’t need to charge a large markup to make a profit. Fashion runways showcase new trends every season and consumers are somehow programmed to believe that we have to buy and sport the latest styles, (i.e. nautical stripes! grandfather cardigans!). The only way to keep up with the constant changes — I’ve seen many a women’s magazine recommend this– is to purchase an inexpensive version of the runway trend and invest only in classic pieces. Sadly, it seems that the majority of us have forsaken investment in long lasting wardrobe staples for a cheap thrill and a whole lot of retail therapy.
Our addiction to fast fashion has resulted in the decline of the U.S. garment industry and the reduction of worker wages. Beyond the economic and social impacts of our fashion habit, there are many environmental effects. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, and acrylic made using chemicals derived from coal and oil harm the workers who manufacture them and pollute our waterways as they are created and washed. Consider the 68 pounds of textiles per person per year that are wasted. If you browse the racks of Goodwill today, you’ll notice a whole lot of H&M from 2002.
So, how can we as consumers and fashionistas band together to help put an end to all this waste? How can we use fashion to express ourselves in a more sustainable way?
Step 1: Audit your closet
In the spirit of this post, I tore apart my closet last night: 10 black tank tops, 7 pairs of black leggings, 8 LBDs later, I had a eureka moment! Cline’s thesis is no joke. Upon inspecting the labels of some of my favorites, I noticed that while my vintage Missoni wrap dress was 100% silk, my new 40’s -inspired polka dot dress bought over my birthday weekend at L.A’s fabulous mecca of vintage and indie labels, Wasteland was 100% polyester. Additional label comparison confirmed that those garments made from natural fibers i.e. 100% silk and cotton which feel the best on your skin (try wearing polyester on a humid day) also last longer and wear better than those garments made of synthetics which exhibited rampant pilling, shrinkage and discoloration.
A fastidious friend of mine who happened to be on phone advised me how to go about sorting and organizing my clothing. Below you will find two links that detail closet organization. Martha’s color coding tip will provide some real style insight and Real Simple’s 1st tip will make the process of getting dressed much easier.
links on closet organizing
Once you know your inventory, claims of “I’ve got nothing to wear” become unfounded. With a little creativity, you can rework old outfits or accessorize your basics rather than hitting up the racks of fast fashion for an unsustainable solution.
Step 2: Take care of what you have
The washing machine/dryer combo pretty much destroys your clothing. Especially synthetic fabrics like rayon and acrylic. Try as much as possible to let your clothing air dry after the washing machine. In Spain, we had an adorable laundry line with clothespins that did the trick! For urban dwellers, the container store makes a fun apparatus with multiple clips and drying racks you can keep in your bathtub. For delicates, like lingerie, bathing suits, embellished pieces, and even a nice T-shirt you want to hold on to, I highly recommend hand washing. In the winter, wool sweators can last for many seasons if properly cared for. See Ecouterre’s guide here. Another great investment is a steamer, a relatively inexpensive gadget that not only sanitizes your clothing (correct me if I’m being grimy here) but also de-wrinkles them.
Step 3: Learn to Sew
A stylish, petite friend of mine, a former devotee of H&M, who always looks like a million bucks in the fast fashion empire’s pleather riding boots, has recently become much more conscious of her wardrobe choices. She recently enrolled in sewing lessons and rather than frequenting the H&M flagship a few times a month, now visits the Housing Works’ Warehouse Sale in Long Island City to dig for old designer clothing and nice fabrics that she can rework.
Step 4: SWAP
My college roommates and I turned a spare bedroom in our suite into the “Communal Closet.” We threw in a rolling clothing rack and set up a pop up boutique where we housed clothing and accessories we no longer cared to have in our own closets. The 6 roommates had free reign to borrow or take anything and a few lucky friends even got a chance to visit the Communal Closet and sample its wares, a fun way to get dressed before a night of revelry. Before graduation, we held a big sale on our campus quad to get rid of what was still left and even repeated the swap tradition a few times as young professionals. Nowadays, I have the great fortune of having a sister in law with the most exquisite taste (She goes for the aforementioned investment pieces) who generously shares and passes down what she no longer wears. Find a friend in your size and trade.
Step 5: Go on a shopping diet
Another fashionable pixie friend, Itinerant Daughter, whose closet I’ve long admired, pursued a very impressive year long ascetic existence and did not purchase a single new item of clothing– or anything else. She was allowed to accept gifts (her mother picks out some fabulous Christmas presents!) and purchase a new bottle of face wash (provided it was the same brand as the one she had) if she ran out. I was fascinated by her self control and we talked about her mission often. While I know there were a few temptations, she did not succumb to her Amex. I’m not suggesting abstinence for everyone, but please think about what you are supporting when you stand online at Forever 21. Your mini floral print romper will likely end up in a dumpster and besides, you don’t really need another $5 black tank top do you?
Step 6: If you must shop, patronize thrift and vintage stores and Know Your Fabrics!
One of my favorite fashion memories as a child is visiting a thrift store in upstate New York with my mom’s free spirited friend Barbara who after a little digging uncovered two beautiful 50s style dresses with fitted bodices and flared skirts: the first in red satin and wool and the second in creme organza with salmon floral embroidery. Total cost: $10 I continue to wear both of her fantastic finds despite the fact that they were purchased in 1994, and created several decades prior. She pointed out the luxurious feel and cut of the fabric and waxed poetic about how women used to dress! This early lesson not only inspired my love of thrifting and vintage clothing but also the habit of inspecting the fabric blend before I purchase. Today, this habit has saved me from many a polyester blend dress posing as silk. Even in some of the nicer designer lines, you’d be surprised at what you’re paying for. Uncover a treasure on the musty racks of your local salvation army (make sure to wash clothing in hot water and keep in an air tight plastic bag until you do), troll ebay for an old school Dior purse, or save your pennies for that one of a kind couture gown at a well curated vintage boutique. To me, vintage is a way of melding the colorful history of the past and the present imperative for sustainability, a worthwhile investment indeed.
At the end of a great trip to Spain (stay tuned for more details), I ended up with just one purchase. A delicate ’20s style black headpiece hand made by the wonderful ladies at Luka Moon. Supporting young female entrepreneurs and buying a one- of- a-kind accessory is something they call putting your money where your mouth is.