Book review: Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family with some amazing seamstresses.  My grandmother went to a needlecrafts trade school during the Depression, had done piecework in a factory before getting married, and continued to be a sewing machine master well into her later years.  My mom is quite gifted on the machine, too, and even (to my embarrassment at the time) made me a Vogue inspired wardrobe as a kid.  My aunt had dreams of being a fashion designer and while she eventually settled into another career, she seems to always return to sewing.

Little me modeling one of the outfits my mom made.

Growing up, I remember my mom and grandmother always touching fabric, checking seams, and reading fiber content labels before we bought any clothes.  My mom would always insist on natural fibers and would often exchange clothing gifts made with synthetic fibers.

Perhaps it was this training or maybe it is because I generally hate the process of shopping, but I’ve never really been one for fast fashion. I prefer infrequent shopping and buying simple classics which can last many years.  In the past few years, though, I’ve found even seasonal clothing shopping more and more difficult.  This has especially become challenging as I’ve advanced in my career and had to move away from my favorite wardrobe staples (jeans and t-shirts).  Searching for women’s business casual or business attire has been a real turn-off lately.  Between the trendy styles, bold colors and prints, and shoddy construction, I’ve been less and less likely to actually purchase anything during my visits to the stores.  Earlier this year, I professed my desire to start sewing garments to a friend of mine.  (Yes, it is a real goal for 2013!)  I even talked my mom into giving me some garment sewing lessons once she sets up her sewing machine again.

With all of this swirling around in my mind, in mid-September, I came across this thread in the Designers group on Ravelry.  I became very intrigued, and requested a review copy of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline from NetGalley.  (Elizabeth previously blogged at The Good Closet.)

I read the book slowly, over the course of a rather busy month, and while I have already recommended it to several people, I found it a very difficult book to review.  I think this is because Overdressed is really several books inside of one jacket (or, in my case, inside one Kindle e-book).

I loved the book that felt like it was written by an investigative journalist exploring the ins and outs of fast fashion.  I learned a lot about the history of the fashion industry and how it moved from seasonal cycles to fast fashion cycles.  The explorations of the labor, environmental, economic, and social aspects of fast fashion were interesting and thought provoking, and I’ve already had conversations with several friends and family about the contents.  I also appreciated the conversation about DIY and upcycled fashion and the introduction to many bloggers, designers, and store owners involved in the “slow fashion” movement (but that’s probably no surprise!).  I would give that book 5 stars and recommend it far and wide.

There’s another side of the book which is about Elizabeth’s personal exploration through this world. I’m not sure if it was because I couldn’t relate to her experiences of binge shopping or because my inner-women’s-college-alumna was alarmed by her seemingly ignorant approach to many encounters, but I was not at all pulled in by these stories.  On occasion, it seems like Elizabeth is “playing dumb” to reach a broader audience.  (Could the same woman who thoroughly researched the history of a multi-national industry really have thought she could easily travel to various locations in China when she doesn’t speak a word of Chinese without a car or a guide until someone suggested she needed a driver?)   I felt as though she tried to combine a book that appealed to readers of serious non-fiction with one aimed at shopaholics and folks looking for something “lighter” to read.  Personally, I found the switch back and forth a bit disjointed, although perhaps it will bring in readers who aren’t already comfortable with critiquing the industry.

And then, there was the editing and formatting.  There were many instances of words running together without spaces in between (looking something like this: wordsrunningtogetherwithoutspacesinbetween) and there were noticeable editing mistakes.  I have not previously had that experience with any book published by a major publisher (in this case, Penguin’s Portfolio imprint).  I was always able to infer what Elizabeth was trying to convey, but I found this aspect of the book unsettling. It felt a bit like “fast publishing” to me.

Back to my original quandary: How do I review this book?  I think the content is important and it is mostly an engaging and well-researched book.  I can’t in good conscience give it a 5 star review, though.  If my review were based purely on editing and formatting, I would probably have to give it 2 stars.  If I were rating the “Elizabeth’s personal conversion to slow fashionista” sub-plot, I would probably give the book 3 stars.  So I guess in the end, I will give it 4 stars but with this warning – I recommend that you read Overdressed, think about it’s content, and talk about it.  But be prepared for poor editing and formatting, and to be slightly urked by some of Elizabeth’s purported ignorance.

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