In her book Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline opens by talking about guilty shopping habits. The adrenaline rush of a 50% off sale. The “You like this? I only paid $10 for this bag,” brag. The pure joy of a full shopping bag.
When I bought this book, I was doing wardrobe styling to justify a shopping addiction. I had been plus size much of my life and cared more about the hunt for cute clothes in my size than the places they came from. But reading Over-Dressed held a mirror up to my bad habits (not to mention my credit card debt) and what I saw was far from cute:
We’re buying more fashion but paying less than ever before.
This fact doesn’t exist because the fashion industry learned how to do pricing right; it’s because they cut human corners – and we, the customers, pressured them to do it. Reading Over-Dressed meant that I couldn’t walk into a store and pretend not to know anything anymore. I knew the true cost.
With my love of fashion at odds with my conscience, I spent a year buying only used clothing and discovered that I was really good at it. I was finding better clothing and spending less. I never turned up to a party wearing the same dress as someone else.
When a job in fashion landed in my lap about a year later, I almost immediately asked the CEO if his business was ethical. He told me that the tailors were independent and set their own hours and rates. He said every item was made to order, so it was more sustainable. Hello, dream job! Unfortunately, I learned the hard way how easy it is for fashion companies to lie or tell half-truths, especially when the entire supply chain is overseas.
Pictures from our “factory” were staged with models in another building. “Independent tailors” can sometimes be code for “contract workers,” meaning that they don’t get the same labor rights and benefits as full-time workers.
My gut told me something wasn’t right.
There were other signs, too. In the summer months, our dresses began arriving with grease stains. China was experiencing a heatwave, and the sewing machines were leaking oil. Hot machines mean hot people. Quality suffered overall. I sat in my office thinking, can we not afford to get the factory a decent A/C? While fielding complaints from pissed off customers whose custom dress didn’t fit right. I left after just ten months.
Reading Over-Dressed changed my life as a clothes horse, but this job had changed the way I saw the fashion business entirely as a stylist.
I’ll forever think about the nameless people who made our clothes in the factory (or factories?) I never got to see. What was the truth? I’ll probably never know.
What I do know is that as a stylist, it’s my job to dress my clients in clothing they can feel good about, and not just when it comes to fit. Brands like Eileen Fisher and Nooworks make it possible for me to shop for them with a clean conscience. The more we support these brands, the more we’re sending a message to retailers that we care about more than just “cheap.”