Author Elizabeth Cline has a serious bone to pick with Michelle Obama.
While the oft-emulated first lady makes public appearances wearing inexpensive pieces from mass retailers like J.Crew, Banana Republic and Ann Taylor, Cline, who just penned her first book "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost Of Cheap Fashion," can't seem to wrap her head around why the nation glorifies Obama's so-called "American" style. Obama, Cline argues, wears precisely the kind of apparel that Cline rants against in her book -- factory-produced, cheaply made and environmentally dubious.
"I think it's ridiculous that she's always lauded as this example of democratic fashion or that she's so American because her fashion is accessible," Cline told The Huffington Post. "The reality is that the garment and textile trade has been a dying industry for the last 10 years. So why are we so excited when we see our first lady in cheap, imported clothes?"
Even though Cline has turned a critical eye to the first lady's wardrobe, it wasn't too long ago that her own closet was similar to Obama's, something her book's opening anecdote reveals. Just a few years ago, Cline frequently shopped at a crowded, big-city Kmart. One day, while struggling to lug the seven pairs of $7 flats she just purchased, she had a life-altering epiphany.
"I remember getting home that day and just feeling really ashamed of myself," Cline said. "I also remember that the shoes just smelled toxic, like there were fumes coming off of them. That made me wonder what the environmental impact of what I was doing was."
The New York-based journalist claims that her distaste for shopping in general led her to the high-volume fashion consumption that has become ubiquitous in many first-world nations. Cheap global retailers like Forever 21, H&M and Zara churn out clothes faster than ever before and have made it so that picking up a T-shirt on the way to the office takes just as little thought as grabbing a cup of coffee from the deli around the corner. "There's nothing in my opinion more passive than shopping," Cline said.
So what's the actual harm in buying a $5 top? As every garment becomes literally disposable, Cline argues that what many shoppers consider savvy -- buying cheap and buying often -- is leading to a collective dissatisfaction with our own wardrobes. Even worse, she said this incredibly high level of demand is precisely what's feeding the beast, fueling a seemingly endless cycle of massive consumption, discontent and waste production that's harming our psyches, the environment and the economy.
If Target dresses are really so bad, then why do we consistently stock our wardrobes with them? Money is an obvious factor -- mass-produced fashion is cheap, something that's especially alluring during a global recession. But another problem is that the way apparel markets are driven has left us with no choice, according to Cline. Just decades ago, many garments were produced domestically, and women got chic clothes at their local, mid-priced dressmaker or by sewing the garment themselves. People were able to make educated shopping decisions because they knew how to think about clothes. The lost art of sewing is one of the many culprits of our current situation, she said.
"There used to be a way to buy things that were affordable and made in the U.S. and the first lady would wear them," Cline said. "Now we've got this system where you're either in designer clothes that no one can afford or you're in cheap, imported clothes. I think, if anything, [Michelle Obama] should make people feel sad about the state of the fashion industry."
We also wanted to ask Cline about one of the most prominent style figures across the pond: the Duchess of Cambridge. "I like Kate Middleton because she'll wear the same thing twice in 10 days," she said. The duchess has been known to not only publicly wear garments multiple times but also to shop at consignment stores, another cornerstone of Cline's shopping philosophy.
In reality, it's easy to play devil's advocate to Cline's sentiments about these notable dressers. (Michelle Obama has repeated garments on multiple occasions while the duchess' 100 percent polyester Zara dress sold out within hours on the store's website.) But Cline's major point is that while the duchess and Obama are public figures with economic means, the dilemma is much tougher for those without stylists or trunkloads of free threads. Cline said there truly is no winning when it comes to mindful, "cheap" shopping -- bummer.
The American thirst for stylish clothes at budget prices has become the norm. Designer collaborations with cheap, high volume retailers like Target, Kohl's and Uniqlo (many of which produce garments in China under questionable conditions) have caused shoppers to come out in droves to get their hands on luxury brand names.
Swedish chain store H&M recently announced its latest collaboration with Maison Martin Margiela. Margiela's designs have achieved cult status, and this latest venture with the mass retailer has become highly anticipated amongst a population that would scoff at the price of the brand's $6,000 poncho currently being sold on Barneys.com. Operating on these two price point extremes seems to be the fashion industry standard.
"They create this demand for products that [consumers] can't afford," Cline said. "And then they'll come along and they'll do a really chintzy, low-end line. It's like, how about you just produce a mid-market line if you're so interested in being democratic?"
Although Cline's approach may seem daunting, she's not suggesting a return to sewing garments from scratch, but rather, as a nation, reconnecting with the process of garment construction to make more conscious choices about how we shop, whether it's by recognizing a durable stitch or by simply checking the tag to see where it was produced. The solution Cline recommends involves no additional money -- just more discernment on the part of consumers. Instead of spending $20 on two cheaply made tops, she said, save those $20s for a few months to buy one ethically made item.
As dim as the situation seems, Cline said it's really an opportunity for tastemakers like Obama and the duchess to use their style influence to reinstate the relationship that we once had with our clothing and to shift the gluttonous demand that currently dominates the way we shop. That, she said, would certainly be a step toward true fashion democracy.
Take a look back at some designer collaborations. Do you think they're worth it?
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