Overdressed Understates Importance of Stagnant Wages

In Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline recounted how American fashion transformed from expensive clothes that featured high quality construction to inexpensive with low quality. She provided many examples of this transformation including blazer, dress, and boots. Early in the book, she discussed how common the $40 blazer has become and how many retailers offer some form of it.

To achieve this price point, Cline noted that the blazer lacked a lining, relied on loose stitching, and included a few plastic buttons. The resulting blazer did not properly fit the owner. Indeed, as Cline concluded about her own appearance in these blazers, the wearer appeared frumpy. Cline spent the rest of the book discussing how the $40 blazer came into existence in the market, and acceptance in the closet.

Late in the book, I found two issues that resonated. One, inexpensive clothing has resulted in the end of fashion and style. The pressure to maintain sales volume eliminated the idea of two seasons (fall/winter, spring/summer) for fashion. Instead, fashion changed every three weeks or so as H&M, Forever 21, and Zara received new shipments of inventory.

Two, inexpensive clothes simply looked horrible on the wearer. Instead of hiding bad areas of the wearer’s body, these inexpensive clothes accentuated those areas because inexpensive clothes hung on the body. Cline overcame this problem by altering the inexpensive clothes with details that were included when clothes cost more money.

Cline detailed her attempts at learning to sow. Next, she employed the simple sowing techniques to alter a dress. This alteration resulted in a dress that better fits and flatters Cline’s figure.

Both of these issues resonated because it explains why Americans – women especially – wore such uninspiring and flat clothing. Fashion over the last 30 years has moved from style and sympathy for the wearer’s figure to flat and cruelty. At one point, clothes were tailored to fit. Now, clothes drape the body in a resulting drab style.

In each chapter, Cline introduced a different component to explain why Americans suffer from inexpensive clothes. Yet, she ignored one component to the point of distraction. Since the early 1980s, American wages have stagnated. When discussing prices of clothes sold in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the book included the price of the item then and in today’s dollars.

Given the cost of modest items sold through Sears, J.C. Penney, and other middle class retailers, Americans today could not afford those items. The middle class can only shop at places like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara because the middle class can only afford those prices. In turn, those retailers reduce the quality to cut the cost of merchandise sold to maintain gross profit. Sears, Penney, and Macy's continue to struggle because their traditional American consumer – the middle class – disappeared over the last 30 years.

Had Cline addressed stagnant wages, her book takes a very different tone and thesis. Instead of looking at Asian manufacturers, mergers in fashion retailer, and the destructiveness of fast fashion, Cline would have spent most of her book discussing and reviewing public policy decisions and political parties’ actions that caused the stagnation of American wages. That book would probably make for greater impact than Overdressed did.

Owner of this top will be lucky to get five washes before it falls apart.