The U.S. economy may be hovering near a recession, but Americans' wardrobes are growing as rapidly as ever.
On average, people add more than 60 new clothing selections each year to their closets, thanks in part to stores such as Swedish global retailer H&M and the homegrown Forever 21 that regularly stock fresh looks for prices that can rival a Starbuck's latte or a magazine.
But these bargain chains have been bad news for the country's clothing manufacturing industry, aspiring designers and even the environment, according to "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion" ($25.95; Portfolio/Penguin), a new book by Brooklyn-based writer Elizabeth Cline.
"I think it just sort of hit me that Americans were consuming clothing as if it were a disposable good," she says.
This epiphany dawned on her in 2009 after scooping up seven pairs of canvas slip-on shoes on sale at Kmart for $7 per pair. Within a few weeks, she wore them out and grew tired of the style -- a typical trend in today's "buy-and-toss" clothing cycle, she says.
When Ms. Cline took inventory of her wardrobe, she found that years of picking up low-priced finds now and then at Target and T.J. Maxx had added up to more than 350 pieces of apparel.
"In a couple generations, clothing went from something that was very pricey and cherished to something we're consuming on the cheap and consuming in shockingly high numbers," she says.
She pegs the shift to the early '90s, when stores like Old Navy started marketing its affordable merchandise as the smart and chic way to shop.
"There have always been consumers that shopped cheap, but before that it wasn't cool to shop cheap," she says.
Now, finding a designer dress -- or one that looks like one -- for $20 or less is something to brag about. Even first lady Michelle Obama has been spotted in fast-fashion wear from Target and H&M. These chains succeed in luring shoppers back week after week with the promise of new ensembles on their racks, a switch from the days when stores would change their merchandise seasonally and people would return every few months.
Bargain buys may equal bigger wardrobes, but they're usually skimpy on quality, Ms. Cline says, with polyester and acrylic fabrics the main materials. High-end designers also have jumped on the low-cost clothes bandwagon with limited edition capsule collections bearing their names and fast-fashion chains' prices. Missoni for Target, Versace for H&M and Karl Lagerfeld for Macy's are a few examples in recent years.
"What they're really saying is, 'It's OK. You buy clothing and treat it as if it's disposable,' " Ms. Cline says. "The quality of these capsule collections just isn't really there. ... Then you're just buying the name. I don't really understand what the consumer is getting out of that bargain."
On the opposite end, a hunger for fashions with high price points still exists, she says. What's lacking is the middle ground, where people can pay a fair price for something that's decently made.
To keep up with the public's craving for impressively priced fashion, many brands have opted for overseas production in countries such as China, Bangladesh and the Dominican Republic. "To make cheap clothes, you really need cheap labor," Ms. Cline says in the book.
Her research took her to some of these factories, where laborers churn out hundreds and thousands of garments each day for minimal wages, often less than $200 per month.
Some factories in China appeared computerized and technically savvy. "I think that was sort of a wake-up call to me why our garment industry hasn't been able to compete."
Back home, many factories and textile mills have shuttered or operate at a fraction of their capabilities. But Ms. Cline is hopeful the union-made clothing industry -- and people's relationships with their clothes -- can improve.
"I think we've really turned a corner, and people are interested in locally made clothing again," she says.
Since authoring the book, her shopping behaviors have transformed.
"It's like night and day," she says. "I think I really care about quality now, and that's something I don't think I could even recognize before. I really seek out things that are well-made."
Websites such as www.fashioningchange.com invite consumers to share details about their favorite brands and styles, and they'll suggest domestically made and eco-friendly alternatives. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus are a couple of retailers with websites where people can search "USA made" to bring up produced-in-America options. Thrift store surfing is another way to uncover well-made clothing for less.
People also can change their fashion consumption habits by extending the lifespan of their clothes, Ms. Cline says.
"Everybody has so much clothing, so it's really about looking at your wardrobe and really getting creative about making the pieces that you already own work for you," such as by turning a pair of old jeans into a skirt or reinventing an outfit with the help of a tailor. "There are so many ways to re-imagine and get more use out of what we already wear."
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com.