Book: Worn: A Popular History of Clothing
Author: By Sofi Thanhauser
Published by: Pantheon. 375 pages. $30
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“Do you understand muslins, sir? Mrs. Allen asks Mr. Tilney in Jane Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’, baffled that a man should know or care about fabric. Mr. Tilney, it turns out, not only does but can even distinguish “true Indian muslins” from cheap imitations. Ms. Allen’s remark may seem like just a passing detail that establishes her fashion-obsessed nature, but as always with Austen, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
The Indian subcontinent was the birthplace of muslin, a plain weave cotton fabric, for centuries. Indian muslin was as valuable in Rome as it was in China, and in the 16th and 17th centuries it was all the rage in Europe. However, if we rarely talk about muslins today, or if we only come across beautiful Indian muslins in the pages of Jane Austen, there is a reason. British colonialism, which combined aggressive protectionism at home with violent free trade abroad, forced local craftsmen to abandon their craft and turn to cotton farming, leading to a rapid and precipitous decline of a long and beautiful tradition. Indian muslin becomes a rare and sought-after commodity in Europe, while English muslin – cheap, industrial, state-protected – becomes the norm. As Mr. Tilney observes, “Muslin always turns to one account or another.”
“Worn: A People’s History of Clothing” by Sofi Thanhauser is a compilation of many fabric “stories”, from which we learn that if we were a little more curious about our clothes, they would offer us rich, interesting and often surprising. overview of human history. It is a deep and sustained investigation into the origins of what we wear, and what we have worn for the past 500 years, as well as the material conditions and social consequences of their production.
The book is divided into five parts, each dedicated to a particular fabric: linen, cotton, silk, synthetics and wool. Thanhauser travels the world and learns first-hand about the origin of each fabric, the means and manner of its production, its connection to local history and its impact on people’s lives. It also provides the broader historical and anthropological context to show how and to what extent textile manufacturing has been central to major socio-political movements around the world.
Take cotton. The author begins her journey in Lubbock, Texas, where she witnesses a cotton harvest. This allows him to discuss – though not in great detail – the role slavery played in establishing and cultivating a culture of which the United States is now the world’s largest exporter. She counts the environmental debt incurred by cotton: “20,000 liters of water to make a pair of jeans, enough to grow the wheat one person would need to bake a loaf of bread every week for a year.” She describes the devastating effects that herbicides and pesticides have on the ecosystem, as well as on the people working in the fields. She then visits cotton factories in southern India, once the world’s largest supplier of cotton. This gives her the opportunity to examine the devastating effects of British colonialism, as well as those of modern free market practices, on what was once a rich and diverse textile tradition. Intensive cotton cultivation, she learns, is implicated in droughts, poisoning of water supplies, death and disease of animals, and starvation and suicide among farmers. Finally, she is interested in the Chinese region of Xinjiang and its Uyghur population, and the appropriation of its land for cotton production. While the establishment of forced labor camps in Xinjiang allows China to both minimize production costs and erase the religious and ethnic identity of the Uyghur people, it is also a supply chain arrangement that helped the profits of many Western companies.
We read of similar links between linen fortunes and women’s rights at work; between the decline of Chinese silk and the rise, via Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, of mass fashion; and between the introduction of synthetic fabrics and the aggressive reach of the United States in the world textile trade. We read, again and again, of the ecological disasters triggered by the fashion industry and the repeated replacement of diverse, handmade and indigenous clothing with cheap, industrial and homogeneous clothing. We learn that fast fashion – the mass production of low-cost seasonal clothing, copied from the catwalks, designed to be disposable and destined for landfill – is responsible for a fifth of global wastewater and a tenth of emissions of carbon.
The driving force is always greed and the insatiable desire for capital; the victims are always the poor, the defeated and the marginalized. Although Thanhauser finds hope in acts of individual resistance, in small-scale revivals of indigenous traditions and local craftsmanship, the diagnosis and predictions are grim. She understands that buying local wool, shopping at vintage stores or sewing her own clothes can’t go far and is, in any case, affordable for a few. She cannot solve this problem alone.
The subtitle of “Worn” is “A People’s History of Clothing”. Yet, as a work of history, it is less popular than personal and less about the garment itself – its types, its richness, its diversity – than about the socio-political dimensions of its production. Those who hope to discover in this book what wonderful clothes people wore, in what different ways and for what various purposes, might be disappointed. It is one thing to describe the history and current state of the textile industries in India, for example, but it is unfortunate that Thanhauser does not take this opportunity to discuss the long history of the sari, its evolution through centuries of conquest and colonialism, and its links to gender, religion and sexuality in India. The scope of the book is narrower than its ambition, and the writing rarely achieves the eloquence to which it aspires.
Despite these reservations, I still want people to read this book. As an argument against the horrors of fast fashion and the social and environmental disasters it causes, it is powerful and persuasive. Plus, it might make you think twice about stepping into that high street store again.
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Balaji Ravichandran is a writer based in New York.