PPeople have always dressed above their station, and other people have always cared terribly. In 1913, American reformer Bertha June Richardson was shocked to discover that the girls she met in New York tenements looked smarter than she was, with “everything about them in the latest fashion.” However, unlike many of his pursed-lipped contemporaries, Richardson struggled to understand what was really going on. The Smith graduate and author of The Woman Who Spends: A Study of Her Economic Function concluded that these immigrant girls, many of whom earned no more than $6 a week in the rag trade, were enacting their particular version of the dream. American, a silk petticoat and puffy sleeve at the same time.
One of the great pleasures of this sweeping tale of dressing is Sofi Thanhauser’s ability to spot moments like these where human desire and material culture collide. When Molière wrote The Bourgeois Gentilhomme in 1670 about a bourgeois whose ambition to rise to the nobility required him to buy fancy new clothes, audience members got the joke because they knew someone like that and it was a relief, finally, that he was allowed to to laugh A century later, the script changed when Marie Antoinette tried a bit of cosplay between classes on her own. Captivated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s back-to-nature philosophy, the queen built her own toy farm on the grounds of Versailles and started a fad for peasant dress among the ladies of her court. Impersonating Bo Peep in the Hall of Mirrors was not only a deaf move, it decimated the national silk industry, putting hundreds of Lyonnais artisans out of work. Unwittingly, the queen’s new passion for imported white muslin brought her a step or two closer to the guillotine.
However, Worn consists of much more than a series of entertaining anecdotes about people who raid the costume box and embarrass themselves in the process. His starting point is the dire state of our garment industry today, which, as Thanhauser describes it, exists in a nightmarish wasteland of overproduction, toxic waste, drowning rivers, child labor, and collapsing factories. Following five strands (linen, cotton, silk, rayon, and wool), he sets out to chart a deft course through material history, arguing that “there is hardly a part of human experience, historical or current, that the history of clothing Do not touch”.
In the early modern period, Thanhauser paints a picture of American pioneers who literally farmed their own clothes: they took the wool from their sheep and the flax from their fields to spin and weave at home. By the 19th century, production had moved to factories, at least in Britain, where Manchester had become “Cottonopolis,” a smoldering giant that devoured cotton imported from slave states in the American South before dumping the finished cloth to captive colonial markets. It was a small step from here to today’s globalized system, where cotton is harvested by forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province, processed God knows where (supply chains kept deliberately opaque) before being returned in the form of flaccid identikit clothing. to shopping malls and online centers in the US and Western Europe.
None of this is logistically or morally simple, and the great virtue of Thanhauser’s analysis is his awareness of the difficulty of making these networks legible, even when they are relatively close to coming. As his test case, Thanhauser, who lives in New York, travels to Texas, home to America’s modern cotton industry. At first glance, slave labor of the kind that Georgia and the Carolinas relied on two centuries ago may no longer exist, but the underlying patterns haven’t changed much. The workforce is overwhelmingly Latino, 75% of whom are undocumented, which means that when Parkinson’s and leukemia start to show up from constant pesticide exposure, these young people have patchy access to health care and nearly no legal remedy. And they are young. The average life expectancy of Latino farmworkers in the US is 49 years, compared to 73 to 79 years for the rest of the population. , and present the findings in a richly evocative narrative fueled, but never overwhelmed, by a sense of righteous anger. Its methodology is very similar to the one initiated by Michael Pollan 15 years ago in his In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.
When it comes to solutions, though, Thanhauser has a harder job. Pollan’s take-home maxim: “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants”, works less in the closet than in the kitchen. Because while there’s no denying the current renaissance of craft and tailoring in the West, it seems unlikely that many of us will want to spend afternoons learning how to sew bust darts or pin up a sleeve.
Thanhauser’s suggestions, on the other hand, are more feasible. Maybe we could think about using local tailors to make things. Or try becoming more engaged vintage shoppers. And then there’s the simplest but most radical approach of all, which is to make a ruthless New Year’s selection of our wardrobes with the goal, this time, of not immediately filling them with even more tat.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism