Turning the last page of artist and writer Sofi Thanhauser’s Worn: A People’s History of Clothing and looking again at the image on the cover – a neatly collared and cuffed shirt, decorated with an intricate map of the heavens – I couldn’t help thinking that some sort of dishevelled, blood-soaked garment might have been more apt.
Thanhauser’s geographical reach is impressive – from China and Taiwan, through India, Paris, Cumbria, across North America, and down to Jamaica and Honduras, she charts the history of five fabrics with which we’ve clothed our bodies: linen, cotton, silk, synthetics and wool – as is the rigour of her examinations of the cultural, economic, political and environmental impacts of their production. But the takeaway is the terrible cost of life along the way. There’s scant attention given to just how transcendent a well-cut dress can make one feel; this is not that kind of book.
Today, we’re all aware of the evils of fast fashion. The textile industry accounts for a tenth of global carbon emissions and a fifth of global waste water, within which microfibres have become the dominant source of plastic pollution. Three of the four worst garment factory disasters in history occurred in the 2010s. But all these, says Thanhauser, are just “the newest face of a problem that is centuries old”.
Throughout which, nothing quite rivals the terrors of the cotton industry. It isn’t just that the cotton plantations of the American South relied on slave labour; they were also established on great swaths of land that had been “cleared” of their indigenous populations. (One Confederate soldier, who had witnessed the slaughter of thousands in the American Civil War, declared the removal of the Cherokee from Georgia the “cruellest” thing he’d ever seen.) British colonial rule in India, meanwhile, first deliberately decimated the production of hand-loomed traditional fabrics, leading to poverty and famine, then forced the production of cotton in its place.
More insidious horror stories can be found in the chapters on synthetics. The Fascist states of 1930s Europe looked to rayon – the first man-made fibre – not only to achieve textile independence from British-dominated cotton, but also with more ambitious schemes in mind.
Worn follows hot on the heels of Kassia St Clair’s The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History and Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle, but it’s a darker, more sober offering than St Clair’s collection of accounts of human ingenuity and adventure, while also lacking the more personal approach of Hunter’s bestselling memoir-cum-history. For Thanhauser, the central question is “how we went from making fabric for ourselves as part of our everyday work to dressing in clothes that come from a complex, inscrutable system that had divorced us from the creative act, from our land, from our rights as consumers and workers”. It is a scholarly investigation that echoes recent studies of the problems of mass food production, and it makes for sombre reading, especially because there are no quick fixes.
There are some more hopeful stories, though. Take the “industrial feminists” of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s, young Jewish women who arrived in America from Russia and eastern Europe and toiled in sweatshops to earn their living, but organised the workers, and called for access to education and art – “hustler-scholars”, as Thanhauser calls them, “because of how aggressively they educated themselves”. Then there are today’s British wool enthusiasts, who are reverting to older models of their craft, helping to maintain the biodiversity of our sheep breeds, which in turn spells good news for the environment: wool acts as a fertiliser, fixing carbon in the topsoil.
This old/new model is significant, since, as Thanhauser concludes, the “making of good fabric cannot happen in isolation: it cannot happen without good communities and good agriculture. It cannot happen in the context of brutal, extractive trade regimes.” Small changes are a start, but really, we need to change the entire system.
The Daily Telegraph