Book World: Fashion’s victims: The environment, the colonized and the poor

Weaver of muslin, a fine cotton cloth. This etching was taken from plate 16 of Charles D’Oyly’s “Antiquities of Dacca”.  Date 1827. Photo: commons.wikimedia.org/

Book: Worn: A People’s History of Clothing

Author: By Sofi Thanhauser

Published By: Pantheon. 375 pp. $30

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“Do you understand muslins, sir?” Mrs. Allen asks Mr. Tilney in Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” bewildered 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. Mrs. Allen’s remark might seem no more than a passing detail that establishes her fashion-obsessed character, but as always with Austen, there is more to it than meets the eye.

The Indian subcontinent had been the home of muslin, a cotton fabric of plain weave, for centuries. Indian muslin was as treasured in Rome as in China, and in the 16th and 17th centuries it was all the rage in Europe. Yet, if we seldom speak of muslins today, or come across fine Indian muslins only in the pages of Jane Austen, there is a reason. British colonialism, which wedded aggressive protectionism at home to violent free trade abroad, forced local artisans to give up their craft and switch to cotton cultivation instead, bringing a long and beautiful tradition to a swift and precipitous decline. Indian muslin became a rare, sought-after commodity in Europe, while English muslin – cheap, industrial, protected by the state – became the norm. As Mr. Tilney observes, “Muslin always turns to some account or other.”

Sofi Thanhauser’s “Worn: A People’s History of Clothing” is a compilation of many such “accounts” of fabric, from which we learn that, if we were a bit more curious about our clothes, they would offer us rich, interesting and often surprising insights into human history. It is a deep and sustained inquiry into the origins of what we wear, and what we have worn for the past 500 years, as well as into the material conditions and social consequences of their production.

The book is divided into five parts, each devoted to a particular fabric: linen, cotton, silk, synthetics and wool. Thanhauser travels the world and learns firsthand about the origin of each fabric, the means and manner of its production, its connections to local history, and what impact it has on the lives of the people. She also provides the larger historical and anthropological context to show how, and to what extent, textile manufacturing has been at the heart of great sociopolitical movements around the world.

Take cotton. The author begins her journey at Lubbock, Tex., where she witnesses a cotton harvest. This allows her to discuss – though not in any great detail – the role slavery played in the establishment and cultivation of a crop of which the United States is now the largest global exporter. She counts the environmental debt cotton incurs: “twenty thousand liters of water to make a pair of jeans, enough to grow the wheat a person would need to bake a loaf of bread each week for a year.” She describes the devastating effects that herbicides and pesticides have on the ecosystem, as well as on the people who work the fields. She then tours cotton factories in South India, once the leading supplier of the world’s cotton. This provides her the occasion 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 farming, she learns, is implicated in droughts, poisoning of water supplies, death and disease of animals, and starvation and suicide among farmers. Lastly, she turns her attention to China’s Xinjiang region and its Uyghur population, and the appropriation of its lands for the production of cotton. If the establishment of forced labor camps in Xinjiang allows China to both minimize production costs and efface the religious and ethnic identity of the Uyghur people, it is also a supply chain arrangement that has aided the profits of many Western companies.

We read of similar connections between the fortunes of linen and women’s rights in the workplace; between the decline of Chinese silk and the rise, by way of 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 global textile trade. We read, again and again, of ecological disasters unleashed by the fashion industry and of the repeated displacement of diverse, handmade, indigenous clothing by cheap, industrial, homogeneous garments. We learn that fast fashion – the mass manufacture of seasonal, low-cost clothes, copied from the catwalk, designed to be disposable and destined for the landfill – is responsible for a fifth of global wastewater and a 10th of carbon emissions.

The driving force is always greed and the unquenchable desire for capital; the casualties are always the poor, the vanquished and the marginalized. Though Thanhauser finds some grounds for hope in acts of individual resistance, in small-scale revivals of indigenous traditions and local crafts, the diagnosis, and the forecast, are bleak. She understands that buying local wool, shopping at vintage stores or sewing one’s own clothes can go only so far and are, at any rate, affordable for just 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 clothing itself – its types, its richness, its diversity – than about the sociopolitical dimensions of its production. Those who hope to find out from this book what wonderful clothes people used to wear, in what different ways and for what varied purposes, might be disappointed. It is one thing to describe the history and present state of 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 connections to gender, religion and sexuality in India. The scope of the book is narrower than its ambition, and the writing seldom attains the eloquence to which it aspires.

These reservations notwithstanding, I still want people to read this book. As an argument against the horrors of fast fashion and the social and environmental disasters it provokes, it is powerful and persuasive. What’s more, 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.

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