Wear and Tear

Worn: A People's History of Clothing by sofi thanhauser. new york: vintage. 400 pages. $18.

The cover of Worn: A People's History of Clothing

AS A CHILD, I dreamed I would one day become a fashion designer. It’s one of those gigs, like astronaut or firefighter, that seems fun until you get too old to overlook the occupational hazards. For fashion, the dangers have long been hidden. In recent years, news coverage of “fast fashion,” a deceptively light term for cheaply manufactured clothing that pollutes landfills and oceans while exploiting and endangering workers, has proliferated—while solutions have not. The disconnect is understandable though hardly excusable: consumers look to material goods to change the way they feel, and fashioning a new sense of self doesn’t usually jibe with ruminations on child labor or pesticide poisoning or catastrophic drought. 

Fast fashion “isn’t a thirty-year-old problem, but the newest symptom of a problem that is centuries old,” Sofi Thanhauser writes. Her first book, Worn—published earlier this year and out in paperback in January—seeks to understand the events that led to our current crisis. The resulting “People’s History of Clothing” is organized into five sections that each investigate a staple textile: linen, cotton, silk, synthetics, and wool. This framework encourages readers to see material goods as work products—labor—and to think critically about the ways socioeconomic and political forces have shaped fashion, and how the clothing industry continues to drive humanitarian and environmental crises. 

The story Thanhauser uncovers is nonlinear, though the sections themselves are loosely chronological: the opening chapter, “Linen,” introduces the earliest-estimated animal-pelt clothes from 170,000 years ago, while the final one, “Wool,” brings readers into the present day, drawing on Thanhauser’s reporting trips to Phoenix to speak with Navajo weavers and to Cumbria to shadow English shepherds. For every textile, Thanhauser seeks out the places where people are sewing, weaving, growing, or shaping the clothes we wear, and, along the way, she unpicks the social, political, material, and environmental histories that built the industry that produces one-tenth of our global carbon emissions. It would be easy to draw a straight line through time and industrialization to mass-market consumption and its many ills, but Thanhauser resists oversimplification even as she laments the loss of artisanry to industrial manufacturing. The problem she documents is not that of mechanization, but of a “cultural capacity for cruelty and exploitation.” 

Sheila Hicks, Reaching For A Grander Horizon, 2021, linen, silk, cotton, wool, 85 × 72 1/2 × 4 1/4". © Sheila Hicks, Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Sheila Hicks, Reaching For A Grander Horizon, 2021, linen, silk, cotton, wool, 85 × 72 1/2 × 4 1/4". © Sheila Hicks, Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Worn would be tragedy porn if not for Thanhauser’s earnest curiosity and sense of humor. She presents sprawling histories of the dominant industrial farming and manufacturing behemoths, and also visits small-scale producers and tradespeople, who, perhaps surprisingly, choose to innovate and improve on existing technologies rather than eschew modernity. This benevolent spirit of entrepreneurism and good-old-fashioned tinkering offers a boon to an otherwise disheartening portrait of production, and a counternarrative to the pastoral myths and fantasies often projected onto formerly cottage industries. At the Fingerlakes Woolen Mill in Genoa, New York, one owner demonstrates the improvements and modifications he incorporated into his wool-carding machine. “You’re looking at one hundred fifty years of thought that went into this,” he says, “little increments along the way.” Efficiency and improvement, in this instance, are framed as a creative, intellectual tradition, rather than as the destructive momentum of imperial or corporate greed. (Thanhauser quickly reminds us that the machines deftly threading strands of yarn “could easily rip off a human scalp.”) A custom weaver in Cherry Valley, New York, echoes a similar reverence for technology: weaving is math, not magic. “I don’t really have an attachment to cloth,” she says, “I have an attachment to machinery.” Her shop is run on socialist principles, with a total of ten employees, and, due to the privilege of an inheritance, she has never taken a salary.

Scaling up profit, meanwhile, often becomes a problem for the people doing the work. The same might be said for macro-scale micro histories like Worn. Though Thanhauser states from the outset that the book is not meant to be “all-encompassing,” its scope is mixed, with lengthy tangents about the patent history of the sewing machine, for example, taking up more pages than American slavery and the cotton-plantation economy. Of course, any one of these histories could (and does) amount to hundreds of books, and Thanhauser is clear that she only intends “to tell the story of what I found,” but the resulting imbalance can snag the reader. The “Cotton” section, for example, includes moving passages on Thanhauser’s journey to Lubbock, Texas, for the cotton harvest, where she meets two third-generation cotton farmers. Her interviewees are likable characters, and one can sense Thanhauser’s struggle to reckon her affinity for them with her politics. The same people inviting her into their homes and passenger seats are the ones spraying toxic herbicides that bring fatal risks to both the land and a mostly undocumented and unprotected labor force. Thanhauser never speaks with any of the farmworkers themselves, and after a brief aside on the iconography of Ku Klux Klan costumes, she turns to India to examine British imperialism and the elimination of subsistence cloth weaving. These are important stories, but the stitching Thanhauser threads between racialized violence, land control, and monocultural assimilation might have been better tied had these strands culminated in even a brief interview with current cotton workers. 

In fact, Thanhauser largely neglects to speak to workers in any of the many countries and sites she visits. These include a fast-fashion factory in Vietnam, spinning mills and dye factories in India, a squatter encampment in Honduras, and a silk filature in China. The textiles change but the scene is roughly the same: management standing off to one side, or looking down through a window, as workers labor by hand or machine. As Thanhauser is flanked by English-speaking guides and translators—though nearly all of them in various management capacities—this decision is baffling. It’s also a stark contrast to the interviews with artisans, like the Brooklyn-based seamstress who tailors Beyoncé’s concert costumes, the North Carolinian denimhead shop owner, or even the rare-sheep breeder in Cumbria. There are surely practical reasons behind this decision—at one point, Thanhauser mentions gaining access to an export-processing zone in Vietnam by introducing herself as an interested investor—but further elucidation of her methodology could have helped account for the silence of workers, while also offering up opportunities to reflect on the implications of these assumed identities. That Thanhauser felt incapable of approaching workers or asking after their well-being, even under the privileged title of “investor,” makes her point far better than the repeating image of the sweatshop worker: that those concerned with money cannot be concerned with care.

After touring the floor of a fast-fashion clothing factory in Vietnam, where workers churn out Nike and Victoria’s Secret numbers, Thanhauser visited the design room, which had a windowed view of the production space. There, white women chatted and typed on MacBooks while sipping tea. “Something about it was bothering me,” Thanhauser notes, before briefly decrying the state of corporate feminism, which “celebrates the upward mobility of a few women capitalists.” She uses the anecdote as a launchpad to laud the collective action of early-twentieth-century industrial feminists in the United States, a movement that today would be near-impossible with the expatriation of production and invisibility of overseas labor. On another trip, visiting a Chinese silk filature where silk is pulled from the silkworm’s cocoon and threaded onto spools, Thanhauser recalls how “one of the workers looked up at me and smiled, and I felt that instant shame I feel whenever I go into a factory and watch women work.” Though Thanhauser has, at the time of her trip, taken enough sewing and tailoring classes to understand the focus and intensity of the trade, she remains unable to meet the eyes of the people whose story she seeks to tell. The worker might finally be visible, but she still cannot be heard. 

Commercial publishing has long invested in the myth that comprehensive histories can be told through object lessons, and that by buying one more “deep dive” on clothing—or spices, or cosmetics, or tech—we might finally understand the inner workings of the world. There is a lot of pressure on every book to provide every answer, and though Thanhauser herself explicitly avoids such an impossible commitment, the corrective, tell-all positioning of books like Worn by their publishers is representative of an industry that, like fashion, circuitously feeds itself by stoking our desire for more. 

“Goliaths are not only being stared down by scholars, activists, and politicians,” Thanhauser concludes, in her segment on wool. “They are also directly confronted by individual people insisting on simply doing something they really enjoy. This is the army of the small.” Such politics are well-meaning but lack depth in favor of faith. The notion that a couple of socialist weavers or vintage shoppers or freshly employed tailors will ultimately save our souls from the widespread violence and destruction Thanhauser has spent more than two-hundred pages and many years of her career investigating unfortunately lands like a wet towel. David’s defeat of Goliath was, after all, a God-given miracle. 

Nikki Shaner-Bradford is a writer who lives between Paris and New York.