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‘Cloth tells the story’ [book review]

A review of Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser

‘Unerringly, cloth tells the story of the rise and fall of our societies and cultures,’ writes Sofi Thanhauser in the conclusion to Worn: A People’s History of Clothing – a statement with which, having read this richly detailed book, I am more than inclined to agree. In five sections devoted to linen, cotton, silk, synthetics and wool, Worn unpicks the fabrics we use to clothe ourselves on a daily basis, tracing the line where clothing and politics intersect, and illuminating many of the fashion industry’s darker corners. Drawing on a range of personal investigations and a solid body of research, Thanhauser has written a highly engaging book that should serve to change the way we think about our clothes.

Cover image - Worn

It is a change that, as soon becomes apparent, the world is badly in need of, the progression of cloth having moved steadily away from nature to reach what looks like the end of the line. Thousands of years ago, cloth was still sustainable: our ancestors wrapped themselves in furs. Then came domestication and farming, and the fabric we now know as linen was born. Linen gradually gave way to other natural fibres – silk, wool and cotton, each of which proved to be the mainstay of at least one national economy – before finally we reached the twenty-first century: the rise of rayon, synthetics and the fast-fashion industry. This is what a potted history of fabric might look like, but, as Thanhauser so compellingly demonstrates, cloth is far more complex than that. ‘The past repeats, but with variations,’ she writes, in one of her more philosophical moments – in the garment industry as in so many other areas of life. Without fail, each of the fabrics she discusses has both driven social progress and been the cause of many a human plight, from the bloody shootings of mill workers demonstrating in the USA, to the appalling conditions found in the clothing factories of China, Vietnam, Honduras and Bangladesh. What we wear doesn’t simply reveal our fashion choices, aligning us with one or the other social tribe. Instead, the very fabrics of which our garments are made have an impact more far-reaching than we might imagine.

Fast fashion has been getting a lot of press lately – just this week I watched a report on a ‘clothing graveyard’ in the Atacama Desert – yet it can often be difficult to grasp the vast scale and intractable nature of the problem. Worn is thus an important addition to the discourse, not least because of Thanhauser’s ability to connect the global with the personal. It’s all very well to read that it takes ‘twenty thousand litres of water to make a pair of jeans’, but an account of a trip to a Texas cotton farm does far more to show what this actually means for the environment. Likewise, the author’s conversations with factory owners and workers in some of the world’s leading garment-producing nations serve to highlight clearly the human cost of the West’s insatiable appetite for clothing. Immensely detailed in places – the chapter on Honduras, for example, which also has to map out some political history, requires close reading – Worn weaves together numerous narrative strands to create an often shocking picture.

Bookending the rise of fast fashion, the issue at the heart of the book, Thanhauser also delivers a colourful history of clothing and offers hope with a glimpse at trend-bucking movements. Memorable sections include a detour to the court of King Louis XVI, where clothing often carried a political message and Marie Antoinette’s penchant for dressing as a shepherdess had devastating effects on the French silk industry, and an exploration of the homespun selvedge denim business causing a quiet revolution in the US. For a keen knitter, the report on Cumbria’s Woolfest was a particular delight; a later section that looks at the intricate designs created by traditional Navajo weavers provides plenty of food for thought – not just on a history of violent oppression, but in terms of the many forms that art takes, and where beauty and functionality collide. Also threading through the book is an examination of the role women have long played in the fabric business, how weaving and embroidery and garment assembly has at times been liberating, all too often exploitative.

If it sounds like an ambitious project, it is – yet Thanhauser’s unwavering enthusiasm for her subject and gentle but insistent urging towards change ensure that Worn remains engaging, no matter how knotted up in detail it may get. Snippets of archive material – mill songs, diaries, newspaper clippings – are scattered throughout the book to great effect, and Thanhauser has a fine eye for both humorous anecdotes and encounters that will underscore the more serious aspects of her message. For as much as it might be pleasantly informative to read about linen embroidery or dyeing techniques, the subtitle of this book must never be forgotten. Returning time and again to ‘the immense amount of human labor necessary to handle fabric’, Worn is a history of how people use garments – but also how the garment industry has very often used them.

Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser is published by Allen Lane. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a review copy.


One thought on “‘Cloth tells the story’ [book review]

  1. This sounds like such a fascinating read! I love books that start with a narrow topic and expand out to talk about bigger picture concerns. I’m also very interested in movements pushing back against fast fashion and any advice this might have on how to find more sustainable clothing options.


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