Worn by Sofi Thanhauser review – a panoramic history of getting dressed

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision</span>
Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision

Following five materials through history, this richly evocative study exposes past snobberies and contemporary exploitation

People have always dressed above their station, and other people have always minded terribly. In 1913 the American reformer Bertha June Richardson was taken aback to discover that the girls whom she encountered in the New York tenements looked smarter than she did, with “everything about them in the latest style”. Unlike many of her pursed-lipped contemporaries, though, Richardson worked hard 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 them earning no more than $6 a week in the rag trade, were enacting their particular version of the American dream, one silk petticoat and puffy sleeve at a time.

One of the great pleasures of this panoramic history of getting dressed 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 burgher whose ambition to rise into the nobility requires him to get some fancy new outfits, audience members got the joke because they knew someone just like that and it was a relief, finally, to be allowed to snigger. A century later the script was flipped when Marie Antoinette attempted a bit of cross-class cosplay of her own. Enthralled by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s back-to-nature philosophy, the queen built her own toy farm in the grounds of Versailles and started a fashion for peasant costume among the ladies of her court. Not only was impersonating Bo Peep in the Hall of Mirrors a tone-deaf move, it decimated the domestic silk industry, throwing hundreds of Lyonnais artisans out of work. Without meaning to, the queen’s newfound passion for imported white muslin brought her a step or two closer to the guillotine.

Related: Why it's time to decolonialise fashion

Worn, though, consists of much more than a string of entertaining anecdotes about people raiding the dressing-up box and embarrassing themselves in the process. Its starting point is the terrible state of our current clothing industry, which, as Thanhauser describes it, exists in a nightmare wasteland of overproduction, toxic waste, choked rivers, child labour and collapsing factories. Following five threads – linen, cotton, silk, rayon and wool – she sets out to chart a deft course through material history, arguing that “there is scarcely a part of the human experience, historic or current, that the story of clothes does not touch”.

In the early modern period Thanhauser paints a picture of pioneering Americans growing their own clothes, literally: taking the wool from their sheep and flax from their fields to spin and weave at home. By the 19th century, production had moved into factories, at least in Britain where Manchester had become “Cottonopolis”, a smoky behemoth that devoured cotton imported from the southern American slave states before belching out finished fabric to captive colonial markets. From here it was a short step to today’s globalised system, where cotton is harvested using forced labour in China’s Xinjiang province, processed heaven-knows-where (the supply chains are kept purposely opaque) before being pinged back in the form of limp identikit clothing to the malls and online hubs of the US and western Europe.

It seems unlikely that many of us will ever want to spend our evenings learning to sew bust darts or set in a sleeve

None of this is logistically or morally simple and the great virtue of Thanhauser’s analysis is how alive she is to the difficulty of making these networks legible, even when they lie relatively close to come. As her test case, Thanhauser, who lives in New York, travels to Texas where America’s modern cotton industry is based. At first sight there may no longer be slave labour of the kind that Georgia and the Carolinas depended on two centuries ago, but the underlying patterns have not changed greatly. The workforce is overwhelmingly Latino, 75% of whom are undocumented, which means that when Parkinson’s and leukaemia start to show up as a consequence of constant exposure to pesticides, these young men have spotty access to health care and almost no legal redress. And they are young. The average life expectancy for Latino farmworkers in the US is 49, compared to 73 to 79 for the rest of the population.Thanhauser’s approach to exposing a system gone so horribly wrong is to synthesise the existing literature, add fresh insights drawn from her own fieldwork, and deliver the findings in a richly evocative narrative powered, but never overwhelmed, by a sense of righteous anger. Her methodology is very similar to that pioneered 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 dictum, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”, works less well in the closet than it does in the kitchen. For while there’s no denying the current renaissance of craft and making in the west, it seems unlikely that many of us will ever want to spend our evenings learning how to sew bust darts or set in a sleeve.

Thanhauser’s suggestions, instead, are more doable. Perhaps we could think about using local tailors to get things made. Or try becoming more committed vintage shoppers. And then there’s the simplest yet most radical approach of all, which involves performing a ruthless new year cull of our wardrobes with a view, this time, to not immediately filling them up again with yet more tat.

The Reactor: A Book About Grief and Repair is published by Faber (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at

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