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

Shahidha Bari

The Devil Wears Cotton

Worn: A People’s History of Clothing


Allen Lane 400pp £20

Sofi Thanhauser offers a simple but remarkable fact early on in her new book, Worn: today it is more expensive to make your own clothes than to buy them. This is a relatively recent and shocking development in the history of human dress. How did such a situation come to pass?

The answer to that question is globalisation and the devaluation of labour that it has unleashed. For two decades now, academics and journalists have been wrangling with the ecological and human consequences of the fast-fashion machine. See, for instance, Lucy Siegle’s To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, Tansy Hoskins’s Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion and Dana Thomas’s Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes, as well as documentary films like The True Cost by Andrew Morgan and The Machinists by Hannan Majid and Richard York. In 2018, the United Nations Climate Change commission instituted the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, with the ambition of achieving net-zero emissions for the fashion industry by 2050 – a pledge that was expanded on at COP26 in Glasgow last year.

All of this is to say that the fashion industry is in trouble and the world is watching. But is it enough to simply know that the earth is burning and humans are suffering? One of the merits of Thanhauser’s thoughtful book is that she tries to explain how this situation has come to pass. She takes the long view, exploring the role that the production of clothing has played in our collective human history. Although her focus is largely North American, the book looks at the impact of fashion through a wide-angle lens, taking in historical, sociological and anthropological contexts. As she points out, ‘the history of clothing has also been the history of a human quest for warmth, and both have been tied, in turn, to the story of human migrations.’ In telling the stories of the production of linen, cotton, silk, wool and synthetics, she invites us to both see how clothes have shaped the modern world and better understand the crisis we face now.

Thanhauser is a dedicated researcher, roaming across the textile histories of the industrial and preindustrial world and connecting her discoveries to broader social and political developments. Worn is unusual too in its commitment to reportage. Thanhauser is intrepid in her excursions, interviewing Navajo women in Phoenix, visiting a state-run silk-weaving plant in the Yangtze Delta region of China and milling with sheep breeders at a wool festival in Cumbria. Many of her insights come from seeing factories and farms from the inside. Where others have been seduced by the ecological grandstanding of big fashion houses and earnest designers, Thanhauser’s interests are always concentrated on the local, the labourers and the makers.

It is the range of this book that makes it such an impressive contribution to the discipline of conscientious fashion studies. Rather than limiting herself to narrow discussions of clothes and identity, Thanhauser thinks about human history in its widest form. Clothing, she speculates, was the technology that enabled the first humans to leave Africa and confront the conditions of the Ice Age. Since cloth perishes, it’s difficult to identify its earliest use, but researchers using the DNA of lice have determined that humans probably began clothing themselves in hides and pelts 170,000 years ago. Thanhauser grants us a tantalising glimpse of what some of our ancestors wore through microscopic flax fibres in black, turquoise, grey and pink, found in the Dzudzuana Cave in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains in Georgia, radiocarbon-dated to as far back as 36,000 years ago.

Thanhauser’s chapters can at times feel unfocused, but she is always attentive to how women have been both central to textile activity and marginalised in its commercialisation. Making, she writes, was women’s work because it was ‘compatible with child-rearing’. Yet women were long deprived of their ‘right to conduct economic activity’, through, for instance, the establishment of male-only professional guilds. Isaac Singer, one of the inventors of the sewing machine, eventually declared it a ‘devilish machine’, rueing how it did away ‘with the only thing that keeps women quiet, their sewing’. Thanhauser, on the other hand, recognises what a radical invention it was: a machine dedicated to the performance of domestic rather than industrial labour.

Crucially, the book reaches to the present. The invention of the cotton gin – a machine for processing cotton fibre – in the late 18th century takes Thanhauser from the transatlantic slave trade, the forcible eviction of the Cherokee and the seizure of cotton acreage to the bloody symbolism of the cotton capes worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan. She visits a farm in Lubbock, Texas, with its complex filtration system and intensive water usage, to watch the cotton harvest. A herbicide called Paraquat, she observes, that has been linked to Parkinson’s disease and leukaemia, remains widely used there, even though it has been banned in Europe.

On the other side of the world, she records the brute realities of the intensive cotton farming that is carried out around the Aral Sea, which sixty years ago was the fourth-largest lake in the world but has now been reduced to a tenth of its former size after decades of disastrous use for agricultural irrigation. Once-thriving coastal communities and fisheries have now collapsed and the dust from the exposed lake bed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, causes lung disease and high cancer rates in the surrounding population.

This is a relentlessly and admirably committed book, perhaps most of all when it looks to China. Xinjiang, Thanhauser notes, once a crucial passageway for the Silk Road, is now notorious for human rights infringements, the Chinese government overseeing the mass detention of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims there in what it calls ‘vocational training centres’. Thanhauser reports how the inmates are made to work for a fraction of the minimum wage, their labour channelled into the supply chain of several recognisable high-street clothing companies. Xinjiang is currently the source of an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s cotton. You may be wearing it right now. It’s a sobering reminder that the production of clothes is a deeply social and moral act. It is woven into the story of how we have become the humans we are, and it will play a crucial part too in determining what kind of humans we become.

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