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Book Rec: Worn by Sofi Thanhauser

Book Rec: Worn by Sofi Thanhauser

Worn by Sofi Thanhauser is a kaleidoscopic, ambitious book about the history of the garment industry. It isn’t so much about fashion as it is about the history and current state of textile manufacturing. It spans continents, centuries and fibers. It touches on ancient Egypt, Medieval guilds, the world's first modern factory, the French Revolution, the Chinese silk trade, the cotton industry in India, China and the US, the horrifying history of rayon production, the rise of synthetic textiles, selvedge denim and Navajo weaving, to name just a few topics.

Thanhauser grounds this dizzyingly complex and sweeping book in individual human experiences. If there’s one thing I’ve found myself coming back to the most in my daily life and in running this business, it’s the simple reality that every product in this world passes through human hands on its way to us.

In a way, the history of textile production is a proxy for the history of labor, the spread of imperialism, and the rise of capitalism. The textile industry was essentially an agricultural industry until the recent rise of synthetic fibers, and along with food production, it was the first aspect of daily life to be totally transformed by capitalism. The first modern factory was a cotton spinning mill opened in England in 1771. What was once done at home or in a privately owned workshop was now done at a crowded and unsafe factory under the supervision of a boss, for a set and appalling low wage, during prescribed (and very long) working hours.

In the centuries since, the fashion industry, like our global food system, has become an exploitative and impenetrably complicated web of international trade. Capitalism has taken something central to almost every culture and sapped it of its humanity. Thanhauser does an excellent job of shining a light on many of the shadowy aspects of that exploitative system and tracing our trajectory from artisan workshops to massive factories and global fast fashion brands, but I think the most valuable thing that it illuminates is the impact of the global fashion industry on individual people. 

 

Being adequately clothed is not just a matter of comfort and survival, but is also an important form of self expression and cultural identity. Clothing is anything but frivolous. That so many people tend to view it that way is a testament to how successfully fast fashion brands have sold us the idea of clothing as entertainment, distraction, and social status signifier. We need to consume less, but we can't opt out of consuming all together, and so we need to start thinking about the people who are impacted by our consumption. 

Buying ethically made garments is expensive. It's a privilege. The burden of changing the garment industry should not rest on people who are already struggling to afford life's necessities and simple pleasures. No one should be made to feel shame for not being able to afford to shop with their values, but those who can afford to make more conscientious choices ought to.

All of us can ask ourselves these questions to understand why a top from Shein costs $5 and a top from Shift + Wheeler down the street costs $120: Who made this? How much were they paid? Was their workplace safe? Were their working hours humane? Were they exposed to toxic chemicals? Would I want to work under those same conditions? If a shirt costs $5, the answers to these questions are probably pretty ugly.

When we think about all the people who worked hard to bring something into existence, we can start to appreciate its real value. We can try our best to care for it, use it often and make it last as long as possible. We can try to repair it before we toss it. Before we buy something, we can ask ourselves, "Do I really need it? Do I really love it?"

We can also support the work of activist organizations like the global Clean Clothes Campaign  and the domestically focused Garment Worker Center. Clean Clothes Campaign has about half a dozen active campaigns that you can support by signing petitions and contacting major fashion brands to let them know you don't approve of wage theft and unsafe factory conditions. The Garment Worker Center is currently working to build momentum for the FABRIC Act, which would put essential protections in place for US garment workers. Read about the FABRIC Act and encourage your representatives to support it!

The system is a Goliath and it's easy to feel overwhelmed or hopeless, but remember that there are lots of people working hard to fight against worker exploitation and environmental pollution. Taking even one single step to protect workers and the Earth really does make an impact.