A book from NetGalley which I spotted and downloaded in January, also published in January. I was intrigued by its division into chapters based on types of fabric, and by the fact it was a “people’s history” and I’m very glad I downloaded it.

Sofi Thanhauser – “Worn: A People’s History of Clothing”

(12 January 2022 – NetGalley)

Unerringly, cloth tells the story of the rise and fall of our societies and our cultures. And, perhaps, it does so more accurately than any words can.

Using main section headings of Linen, Cotton, Silk, Synthetics and Wool allows the author to take a historical view of the emergence of different fabrics and technologies (both to make them and to make things out of them); but she also takes a view based around gender, race and class, which makes it more interesting and valuable. She constantly points out how developments in markets and technology end up with women or Global Majority People being exploited and driven into poverty and despair while the administration and the White men end up with the profit and little of the work. Interestingly, this is sometimes cyclical – the downtrodden seamstresses in the 19th century have more in common with garment factory workers now than with the unionised specialists of the 1950s, for example.

After charting her own interest in fashion and clothing, via learning how to sew herself and realising – as many don’t – that someone has to create and make our clothes, Thanhauser weaves (sorry) a fascinating history of clothing types and their construction and materials, moving from individual crops and making clothes for the household to the international garment trade today. She also weaves in the ideological movements contemporary with these developments and changes, from the construction of race to the assumption that women didn’t need to earn as much because there was always a man to bankroll them (in slavery times, it was cheaper to have teams of women making clothing for slaves than it was to have slaves make them!). She has a worldwide focus, bringing in people and practices from America to Russia via England and Asia, and visits a lot of locations, talking to workers and, more often, business owners. Health and safety and care for workers, and the accompanying attempts to unionise, are highlighted throughout the book, and modern “feminism” is critiqued as being about a few exceptional entrepreneurs rather than the still horrendous lot of women in the clothing industries.

The last section, on wool, takes a different approach, and looks at the revival of crafts, including within Indigenous American communities, talking to a variety of practitioners including a transperson who is reviving a tradition whereby they will form a backbone in their community for telling stories and keeping crafts going.

The severe and prolonged violence that has annihilated the world’s weaving traditions cannot be seen in isolation from the destruction of agricultural systems, sovereignties, communal values, and identities. Neither should the resurrection of weaving traditions be seen in isolation: cloth cannot be viewed separately from the entire material and social basis from which it springs.

It’s a book that finds a lot of problems and doesn’t have a huge lot of solutions, apart from trying to keep things local, recycle, buy second-hand, mend clothing and maintain traditions. But that’s a start, in this deep and wide-ranging book that has an awful lot to recommend it, interrogating intersectional inequities while engaging in historical work.

Thank you to Allen Lane for making this book available via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Worn” is published on 27 January.