Review by Susan T. Landry
Published by Random House and Penguin
Forgive me for starting with a brief digression before I tell you about Worn by Sofi Thanhauser. There is a connection.
Last summer, July 2021, I read All That She Carried by Tiya Miles, which was a literal eye-opener. She tells the story of a small piece of very old fabric, and the avenues she followed in pursuit of knowledge about it. What unfolds is a book-sized museum of information that reveals the social histories and connections among Black women in the south, traced via a remnant of a sampler and its tattered threads. I could not put the book down, and that passion was reignited when I first heard of Thanhauser’s book, Worn—A People’s History of Clothing.
Worn gives the reader a broader vision of the world of fabrics, the art and trade of sewing, and most powerfully, the politics behind the history—again, mostly carried via women. For centuries, a fierce but deliberately secretive battle has been underway to find newer and more economically profitable fabrics and technologies with which to clothe the peoples of the world. All this at the expense of irreparable damage to workers and to the land, food, and water that nourish us and all plant and animal life.
Worn is divided into chapters that march forward from the first known clothing for humans—animal skins, circa 170,000 years ago. Mankind (early on, it becomes quite clear that it was in fact womankind) slowly proceeded to experiment on ways to weave plant fibers, microscopic leavings of which were identified by radiocarbon dating to be from around 36,000 years ago. Her first chapter, thus, is entitled Linen, made from flax, and continues with in-depth exploration to current times, with chapter titles in this order: Cotton, Silk, Synthetics, and finally Wool.
A particularly appealing draw of this book is Thanhauser’s attitude; she loves clothes, and she lets the reader know this right off the bat, in her introduction. The book certainly has its scholarly appeal but is saved from being a strictly serious tome by the author’s delight and fascination in her findings as she burrows deeper into her material. I also appreciated her dishing some well-ripened gossip about the guy who invented the sewing machine and the evolution of undergarments.
Worn becomes more political, predictably, with the momentum over time of population growth in both the Western world and the Far East. Cotton became the favored clothing fabric. And cotton means workers, which coincided in the USA with the need for a large and readily available supply of unpaid or low-paid workers. Thus, the devil’s pact with the slave trade. From cotton, the next transition is pivotal; what is worn and what it is made of transitions from being a necessity to cover bodies, to keep people warm and alive, or conversely lightweight and cool, to being an aesthetic choice.
Silk is the gateway to fashion; and fashion begets the never-satiated industry that feasts upon the distinction between clothing as necessity and clothing as an ever-changing billboard for status. As you can imagine, the political implications, the need for highly skilled workers, and the power dynamics also undergo a sea change with the social upgrading of functional garments to fashion. Thanhauser pulls no punches in her depiction of the fashion industry. If you were a teenager who once idolized the imagery of women (models) in clothing (unattainable on your meager allowance), you may never look at an issue of Vogue magazine in the same way again.
After a series of genuinely appalling revelations about clothing, the author treats her readers to a more planet-saving vision of the future in her final chapter, Wool. I trust that most readers will join her in finding relief that we do have options in what we choose to purchase and wear, and there are ways to do so without sacrificing the lives of workers and adding further to the ravaging of our global ecosystem.