Clothing, in our troubled modern times, is considered quite a mundane thing. It’s incredibly easy to buy, wear and throw away without thinking. And perhaps in the face of climate change, the threat of nuclear war and the lingering shadow of a global pandemic, the fabric East relatively inconsequential. But a new book and (perhaps unexpectedly) a TV series about a post-apocalyptic America, offer a compelling philosophical counterpoint: the ways we make fabric have shaped our society and our environment, for better or for worse. worse.
Let’s start with Sofi Thanhauser Worn: a popular history of clothing, which came out earlier this year. In it, she argues that much of the history of human conflict (and even climate change) is tied to the capitalist evolution of the textile industry.
Carries begins with the meticulous craftsmanship of linen in Shakespeare’s time, a time when even a modest, minimal wardrobe – having taken so many weeks to weave and sew – was worth so much more than the chest that contained it. From there, she takes us on a cotton world tour, from the pesticide-swamped, water-sucking fields of West Texas to the sprawling factories of South India. The journey is logically familiar: we were making things painstakingly and by hand, then we figured out how to make them with machines, then we used those machines to exploit people for very little pay to make huge amounts of merchandise.
A lot of Carries is really about inequality at work, the gap that arises when a handful of men get rich through the misery of many. About a quarter of the way into this full tome, for example, she makes a rather revealing claim: The Industrial Revolution” – that black beast of all our current climate problems – “was a fabric revolution”. Cotton mill owners, textile executives and silk merchants grow rich while those whose hands weave, sew and dye the fabric itself live in sheer misery. “The propellants of industrialization celebrate factory jobs as saviors of destitute rural women, without recognizing that their poverty is the direct result of the destruction of what was once a thriving and sophisticated textile culture,” writes Thanhauser.
It’s a complicated argument that gets to the heart of a very current debate: why hasn’t widespread industrialization relieved us of long and onerous working hours? Few of us would yearn to go back to the days when we had to shear a sheep, spin its fleece into wool, and knit that wool into a sweater if we wanted warmth in the winter. But it is not a controversial claim to say that the mechanization of garment production has generated great profits and improved the quality of life for some while simultaneously keeping many millions more in poverty.
This power dynamic has proven extremely difficult to reverse. In the rayon factories that sprung up in the Appalachian foothills in the early 20th century, the factory workers – almost all women and many of them teenagers – were subjected to both extremely low wages and to toxic carbon disulfide fumes. The ingredient, used in the manufacture of rayon, was so potent that it caused fainting spells on the factory floor. Thanhauser describes how in 1929 an organized strike by unionized workers in North Carolina met “the combined force of industrialists, civic leaders, local law enforcement, the press, National Guardsmen and terrors of law enforcement” – and after days of brutal conflict, brought no gains to the workers.
When you delve so deeply into the history of garment production, it’s evident that the fabric we drape over our bodies – and the kind of work that fabric represents – does indeed cover a wide and overwhelming range of issues. The pedestrian objects that populate our daily lives can carry a heavy historical and ecological heritage acquired over the course of their production. But the life of these objects hardly ends as soon as they are purchased. Since everything we’ve woven, sewn, and knitted will be part of our world for a while, so we might as well find a purpose for it — a hidden lesson in plain sight in the HBOMax dystopian drama, Station eleven.
Based on the novel of the same title by Emily St. Mandel, station eleven tells the story of a society rebuilding itself after a devastating pandemic kills most of the world’s population within months. Survivors must learn to feed, clothe and heat themselves in a world where you can’t just buy what you need from a store because the supply chain has completely collapsed. Although the clothes aren’t the focus of the story, it’s a crucial part of the world that series costume designer Helen Huang had to help invent. And so she found herself asking: If a future came along in which we couldn’t make new clothes, what would people wear?
Huang said she wanted the world of 20 – two decades after the pandemic ended – to feel “like a time capsule”. In her research for the project, she examined what happened to clothes after they had spent years in a landfill, and was shocked to discover how much of the material considered cheap or shoddy today Today – synthetics like rayon, polyester and spandex – behaved like plastics, in that they were more or less immune to the elements. The costume team tasked with giving the clothes an appropriately distressed look found that even the grindstones wouldn’t damage these types of fabrics.
“There are so many things in our world right now that people can put on and wear – a lot of things that wouldn’t get old,” Huang said. “They don’t disintegrate, they don’t go back into the earth. So we tried to use it too, to describe something about this world [of Year 20]. Because in a lot of films about the future, nothing from the past exists anymore, and that’s just not true, because we created so many elements that would never go away.
It also turned out that while filming the show in Ontario in the summer of 2020, COVID-19-induced lockdowns – by the way – significantly limited costume supply opportunities. The only places available to Huang and his team were huge warehouses filled with vintage and used clothes, the destination for millions of donated and unsold clothes. “We were going to walk through them, and it accomplished a lot of things that I wanted visually for the show,” she said, “because it provided us with objects that have real memory, that you can’t really simulate with clothes.”
Huang’s findings echo an anecdote from Carries foreword. In Martha’s Vineyard, where Thanhauser grew up, a town dump became famous as a place to salvage treasures thrown away by wealthy summer residents. Locals, including Thanhauser, would mine this treasure trove of vintage designer items and precious antiques to fill their own closets and homes. This is where the author developed an appreciation for vintage clothing, as she noticed how well the fabric and construction stood the test of time compared to more contemporary mall offerings.
station eleven and Carries reinforce the fact that the fashion industry, with all its whims and waste, leaves more lasting marks on the world than one might think. As Whitney Bauck wrote in a short essay for Grist on the lessons we can learn from the supply chain disruptions of recent years: “What if we treat buying clothes more like getting a new tattoo?” To expand on this, I would suggest looking at each existing garment as a monument: semi-permanent in nature, embodying both a lot of work and probably some human suffering, and a commemoration of the very specific time and place where it was created.
In this framework, there are no disposable or worthless clothes; they are only relics of the world we created, and however imperfect that world is, it must be treated with care.