Worn: A People's History of Clothing (Paperback)
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A sweeping and captivatingly told history of clothing and the stuff it is made of—an unparalleled deep-dive into how everyday garments have transformed our lives, our societies, and our planet.
“We learn that, if we were a bit more curious about our clothes, they would offer us rich, interesting and often surprising insights into human history...a deep and sustained inquiry into the origins of what we wear, and what we have worn for the past 500 years."
—The Washington Post
In this panoramic social history, Sofi Thanhauser brilliantly tells five stories—Linen, Cotton, Silk, Synthetics, Wool—about the clothes we wear and where they come from, illuminating our world in unexpected ways. She takes us from the opulent court of Louis XIV to the labor camps in modern-day Chinese-occupied Xinjiang. We see how textiles were once dyed with lichen, shells, bark, saffron, and beetles, displaying distinctive regional weaves and knits, and how the modern Western garment industry has refashioned our attire into the homogenous and disposable uniforms popularized by fast-fashion brands.
Thanhauser makes clear how the clothing industry has become one of the planet’s worst polluters and how it relies on chronically underpaid and exploited laborers. But she also shows us how micro-communities, textile companies, and clothing makers in every corner of the world are rediscovering ancestral and ethical methods for making what we wear.
Drawn from years of intensive research and reporting from around the world, and brimming with fascinating stories, Worn reveals to us that our clothing comes not just from the countries listed on the tags or ready-made from our factories. It comes, as well, from deep in our histories.
About the Author
SOFI THANHAUSER teaches in the writing department at Pratt Institute. She has received fellowships from the Fulbright Program, MacDowell, and Ucross Foundation. Her writing has appeared in Vox, Essay Daily, and The Establishment, among other publications
“Meticulous…eye-opening…Much of Worn is really about labor inequity…[and how] the pedestrian objects that fill our daily lives can carry a heavy historical and ecological legacy.”
"We learn that, if we were a bit more curious about our clothes, they would offer us rich, interesting and often surprising insights into human history...a deep and sustained inquiry into the origins of what we wear, and what we have worn for the past 500 years, as well as into the material conditions and social consequences of their production...Read this book. As an argument against the horrors of fast fashion and the social and environmental disasters it provokes, it is powerful and persuasive."
—The Washington Post
"This is a must-read for anyone who takes fashion seriously."
—Glamour, "The First Great Books of 2022"
“A project epic in the depth and scope of its research…Thanhauser’s thesis, one which she proves repeatedly, is that the story of fabric is “charged with political meaning”…Worn is both a historical examination, and a clarion call to wake up to the human rights abuses of the textile industry…leavened by the author’s passion for her subject, and her ability to weave its many strands together like a beautiful piece of fabric.”
"Thanhauser convincingly argues that getting dressed is a political act. Worn is also, unavoidably, about women: their place in the home and the value of their labour. It is an incredibly well-reported account of how fashion, far from being trivial, has shaped human history."
—The New Statesman
“This expansive history documents the transformation of clothing manufacture from a handmade practice, rich with personal significance, to a mass-production industry…elegantly chronicling how textile production came to be defined by worker exploitation, misogyny, environmental devastation, and colonialism.”
—The New Yorker, "Briefly Noted"
“Luminous…Thanhauser emphasizes the experience of workers, usually women, who are enmeshed in lucrative global industries linked to textiles and clothing…A knowledgeable and fascinating book…that bulges at the seams with finely spun descriptions of the people and places she encounters.”
“Through the prism of five fabrics and five corresponding stories…Thanhauser lifts the veil on the ethics, or lack thereof, of the fashion industry.”
“In this delightful and fascinating book, Thanhauser…weaves a social history of clothing.”
—The Globe and Mail, “26 New Books Coming Out…to Brighten Up the Darkest Season”
“Thanhauser’s approach to exposing a system gone so horribly wrong is to synthesise the existing literature, add fresh insights drawn from her own fieldwork, and deliver the findings in a richly evocative narrative powered, but never overwhelmed, by a sense of righteous anger…None of this is logistically or morally simple, and the great virtue of Thanhauser’s analysis is how alive she is to the difficulty of making these networks legible.”
“Now and then in the life of a book reviewer, a book comes along that makes you glad to be one…With admirable concision and formidable scholarship, [Thanhauser]…makes you realise…the history of clothes is a history of death, sickness, exploitation and destruction of land…[and]…how we choose the harms we demonise.”
"Fashion and designer clothes are not the main subject of this provocative book. Thanhauser, an artist and a teacher at the Pratt Institute in New York, examines the effect of clothes on our environment, politics and even our ethics…admirable, meticulously researched… [and] makes us pay attention.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Sofi Thanhauser’s record of clothing dives deeper than just the origins of popular materials and textiles. It tells the story of the people and makers whose lives have been directly impacted by the clothing industry, both positively and negatively.”
—Veranda, “The 22 Most-Anticipated Books of the New Year”
“This riveting behind-the-scenes story of the clothes on our backs is a must-read for clotheshorses everywhere. Remember that scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Miranda Priestly details the industry’s worth of labor that went into Andy Sachs’s bargain-bin sweater? Add in some climate journalism, a deep dive into modern history, and a crash course on workers’ rights, and you’ve got this book in a nutshell.”
—Harper’s Bazaar, “Best New Books of 2022”
"An engaging rundown of the ways humanity has strived to cover its collective butt."
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A vivid account of how linens, cottons, silks, synthetics, and wools have been manufactured and traded from prehistoric times to the present…You’ll never look at a label the same way again.”
—The New Criterion
“A masterpiece of investigative reporting and a riveting adventure story, Worn is both panoramic and richly particular. Thanhauser is the best of guides: humane, engaging, generous with historical anecdote and always able to reveal the telling detail. She shows how the cost of fashion far exceeds any retail price tag, and how the revival of venerable traditions might yet lead us to a sustainable future.”
—Geraldine Brooks, The New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Chord
“Sofi Thanhauser’s history of cloth is not just about clothing: it is about ethics, workers’ rights, women’s progress, climate justice. It is the about the fabric of who we are. And as told in Worn, it also makes an absolutely gripping read!”
—Peggy Orenstein, New York Times bestselling author of Girls & Sex and Boys & Sex
“A fascinating read, laying out how our increasingly careless use and discarding of clothing has come to damage our planet. Sofi Thanhauser has carried out a remarkable mass of research on clothes and the fibers they are made from. She has stitched it all together in a clear and engaging style that invites one to keep reading, and to start mending our ways.”
—Elizabeth Wayland Barber, author of Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years
“The story of what we wear is the story of who we are, and Worn offers a riveting, provocative, and eye-opening account. One cannot make sense of our modern world without this book.”
—Brian Christian, bestselling author of Algorithms to Live By and The Alignment Problem
“A must-read. . . Sofi Thanhauser tracks the ingenuity, creativity and human cost of textile production across centuries and cultures in a book which combines remarkable research with heartfelt care.”
—Clare Hunter, author of Threads of Life
“A captivating and deeply researched study of the five main fabrics from which clothing is made...Interweaving eye-popping statistics; immersive descriptions; and vivid profiles of historical figures, Thanhauser unearths the secret life of fabrics with skill and precision. Readers won’t look at their wardrobes the same way again.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Thanhauser confronts the economic impact and environmental damage wreaked by cloth manufacturers throughout history. She considers various materials—linen, cotton, silk, synthetics, and wool—and reports on their origins, uses, and global marketing, effectively combining scrupulous research, interviews, examples drawn from history, literature, pop culture, numerous anecdotes, and engaging commentary . . . fresh and thoughtful.”