Image credit: Pantheon

Sofi Thanhauser has traveled the world, looking for the future of fashion by exploring its past. Author of the recently published Worn: A People’s History of Clothing (Pantheon, 2022), Thanhauser has spent the last ten years traveling, researching, and writing about the garment industry—its rich histories and its flawed present. To her, not only does clothing speak volumes as an indicator of our contemporary culture and systemic contradictions, but it can also be a vehicle for memory and connectivity.

Thanhauser sat down with Public Seminar’s AJ Morris to discuss all things Worn, including her writing process, the myth of individual blame in textile waste, and what comes next in holding the fashion industry accountable.

AJ Morris: When you were writing, who did you think this book was for?

Sofi Thanhauser: My sister. I thought about my sister because she’s really smart. She reads, but she’s not a specialist. She’s not an academic. She’s smart and she cares, but she’s also not willing to read a boring book. That was the reader that I had in mind. I was like, “If I could get Kaya into this book, that would be a good start.”

AJM:  In your introduction, you talk about an eighteenth-century house in your hometown that had no closet: you call it a “testament to the time.” Given modern social media phenomena such as influencer closet tour videos, what do you think those closets will say about our society?

ST:  I guess it’ll depend on how the future unfolds. If the future unfolds in one way, closets might be really small. Or, closets will be large, and a testament to overconsumption and a system of global trade that allows people to have a quantity of clothing because there will be no check on how low labor costs, or material costs, can go.

Right now, there are just a bunch of stacked inequalities. There’s the inequality inherent in the position of the United States vis-à-vis other countries, and our comparative purchasing power and political power. And then there are inequalities within those countries between, say, women and men, or people living in rural and urban areas.

There are compounded layers of oppression that have produced big closets. But also, and this is a little bit of a leap, big closets reflect a nation starved for meaning. What does it take to need that much stuff?

 AJM: After speaking to Beyoncé’s seamstress Shannon O’Hara, you wrote “this is where the money is, in the space between what a woman is and what she can be made to believe about herself.” What do your own clothes make you believe about yourself?

ST: I think it changes. I remember when I was in grad school, one of my officemates described my style as androgynous black pajamas. I was like, “No way.” Then I looked down, and that was exactly what I was wearing.

It’s hard to get a read about what others take from my appearance. More often, I have a sense of what I’m evoking personally, and what I want to evoke. In my early twenties, I was all about the young man. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of myself as genderqueer because those terms didn’t exist in the same way they do now. But I was like, “I am a young man. That’s the archetype that I’m going for. I want to be dashing. I want to seem like I could have a dagger in my belt and pull it out.”

That’s the vibe I was going for in my clothing and my hair. And then, at other times, I’ve been more into really long, big skirts, and inhabit a more feminine persona. So, it changes. I also feel like colors come in and out. I think I rely heavily on sweaters, honestly, of all kinds, like sweater pants, sweater skirts, because they are giving, but have integrity.

AJM: In your clothing evolutions, you seem to have characters in mind.

ST: Yes. That’s a really good way to put it. To me, that is what dressing is: you take on the character that you’re going to play in the world. Occasionally, I find it weird to be just one person. I think, “Why am I this particular person, instead of just the totality of what I am?” I don’t really know. But, for right now, I need to act as if that one thing is what’s going on.

Getting your costume right is part of how you get into that weird reality that you are just one person because, on some very real level, that’s true.

So yes, I do think that putting on a costume is the first step of getting into character.

AJM: We’re flooded with so many new clothing trends; a thousand different iterations of a million different things every day. What do you think is the importance of personal style in today’s oversaturated trend cycle?

ST: I love New York that way. I don’t often see someone dressed in a way that I really sit up and go, “What the fuck is that person doing?” But every once in a while, I do. I love that feeling so much. It’s usually on the subway, and it’s usually not in my own personal little milieu. I think the people who catch my eye are consciously making art with what they’re doing. They’re making art by using history or using different textures to play a little bit. I think I can tell when somebody’s playing versus just, I don’t know, being dressed by a system that keeps on producing poly-cotton blends in different shades.

AJM: What little, every day, things can you suggest to our readers that they can do for themselves to consume consciously and sustainably?

ST: It’s not easy. One thing people can do is to try to either make a garment or buy a garment from somebody who made it directly, and maybe get to know, through that process, what a garment is.

I didn’t write this book because I wanted to tell people how to buy stuff or get dressed. I wanted to clarify some of the histories that have resulted in the system that we have now that creates those opportunities. But I also didn’t want to place the onus on consumers because I don’t think that’s appropriate. The system of clothing that we have now has been created by centuries of colonial violence, and decades of trade agreements between the United States Department of State and the Chinese Communist Party. It’s not up to people trying to get a pair of socks to fix those things.

But, that said, if people want to think about how they want to dress, based on the social and economic forces involved in dressing themselves, I think one fun place to start is by just taking a peek around their community and seeing what’s happening. There are a lot of small clothes-makers and designers in New York who could use support. Anybody who’s trying to make clothes in the United States is extremely brave because it is not an easy way to make a living.

AJM: In your book, you write that fashion magazines participate heavily in creating the fantasy of brand names and encouraging the cycle of mass fashion waste. How does modern fashion journalism contribute to this machine, and how can fashion writers disrupt it?

ST: That is a very good and difficult question, and we might look outside the world of fashion to answer it. One of the things Michael Pollan wrote in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2007), and in his essay, “Unhappy Meals”, is that the American food system is a machine, and journalism is a part of that. When you make something that is actually simple seem complicated, there is so much room for journalists to come in, as well as dieticians and other experts, to tell people how to eat.

Suddenly, we believe we need all this help to navigate something that is being portrayed as complicated. So even the journalists who say, “Let me help you have a keto diet, and figure out the right way to do it,” even if they’re ostensibly helping cut through some of the devastating problems, they’re actually still contributing to the problem. I think it does seem like that’s already alive and well in fashion, about green brands or how to be sustainable. It’s like its own industry now.

One of the specific interventions I wanted to make in this book was that after the 2013 factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, there was a ton of writing about fashion’s footprint which, at least to my memory, hadn’t happened for a long time and now I feel that it’s omnipresent. In 2013, I was in grad school, working on this book, and I was reading a lot of pieces in the New York Times. Almost all of them compared it to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York, in 1911, which was a fair comparison, but not an accurate one.

None of them were pointing out that, between 1911 and 2013, we’d had a really powerful, successful garment workers’ union in the United States. Journalists were saying that garment manufacturers are just inherently exploitative, and the work is terrible, instead of saying, “No, this is a political choice. This wasn’t always true. We made progress and lost it.”

You know what I mean? I think that when you erase the mid-twentieth century, it’s easy to think that garment work is the same as sweatshop work, which it’s not. Maybe there should be more journalism that is highlighting things that are working, because there are, such as workaround co-ops making clothes in the United States.

I think it’s easier to lose those distinctions when there’s a buzzword. “Fast fashion” is one now, and people want to hitch every problem to it. In September 2021, I wrote a piece about forced labor and the cotton supply chain in Xinjiang for Vox. They ended up putting the headline “Could Your Jeans Be Contributing To This?” on it, making the piece very consumer-oriented, which was the last thing I was thinking about. But they had a calculus, I guess, which is if you want to rope a reader in, you have to go through their consumer choices.

AJM:  There’s also legislation. The Fashion Act is being viewed by many as a huge step for sustainability. What do you think instituting the Act could mean for fashion’s future? What comes next after something like that?

ST: I think it’s a great start, and also not nearly enough. It requires brands to disclose about half of their supply chain, which is just in itself a testament to how far we have slipped since the mid-twentieth century. That’s really all you’re asking of brands—to disclose half of their supply chain? That is insane.

For example, one of the things that came out of the factory collapse in 2013 in Bangladesh was the Bangladesh Accord on [Fire and] Building Safety. It was something that NGOs and unions had pushed for, for a long time, and it was the collapse that made it possible. Basically, what this accord did was make brands legally accountable for what happens in factories where they subcontract. So, if your factory collapses in Bangladesh, you’re legally accountable and can be sued in a court in your home country.

That, to me, is actual accountability. A lot of big brands signed on to that accord, but none of the big American retailers did. They formed their own Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, which has none of that legal accountability.

So, to me, that is what would be the next step: make brands legally liable in the United States for things that happen in their factories, wherever they are, because workers are endangered.

AJM: Your book contains a lot of personal narrative as well as history. How do you go about finding that balance?

ST: I appreciate you saying that because it is something I think a lot about. I did an MFA in creative writing, and before that, had done some light journalism. I’d written for a food magazine and a local paper, but I had never tried to write a book or even an essay. When I was trying to put together a long-form essay, I really struggled.

At some point, I came up with a cooking metaphor for the process. When I lived in graduate school in Wyoming, they did not have good food, so I cooked almost all of my own meals. I thought of the historical and research sections of the prose as the components of chili that come in jars and cans, like tomatoes, kidney beans, corn, and tomato paste. I need that stuff.

But the chili isn’t going to be that tasty unless I also have some fresh mushrooms, celery, and onions. I thought of the first-person immersive—sight, sound, smell, emotion—all the aspects of a personal narrative, as the fresh produce. I tried to think about writing this way: maybe I don’t have the proportions exactly right, but there is an appropriate level of proportion to reach that is somewhat intuitive and somewhat like cooking.

That metaphor worked, I think, because I have some confidence in the kitchen. I’m not a baker. I’m not good at following instructions. But I do like to make something by intuition. I have this sense of when something’s going to work: adding a little maple syrup, so it’s going to be the right balance of salty and sweet. It lets me be cocky in a way, and I think I imported the metaphor to say, “Hey, if you can figure out a flavor balance for chili, you can figure out an essay.”

AJ Morris is a freelance writer and an MA candidate in the Creative Publishing & Critical Journalism program at The New School for Social Research.

Sofi Thanhauser is a writer, artist, and musician, based in Brooklyn. She is the author of Worn: A People’s History of Clothing (Pantheon, January 2022).