Review by Anna Hollingsworth, 12 November 2019
My immediate reaction was a desperately deep sigh when, pre-launch, Dana Thomas’s Fashionopolis was trumpeted as a must-read revelatory work on the fashion industry. Surely anyone with even the slightest interest in the world must at least suspect that there is something amiss with fashion; sure, shoppers may well be in denial about the likely origins of their £5 T-shirts but it shouldn’t come as shock to anyone that things like humane working conditions and sustainability are hardly at the forefront in the production of that shirt. I was right in that Fashionopolis isn’t a shocker in revealing anything new. However, the sheer breadth of its coverage offers a deeper understanding of what is wrong with much of modern fashion than many other works on the subject.
Thomas does begin with what is expected: the subhuman working conditions in off-shore sweatshops. Yet she does so in a much more brutally realistic way than just nodding ‘yes, we know there is a problem’. There is no hiding of the gruesomeness of the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 in Bangladesh. One worker, Hridoy, was inspecting jeans when disaster struck: “When he opened his eyes, he saw he was face-to-face with one of his good friends, Faisal, who worked on the second floor as a sewing machine operator. [–] Faisal’s skull was shattered.” Hridoy describes the sight of his friend: “And his brains were spilling out.”
The harrowing scenes open the door to an in-depth review of all levels of fashion. Fashionopolis is a parade of case studies where Thomas raises issues and considers solutions to them. She looks at how the idea of hyperlocalism — scrapping multinational supply chains and bringing everything from sourcing fabrics to sewing clothes and design close to each other — attempts to address the problems of globalization; she delves into more sustainable ways, such as fabric recycling, of producing raw materials, especially cotton; and presents more futuristic ideas such as 3D printing and lab-grown materials as a fashion revolution waiting to happen.
In this way, by dutifully scrutinizing a multitude of problems, Thomas lays out a comprehensive road map to the industry as a whole. Too often, campaigns will focus on just, say, workers’ rights as one thing, or the water demands of cotton as another, so that the issues remain disconnected. Fashionopolis connects the many dots, and through this, manages to offer solutions on a more fundamental scale. This constructive take is the book’s tour de force: when problems occur on a global scale, we’re tempted to throw our hands up in the air and to give up, but Thomas clings onto an optimism, presenting success stories of people driving change. She meets an astonishing range of change-makers working in fashion, from the household name and self-identifying eco-activist Stella McCartney to Sarah Bellos, a farmer and entrepreneur dedicated to bringing back natural indigo to the US. If you haven’t heard of the latter, here is why you should: 99.99% of denim is dyed with synthetic indigo, but no one likes to mention how it is full of toxic chemicals.
Unfortunately, though, the optimism prevents Thomas from truly pursuing some difficult fundamental questions. She nods several times to the fact that growing consumption — no matter how sustainably, fairly and locally garments are produced — simply does not tally with stopping the impending climate catastrophe. However, this challenge is never really put to the interviewees. McCartney acknowledges the issue, saying “I know the moment I create a product, any product, I’m in some way creating a footprint. You can’t pretend that’s not the case. But I always try to find a solution.” This would have been an opportunity to push the issue further, but Thomas is content with general remarks of changing the industry from within. Another way to highlight the issue and to pull everything together would have been a proper summary or epilogue to the book, but that is all squeezed into the last two pages. As such, Fashionopolis does not get a proper finishing treatment.
Another aspect where Fashionopolis falls sadly flat is — no irony intended — style. I’d like to say that I gained deep insights into fashion through accessible and vivid prose, but getting through the over two hundred pages requires effort, and that’s not because the facts are particularly hard to take in. Thomas lingers on unnecessary details: sewing machines, the exact prices of rented dresses, initial investment figures and people’s career paths are all gone into in agonizingly unnecessary detail, diverting from the bigger issues at hand.
Attempts at a more individual style fail in an unintentionally comical way. Describing a French company, Thomas suddenly throws in desperately clichéd French expressions: “Oui, monsieurs et mesdames, it is as chic as you’d imagine. The clothes are le top. They have panache. They have that je e sais quoi.”(Dare I say it? A major literary fashion faux pas.) There are unfortunate incidents of hyperbole and dubious claims: “What should I wear?” is described as “one of the fundamental questions we ask ourselves every day.” At another point, Thomas claims that making clothes is a defining characteristic of being human: “we have a primal urge — an instinct — to craft things by hand, a compulsion to swathe ourselves in things made by members of our species. Anthropologists have long held forth that there are a few conditions that separate man from animals. Storytelling. Bipedalism. And the fact that we cloth ourselves. Sewing touches the human spirit.” Somehow I doubt it.
Another idiosyncrasy is Thomas’s way of describing people; it is merely odd at first but by the end of the book, I was cringing at the superficial and oddly repetitive descriptions. An ethical fashion entrepreneur is a “glossy upspeak brunette in her early forties, with cheekbones you could hang the laundry on”, the vice president of operations and sustainability at another company is “in her early thirties, petite, and peaches-and-cream pretty” and McCartney’s sustainability and ethical trade chief sounds more like someone off Love Island — “a brainy brunette.” I thought the world had moved on to appreciating people by what they do and not by how they look, but perhaps a more superficial approach is expected if what to wear is a fundamental question of life.
That said, with Fashionopolis, you must appreciate its substance over its style: it is an important read, but not one to skim through. Its breadth excuses its stylistic stumblings, so, like slow fashion, you must take your time.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis (Apollo, 2019). 978-1789546064, 320pp., hardback.
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