Book introductions don’t often do very good work. They maybe give away the ending, or have someone famous gush about why the reader should love what they’re about to read. They sometimes provide a frame to read through and remove the opportunity to discover something for the first time. They don’t often help make sense of what you’re about to read. Here, in the introduction to “Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion’s Sins,” Alyssa Hardy is, in fact, very clear about what the reader is getting into: a love story.
The thing that is striking about this love story is that “Worn Out” isn’t about people falling in love. It’s about the failures and shortcomings of the fashion industry, currently and, somewhat less so, historically. Nonetheless, this is a love story. What’s more, it’s one of those “complicated” love stories.
Hardy is clear from the start that she has been complicit in the industry that she is criticizing. Her work with Teen Vogue and InStyle was a part of the apparatus that props up the fashion industry. Her prose about clothing is very much centered on how it makes her feel and how she projects onto others how it makes them feel. Something that makes this book complicated for me is that Hardy has an assumed reader: someone who has read her columns or picks up the magazines she’s worked for, a younger person with a taste for fashion – which I am not.
Is it complicated, or bad, to enjoy fashion? No. Is liking red carpet galas or Fashion Week a bad thing? No. Not inherently. The complication comes from uncovering how these things are fueled. Fast fashion brands churning out new clothes weekly to drive consumption for consumption’s sake; shipping the “old” clothes to other countries to lie in heaps; and creating borderline slavery conditions for exploited workers in the manufacturing of all these clothes — this is where things get complicated. But, this system isn’t new.
The history of exploitation in the garment industry could be the longest saga in the labor movement, from enslaved Black people providing labor in the South to produce cotton, to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire resulting in people burned alive in a locked building, to maquilladoras and on and on. What’s challenging for me about the tone and revelation in this book is that these seem like new things for Hardy. This is hundreds of years of bad behavior, not a recent revelation.
However, this is the nature of a complicated love story. Perhaps even an abusive relationship of sorts, where getting out is as hard or dangerous as staying in. Hardy’s love of fashion is palpable. Many of the metaphors invoked are clothing related — comfy sweaters and the like — and her realization and struggles with the world she loves are real. Each chapter focuses on some aspect of the fashion industry that strains her love — outsourcing, extraordinary sexism, brand opacity, green washing. And each chapter feels like the loss of a little more love, with the same inability to walk away.
This is, I think, where the real niche for “Worn Out” exists — as an intro itself, to that group of assumed readers I mentioned earlier. There is a sense throughout that for Hardy and/or her employers there had been a kind of averted gaze, where the hard truths of the industry were ignored or quietly side-stepped. And that this slowly piled on Hardy long enough that she couldn’t ignore it anymore. In writing to her audience, she can prevent that cycle from repeating. The thrill of Fashion Week or the seduction of just the right pair of boots can co-exist with awareness of the harm in garment production.
Hardy does mention, though, how brands are becoming savvy about activist concerns and making symbolic maneuvers to avoid criticism. Part of her work here is to keep the pressure on, from more people, starting at an earlier age. She’s trying to make a squeaky wheel.
Which is to say, she’s trying to help make the squeaky wheel that already exists actually be heard. Hardy’s understanding of how the garment industry is built on the backs of those who can’t afford to be part of it is the important inflection point in her arguments and goals. At one point the glitz of the parties was too powerfully overshadowed by the underpaid, underappreciated people, mostly women, who actually made the clothes. And these workers have been silenced and ignored systematically for the life of the industry. Hardy wants to move the focus from the runway and onto the production line.
For anyone who feels prompted from this review to make some changes in their purchasing patterns, beware — “made in America” is not necessarily better. The tale of the American Apparel brand wends its way through a portion of the narrative, making it clear how pervasive the issue is. This is the trap of the abusive relationship. There seems to be no way out.
At the end of “Worn Out,” Hardy offers glimmers of hope, in the form of co-operative production facilities that may help to re-direct some of the market. But, ultimately, that requires more people to spend more time pushing back against the tide. It requires knowing how the brands you love most actually make what they make, and whether something shiny and new is worth the human cost.
Chris LaCroix lives in Seattle. He likes all the staircases around the city.
Read more of the Apr. 5-11, 2023 issue.