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Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes 
by Shahidha Bari.
Cape, 312 pp., £25, June, 978 1 78733 149 5
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‘About​ clothes, it’s awful,’ the protagonist thinks in Jean Rhys’s novel Voyage in the Dark (1934).

Everything makes you want pretty clothes like hell. People laugh at girls who are badly dressed … And the shop-windows sneering and smiling in your face. And then you look at the skirt of your costume, all crumpled at the back. And your hideous underclothes. You look at your hideous underclothes and you think, ‘All right, I’ll do anything for good clothes. Anything – anything for clothes.’

Anna Morgan is struggling to exist in an England that disgusts her and is disgusted by her. Part of the white detritus of colonialism (she has just arrived from the Caribbean), she can’t stand the smell of the dark, dank place she’s ended up in, is haunted by the light and sounds of her childhood. Clothes in Voyage in the Dark are caught up in these wild swings of feeling, from sensory overload to numbness. They make her ‘too sad to cry’. They also figure in baffling exchanges between women and transactional sex with men, and indicate her failure to understand herself, and her vulnerability and opacity to others. They contain almost everything, in other words.

About clothes, it can also be wonderful: transformative and affirming, a site of pleasurable connection and verbal effusion. About the writing on clothes (mostly women’s), it can be awful, too. It gets caught up in absolutes of emotion and assertions of importance; tends to celebration of individual genius in a world that is in fact deeply collaborative; is often intended to motivate sales, and to be exclusionary. Yet writing about clothes is also thriving today in ways that weren’t predictable several decades ago. As an academic subject it has broadened beyond the art historical models on which it was first based, and the work of fashion correspondents includes, among other examples, the sane, sly, knowledgeable prose of the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan, who not only covers collections but also analyses the looks of American public figures. And there is more reporting on the working and living conditions of the people who make the clothes – from the growing and harvesting of plants (cotton and hemp); to the spinning, weaving and dyeing of the fibres extracted from them; to the cutting and sewing not of couture for the few but apparel for the many – as well as on the unsustainability of most clothing production.

This global industry produces an absurd glut of items each year (150 billion, according to one estimate) yet by 2030 it is expected to grow by 63 per cent. It consumes energy on a vast scale, and is one of the biggest polluters on the planet, responsible for most of the microfibres and plastics in the oceans, approximately 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and 20 per cent of the wastewater. All this as the Amazon burns to clear ground for cattle used in the leather trade; as the quantity of unsold clothes incinerated by fashion brands each year is ‘exposed’ (it is more like an open secret); as the G7 announces an initiative to develop a non-regulatory fashion ‘pact’ to encourage sustainability (an agreement with no consequences); and as the British government refuses the recommendations of Parliament’s environmental audit panel, which included levying a 1p tax on each garment. Now that it’s too late, clothes are finally mainstream news.

Extinction Rebellion, several of whose UK members are fashion designers, has advocated a year-long boycott of new clothes buying and in September held a ‘funeral for fashion week’. The designer Katharine Hamnett, who has long backed radical reforms to labour practices and the sourcing of materials, believes that brands will only change if they are forced to by law. The idea of a fashion tax, she said recently, is ‘like putting a plaster on a septic wound’: it doesn’t address the enormity of the problem and will result in manufacturers recouping their money by paying workers less. Still, driven partly by consumers’ growing awareness of the carbon, water and waste footprints of clothes production and by the increasing demand for sustainably sourced options, some large clothing companies have started to modify how they do business (or have made ‘commitments’ to do so). Even the museum world has entered the conversation. Fashioned from Nature, an exhibition staged last year at the V&A, displayed historical garments and explored their plant, animal and manufacturing origins, discussed experiments in textile production, and insisted on the value of materials that have long been treated as ‘waste’. (For example, the coarse outer skins of silk cocoons are usually discarded but have been woven into a new fibre by a Japanese textile company.) Its curator, Edwina Ehrman, grew up in the industrial North. ‘In my childhood, the rivers were running pink and green,’ she told me when I met her last year. She remembered standing on a bridge over the River Calder, looking down at the bubbles popping on its surface. It was, she said, ‘a deeply polluted environment’ that the Clean Air Acts (1956, 1968, 1993) gradually transformed.

For Shahidha Bari, clothing is a ceaseless provocation, sensual and cerebral. She describes herself as ‘haunted by clothes’:

My eye is easily caught by a stranger’s coat in a train carriage, my hand prone to drifting absently through any array of textures, my brain too readily disengaged from the task at hand and inclined instead to wonder about the sympathies and sensibilities made visible in the things worn by any passing body at any given moment.

She asks us, in Dressed, ‘to pause and to reflect on our clothes’, especially as fast fashion continues to accelerate. Her subtitle is ‘The Secret Life of Clothes’, but the paths she travels and the pieces she lingers on are distinguished not by secrecy, but by the senses of necessity, love, disavowal, violence and protection that clothes provoke. ‘Dressing is so hard,’ she writes, sounding a bit like Anna Morgan, ‘it is astonishing that we ever find the courage to keep trying as we do every day.’

Bari understands that ‘one garment can tilt the day’ and she writes well about how tightly we are interwoven with our garments, ‘our utter entanglements with them’. She is interested in the complexities of embodiment: ‘When we dress, we see our bodies as mutable things … This is painful perhaps, but it is a vulnerability we all share, and as soon as we extend our imagination to the possibility of others, we form the basis of ethical relationships.’ Arguing with those who diminish this subject, she asserts that ‘we rarely think to take the things we wear and hold them up to the light, inspecting them as objects of intellectual inquiry.’ At the same time, she sets herself apart from scholars in the field. She wants us to ‘put aside the distracting questions of what constitutes “fashion”, and move beyond the conventional discussions of identity, subcultures and social history. What I have in mind is something more expansive and open than that: a kind of philosophy of dress.’ But Dressed is not what Bari promises. She summarises the approaches of ‘fashion historians’, ‘ethno-sociologists’ and ‘stylish bloggers’ in a sentence each and concludes that ‘none’ of their work ‘explains what it feels like to pull on a padded coat on the first cold day of September’. ‘Why do some of us carry rucksacks and handbags spilling with stuff we think we need?’ she asks. ‘What is the peculiar peace that overcomes us when we peel off our shoes at the close of day? These are the questions that interest me.’ Yet such subjective questions do not get most of her attention.

At the beginning of each of her five main sections (‘Dresses’, ‘Suits, Coats and Jackets’, ‘Shoes’, ‘Furs, Feathers and Skins’, ‘Pockets, Purses and Suitcases’), Bari writes briefly but in vivid detail about her encounters with an exemplar of each: a shared and mended dress; a suit jacket she was covered in (and then rejected) after surviving a car crash caused by a reckless lover; another dress, in green snakeskin, ‘iridescent, metallic, inhuman’; a pair of running spikes in which she felt herself ‘running up as close as I can against a limit I never knew I possessed’; her mother’s capacious handbag. Each of these italicised mini-portraits is a precise distillation of feeling, thinking and being in complex contact with oneself and others. The bulk of Dressed, however, consists of quick readings of cultural artefacts, punctuated by the words of European philosophers. A section on women, birds and feathers moves from Cecil Beaton’s designs for My Fair Lady, to Simone de Beauvoir’s novel L’Invitée, to Hitchcock’s The Birds, to Rubens and Correggio’s paintings of Leda and the swan, to Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter collection of 2001, to Wuthering Heights (I’ll stop there). In ‘Pockets, Purses and Suitcases’, we meet Freud’s Dora, Richardson’s Pamela, the Yoruba apo ifa bag, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, Mary Poppins’s carpet bag, designer handbags and Dora the Explorer’s backpack. It’s hard to find a thread – of argument, narrative, history or portraiture – and the shifts from one text to another to another can be dizzying. There’s no way for Bari to do justice to each example.

The problem has to do with the relation between the general and the particular. She insists, for example, that we honour individual responses, but doesn’t write much about her own experiences, those of other wearers of clothes, or of people who work in or think about the industry (McQueen is the exception). If she has conducted interviews, she does not cite them. ‘What do we talk about when we talk about clothes?’ she asks. ‘Mostly, I think we are liable to lapse into truisms. Our “identities are expressed” by them, we say vaguely, as though the boy in the Ramones T-shirt was the sum of what he wore and as though selfhood were a thing that could be articulated so effortlessly.’ Again, she’s right. Yet her own style proceeds by truism – generalisations about how clothes work, what they mean and how ‘we’ feel about them. ‘We long for the dress that could transfix all who look upon it.’ And: ‘The wedding dress that will never fit us again is like a stab of pain in the heart.’ Some of these declarations have an aphoristic punch: ‘The cost of a dress is always a wager.’ Some are inexplicable: ‘When women adopt the trouser suit, it makes for a strident look.’ (Says who? To whom? And this is not the only tone-deaf use of the adjective ‘strident’, with its misogynist history.) Grand statements in the form of rhetorical questions abound. ‘If women are dressed as birds, isn’t it because birds are beautiful and boundlessly free?’ Some of these ideas, offered as provocative novelties, have had decades of thought devoted to them. (‘We dress to deflect others, and we dress for ourselves too.’) She is not the first to recognise a key paradox of the politics of dress: ‘We dismiss dress as the most superficial of subjects but we return to it too again and again, in the critical debates of our time.’ Women, mostly, have been making this point for at least a hundred years.

What does it mean to generalise in this way? If Bari’s use of the first-person plural is a gesture towards collectivity, it’s not clear how these readings get any version of ‘us’ closer to ethical mutual responsibility. Her style shares something with the hauteur of a fashion diva’s pronouncements, but lacks the camp irony of that mode. Perhaps it is a question of audience. I was brought up short by a few glancing sentences about transgender women’s experiences of ‘the wearing of a dress’ devoted to a fictional child in a film of 25 years ago (Ma vie en rose), rather than to the voices of living, adult, trans women (or men, or others) reflecting on their childhoods. This is not an argument for the greater truth-value of non-fictional texts, but for a more genuine sense of collectivity.

At her best Bari is attuned to how clothes feel, sound and smell, as well as how they look. And when she pays attention to her own point of view, she in fact thinks collectively and in more sensorially rich ways about our imbrication with objects and with one another’s lives. ‘When I listen closely in a crowd,’ she writes in her introduction,

I am conscious of the synthetic rustle of a jacket’s lining as it grazes against an acrylic jumper, the crackle and quick hum of a zip as it zooms up to a neck, the pleasing clatter of an assortment of heels. I know precisely the smart smack of a leather sole against a solid floor. When the noise of voices, traffic and TV subsides, you’ll hear it too – a cloud of inchoate sounds, the murmur of tangled fibres as they brush against surfaces of all kinds.

‘The clothes we love are like friends,’ she writes. She begins her book with a story about a dress that was passed between herself and another woman, and in her acknowledgments thanks ‘my friends, especially Tamara Atkin (pockets on a denim dress), Justin Coombes (navy jumpers), Nemonie Craven Roderick (turquoise salwar kameez), Rob Lederer (jaunty cap)’ and so on. This intimation of a series of portraits is as evocative as her generalisations are offputting.

As I was thinking about Dressed this summer, I was also reading Samuel Delany’s Heavenly Breakfast (1979), his account of and theorising about living communally in New York’s East Village in the late 1960s. ‘In rooms full of fine people,’ he writes,

it’s nice to have three or four of them always around naked. It’s nice to have a few others dressed in silver, in paisley, in leather, in fur, in something pastel and transparent that sways, in something brocade or velvet that swings; people on their way to a concert, a big deal, a little deal, a friend, or just going for (or returning from) a walk. And it’s nice to have most of the people knocking around in something once beautiful, with wear grown comfortable.

These casually careful sentences swing, sway and knock around thanks to the wit and specificity of his verbs; the pointed but offhand subjectivity (‘it’s nice to have’); diction that is at once emphatic and idiosyncratic; the perception focused on texture, living beings and multiplying possibilities; the sense of how these things hold history as well as bodies (clothes ‘once beautiful, with wear grown comfortable’). Late in the book, Delany writes that ‘what I really wanted to discuss’ was ‘the texture and affectivity of life lived humanely, day by day’. I think Bari would agree.

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