Book Review: Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

stitchedupbook

You can’t have missed the media coverage marking the one year anniversary of the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse. Some 3000 workers were inside the Rana Plaza, an 8 storey illegally constructed factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when it collapsed at around 9am on Wednesday 24th April 2013. The factories produced clothing for major Western fashion brands including Primark, Matalan, Bon Marche and Mango. 1,138 people died; a heart-breaking consequence of the West’s addiction to cheap, fast fashion.

This is just one, albeit horrific example of the dark side to fashion; an industry built on the image of glamour, wealth and beauty. A new book aims to draw all that’s bad about the fashion industry together into one hard-hitting, brutally honest volume. Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion was written by Tansy Hoskins, the writer, journalist and activist. Case-by-case Hoskins dissects the industry we all love to hate by investigating the plight of the garment workers, the insatiable want of consumers, and the manipulative nature of the media industry. This book surpassed my expectations. There are many books on ethical fashion out there, some more wishy-washy than others. Hoskins attempt is admirable and a credit to her top-notch investigative journalism skills alongside her genuine passion for the topic. If you liked Lucy Siegle’s To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World? you’ll devour Stitched Up much like I did.

“There is no difference between a knight and any other man except what he wears”

This apparent quote from Robin Hood is Hoskins choice of opener. I’m not sure I would have opted to quote folklore whilst arguing for a realist shift in thinking about a multi-billion pound industry but nevertheless Hood makes an important point. Clothing is the most visible way we have to express our identity, status and values. Fashion is a global industry that we all take part in and Hoskins’ book helps us to take a more critical stance on it.

Each chapter looks at a different issue, from the cotton farmers at the start of the supply chain to the models showing off the final product and all of the sizest, racist taunts surrounding them. She delves straight into the politics and doesn’t shy away from an academic treatment of the subject, in fact, she loves Karl Marx, whose rules of labour and capital are called upon in virtually every chapter. Her key message is that capitalism is the root cause of all that’s bad in the fashion industry and individual action alone cannot reform it. Instead, we need a complete transformation of society, a new way of living and working to foster equality and quash class hierarchies. This she discusses in the final two chapters ‘Reforming Fashion’ and ‘Revolutionising Fashion’.

My only problem with the book is this disregard for the individual. Hoskins does a great job of building up a picture of a rotten industry, built on exploitation and greed, but it leaves the reader feeling helpless. Her concluding suggestions for a revolution are, in her own words, a “distant possibility”. I like to dream with the best of them, but I can’t envision a non-capitalist future unless something really terrible happens and we revert back to subsistence living out of necessity – it certainly won’t be an idealistic utopian society.

At one point she says, “As disappointing as it may be to hear this, there are no ethical clothes for sale”. I disagree. She destroys the likes of TOMS, who she says turned “poverty into a marketing ploy” and disregards CSR and ethical sourcing attempts of high street retailers as little more than greenwash. She gives the impression that as consumers we can do nothing right, we have no power (so therefore we might as well just shop?!). But I think there are ethical retailers, People Tree for example, who work with small fair trade groups and sustainable materials, are they not intrinsically a good?

As I hinted at before, this is a book for educated readers. It’s well researched, as evidenced by the extensive notes section and bibliography. It’s not a coffee table fashion book; although it does has some wonderful illustrations inside. It’s a must-read for students studying fashion, media, business, human geography or retail, along with inquisitive souls with a desire to know more about what exactly they have in their wardrobe. If I could make it law for everybody to read this book, and others like it, I would, because it’s important, and real, and something we can all play a part in to create change. I think Hoskins has succeeded in setting out what she hoped to do.

You can buy Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion direct from Pluto Press for £13.50. Don’t go to Amazon!

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4 Responses to Book Review: Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

  1. Hi Emma,
    Firstly thank you so much for a) reading Stitched Up and b) writing such a great review. I am immensely pleased that you took the time out to do both.
    I thought it might be worth clarifying for readers a few issues you raised in the review.
    Firstly, Stitched Up includes soooo many people & organisations that are creating change! From The Models Union to NGWF and War on Want plus probably about 100 more. There is no reason for anyone to feel helpless, I am simply offering the original and best way of creating change: creating social movements that can take on what it is you want to change. If this feels odd then it is because we have been conditioned to think only as individuals and as wallets.
    On the question of exploitation, clearly there are levels of exploitation within the fashion industry & I do state that some small ventures can help to create a blue print for a better society and prove that clothing does not have to involve slavery and environmental destruction. Yet it is the considered opinion of organisations like the Clean Clothes Campaign (and myself) that there is no rack of perfect clothes out there. No one is free from exploitation & environmental damage (or the visual confines (size, race, ablism) of the industry.) Nor do I think we should be looking for that perfect outfit whilst the rest of the industry is in such a state – individual comfort is not the goal.
    Basic exploitation from a Marxist perspective is: being paid less for your labour than the worth of the commodity you create. Being paid £1 to create a garment that is sold for £5 means a company takes £4 in profit for itself and leaves workers short of food, shelter etc. The fashion industry is awash with surplus wealth, it is just all currently stolen by a tiny minority – this is how capitalism operates and it is because of this that it needs to be overthrown.
    All the best, Tansy.

  2. Steph says:

    This review is great, I recently read the book as well and was considering writing a review but I think I will just direct any interested readers here as this is pretty much what I would like to say but written much better!
    The book combined with a workshop held by War on Want it has changed my opinion on how to interact with the garment industry. I think that the phrase ‘a citizen not a consumer’ resonated with me as I no longer want to try to change an industry using my consuming habits alone.
    I would also agree though that I did feel that the choices we can make as an individual were left out of the book and I would agree with you that companies such as People Tree are showing a different way to run a clothing company, a combined approach to changing the industry.
    Brilliant review, it is also really useful that Tansy has replied to your review and tried to answer some of your queries over it. Thanks for posting!

  3. Thanks for the review: I’ll have a look at the book!

    As for helplessness, poverty has been overcome, often, by the introduction of national insurance, pensions, and democratic welfare states.

    As consumers, we can look for products from these countries to show people in other countries that it’s what we value.

    As voters, we can ask why not a single MEP candidate in the next election wants to resume tariffs on goods from countries without a welfare state. Isn’t the quickest, easiest way to make other countries better is to tax their goods until they change?

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