What Are You Wearing? History, Complexity and a Lot of Art. – The New York Times
Victoria Finlay’s “Fabric” examines the tangled stories of the textiles we wear and what they say about their times.
FABRIC: The Hidden History of the Material World, by Victoria Finlay
“What are you wearing?” It’s a question that typically invokes designers, brands and trends. Little consideration is given to the materiality of what we wear. The textiles in our lives tend to operate with inappreciable fanfare — often serving as artistic intermediary. In her latest book, Victoria Finlay gives them their due.
“Fabric: The Hidden History of the Material World” teases out the stories behind the materials — exalting them as builders of civilizations, instruments of advancement and keepers of sacred tradition. Just as she did in “Color: A Natural History of the Palette,” Finlay provides an exhaustive exploration that spans the breadth of the globe over the course of centuries. It’s a tall order, to be sure — but she delivers, and does so with deft cultural consciousness. Additionally, she writes of these materials with such wonderment — such reverence — that one cannot help believing in the “hidden magic” she insists is spun into each fiber.
Finlay’s writing is at once technical, historical and deeply personal. Like a skilled weaver, she takes many disparate threads and constructs a compelling narrative as informative as it is emotionally engaging. Part historical survey, part memoir and part travelogue, “Fabric” follows Finlay as she discovers the secrets behind each material’s history — all written as she mourned the deaths of her parents.
Finlay begins her explorations in Papua, New Guinea, where she unlocks the mysteries of Maisin barkcloth, and ends in Gee’s Bend, Ala., where she learns about the community’s rich tradition of patchwork quilts. Each of the book’s 11 chapters focuses on a different fabric: wool, linen, silk. The complex history of cotton is particularly notable, spanning continents and carrying entangled legacies of colonialism, industrial progress, slavery and modern capitalism. But rather than providing a didactic history lesson, the author re-examines her own understanding of well-worn historical narratives. Here, and throughout the book, Finlay takes the reader on a journey of personal discovery — acting as a curious yet knowledgeable guide rather than a detached instructor. When discussing synthetic — or, as she calls them, “imagined” — fabrics, Finlay examines some in her own closet and finds that “these relatively new, often problematic and sometimes difficult to love fabrics can also, at their best, be beautiful.”
Finlay opens with a brief vocabulary lesson meant to orient the reader; however, some of the technicalities that follow could perplex those unfamiliar with looms and weave structures. Perhaps this book is best suited to — and, indeed, written for — those who already have a baseline understanding of and appreciation for the textile arts. “Fabric” is sure to intrigue the fashion history enthusiast, chronicling as it does the trends that mirrored developments in textile trade and technology: the Indian pashmina shawls that dominated 19th-century European fashion, the sumptuous silk dragon robes of China’s Qing dynasty and the nylon stockings that thrilled 1940s America. These moments — where fabric is given life through worn experience — are the most fascinating portions of the book, and ultimately the most accessible.
“Fabric” comes at a moment when alarming statistics regarding textile waste have triggered calls for sustainability within the fashion industry — leading to renewed interest in the origins of our clothing. A call to action for more ethical practices runs throughout the book, and is made explicit in “A Note for the Future,” which follows the epilogue. Finlay writes: “Imagine: a world where we buy our fabric and clothes, as we increasingly buy our food, knowing where they have come from. Knowing who has made them and where. And knowing how much they have cost the earth.”
Raissa Bretaña is a New York-based fashion historian and faculty member in the art history department at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The Hidden History of the Material World
By Victoria Finlay
Illustrated. 528 pp. Pegasus. $32.