Worn by Sofi Thanhauser review – a panoramic history of getting dressed

Following five materials through history, this richly evocative study exposes past snobberies and contemporary exploitation

People have always dressed above their station, and other people have always minded terribly. In 1913 the American reformer Bertha June Richardson was taken aback to discover that the girls whom she encountered in the New York tenements looked smarter than she did, with “everything about them in the latest style”. Unlike many of her pursed-lipped contemporaries, though, Richardson worked hard to understand what was really going on. The Smith graduate and author of The Woman Who Spends: A Study of Her Economic Function, concluded that these immigrant girls, many of them earning no more than $6 a week in the rag trade, were enacting their particular version of the American dream, one silk petticoat and puffy sleeve at a time.

One of the great pleasures of this panoramic history of getting dressed is Sofi Thanhauser’s ability to spot moments like these where human desire and material culture collide. When Molière wrote The Bourgeois Gentilhomme in 1670 about a burgher whose ambition to rise into the nobility requires him to get some fancy new outfits, audience members got the joke because they knew someone just like that and it was a relief, finally, to be allowed to snigger. A century later the script was flipped when Marie Antoinette attempted a bit of cross-class cosplay of her own. Enthralled by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s back-to-nature philosophy, the queen built her own toy farm in the grounds of Versailles and started a fashion for peasant costume among the ladies of her court. Not only was impersonating Bo Peep in the Hall of Mirrors a tone-deaf move, it decimated the domestic silk industry, throwing hundreds of Lyonnais artisans out of work. Without meaning to, the queen’s newfound passion for imported white muslin brought her a step or two closer to the guillotine.

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