WEEKEND DETRITUS: Made in LA/Hecho en Los Angeles

When people think about sweatshops, they frequently regard them as a thing of the past, or believe that they only exist overseas.  Less than a decade ago, however, employees worked for long hours in “sweatshop-like conditions” and were paid well below minimum wage.  Several dozen women were locked into cramped rooms and only allowed a half-hour break for shifts lasting twelve hours or more, and some of them had to take work home with them and work late into the night after that.  Made in LA/Hecho en Los Angeles looks back at how a group of workers organized and protested against one of the giants of fast fashion — and won.

The film unfolds over a three-year period, opening in mid-2001.  We meet several Central and South American refugees who work together.  Some of them have families, others left their children in their home country, and still others are childfree; many of the subjects are undocumented.  They take work in the Los Angeles garment district at the suggestion of others in their community, or because they’re paid under the table and don’t need immigration documents.  The filmmakers allow us to hear from the women about how their employers have exploited them, instead of passing judgment right out of the gate.  Their dissatisfaction leads them to the Garment Workers Center in LA, with whose help they file a lawsuit against Forever 21 and protest the company’s ill treatment of their employees.  When their lawsuit gets dismissed, the women petition Congress and picket stores in other parts of the country.

Director Almudena Carraceno shoots like a proverbial fly on the wall.  Her long takes of arguments at meetings illustrate that organizing labor can be frustrating for everyone involved.  When the women speak before a class at UCLA after their case is dismissed, we also see the toll this work has taken.  Carraceno’s efforts to show the women’s lives in a well-rounded way came up against PBS’s time constraints — one of the protagonists’ efforts at bringing her sons to American from El Salvador, for example, felt abbreviated.

The film concludes on an ambivalent note.  Forever 21 agrees to the Garment Worker’s Center’s conditions, but the subcontractor closes its doors, leaving many of the women unemployed.  With many fast fashion companies moving their work overseas, employment opportunities for these women grow a little scarcer.  One woman, Maura Colorado, enrolls in English classes and begins working towards getting documented.  Lupe Hernandez, through whom we experience the film, takes a position at the Garment Workers’ Center.  The film doesn’t provide us with easy answers, even as it shows how the women have grown from this experience.

While Made in LA isn’t a stylish or entertaining documentary, it is important viewing for anyone who cares about immigration and labor in the US.  The film’s accessible approach to a huge issue make it as user-friendly as it is vital.

New-to-me links:

I don’t write about politics here, because this is primarily a craft blog.  However, reading about the disappearance of 43 teaching students in Mexico has been painful and scary.  My thoughts are with the missing students, their colleagues, and their families.

Mashable takes a look back at women’s workwear in the 20th century.

My MetaFilter pal Joseph Conrad is Fully Awesome posted a link to an article about The Rise of Men’s British-Made Shoes a while back, and I keep meaning to post it here.

Speaking of MeFi, here’s a great article about the importance of ’70s fashion.  The ensuing discussion inspired me to check out Cheap Chic from the library.

One of my favorite podcasts, Girls in Hoodies, ended a few days ago.  While my Friday morning commute will never be the same, I’m excited for what Emily Yoshida has going on next…and I’m hoping that Molly Lambert will come back to podcasting soon.


WEEKEND DETRITUS: Women in Clothes

Usually, the subject of women’s relationship with clothes and body image presents women as objects: “sluts” who dress revealingly or dowdy women who don’t take an interest in their appearance; judgments over gender performance; the role weight and build play in how other women view themselves.  Instead of taking these and other perspectives as gospel, rising literary stars Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leann Shapton ask women about their perspectives on these issues.  The result of their research is Women in Clothes, a formidable but accessible tome that looks at the subject from all angles.

Inspired by a Skype conversation about personal style, the writers distributed an exhaustive survey to a variety of women.  Their responses serve as the book’s backbone — in addition to the seven included in full, the authors excerpt answers from various surveys in three- or four-page chapters devoted to one specific question.  Additionally, conversations among the authors appear as sidebars to some of the essays and chapters.  This conversational style gives the book its accessible feel and point out that this book is just the start of the conversation.

First person essays take up the bulk of the book.  For those of you looking for low-hanging fruit, please note that half the cast of Girls is represented in the book’s pages.  Additionally, Umm Adam’s essay “I Do Care About Your Party” knocks down several straw man arguments and makes some poor-faith assumptions about why women take an interest in their appearance, and an interview with a scent scholar journeys a little too far into the land of TMI for my appreciation.  The way the rest of the writers interrogate issues like gender performance (the moving and alluring “Mother, Daughter, Moustache”), aging (“An Older Woman Going Through Her Closet”), consumerism, utility (“A French Girl Hoeing”), and artistic expression (a conversation between Molly Ringwald and Cindy Sherman) — among other topics — is fascinating and compulsively readable.

Given my interest in how clothes are made, I was especially glad to see several essays about and interviews with people in the garment trade.  While an interview with Bangladeshi seamstress Reba Sikder depicts with horror the collapse of a sweatshop, the darkly humorous “Maybe a Lot of People Don’t Do This” — in which a Vietnamese family made menswear in their Brooklyn apartment for pennies on the dollar — is shocking and illuminating in its depiction of textile production in America.

The title of the book might make the subject matter look simple, and the thickness might give it an intimidating quality, but Women in Clothes is a thought-provoking read.

Now re-reading: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, which makes for an interesting — if occasionally problematic — companion to Citizen Denim. 

New-to-me links:

So we know that fast fashion is bad for the environment, but did you know it has a negative effect on the courts as well?

Speaking of fast fashion, ever wonder where your clothes go after you drop them off at Goodwill?  Glad you asked.

After a fascinating and enjoyable episode about cosplay, The Dork Forest podcast looked at the evolution of Sex Nerd Sandra’s style and her geekery over fashion, makeup, and hair care.


Have you ever thought about where your dungarees came from, or how they’re made?  In her 2006 book Fugitive Denim, Rachel Louise Snyder takes a trip around the world, stopping in unusual locales like Cambodia, Shenzhen, Turkey, and Italy, to better understand the denim industry and to look at a new generation of designers and manufacturers who are trying to correct some controversial labor standards and garment production issues.

While Snyder’s structure seems to mirror how a pair of jeans is made, she does tend to meander a bit.  This is especially pronounced in the first half of the book, when her eye for detail gets stuck on some seemingly mundane issues (most notably, one cotton supplier’s love of coffee and cheesecake) that have minimal payoff later on.  While a few early chapters have some fascinating information (such as one passage that details the pressure put on an Italian company to move all its production overseas), the book really gets rolling when Snyder decamps to Cambodia.  In her depiction of two garment factory workers’ lives ably balances the ethical issues of offshore production, the long hours and low pay of sweatshop work, and the positive effects that employment has on these two girls.

While Fugitive Denim is not a capital-F feminist treatise, Snyder’s focus on the work of women (and how garment work is so associated with women) make it a thought-provoking read for those concerned with issues and problems facing women overseas.  She mostly interviews female subjects, and she depicts their problems with things we take for granted in the States, such as education and balancing motherhood and employment.  (Though some of the labor-related issues are not specifically tied to gender, one detail from the chapter in Cambodia was so unsettling that I had to put the book down for a few hours.)  She also foregrounds many of the environmental issues related to denim production, and she writes accessibly about the risks and benefits of sweatshop labor.  While Snyder mentioned the abuse and assault of female employees in Jordan and Sri Lanka, I would have been interested to see her pursue this a bit further.

The book begins and ends with a visit to the Edun showroom — the denim company designed by Rogan Gregory and funded by some dude named Bono.  In writing about Edun, she gives us an idealistic image of how the industry could run, but she also details the company’s rarified customer base and its struggles to turn a profit.

If you’re interested in how something as mundane as a pair of jeans is made, you’ll want to read Fugitive Denim.  Rachel Louise Snyder doesn’t provide readers with easy answers about whether they should abstain from buying products made in China, but her detailed look at industrialized textile production will help you appreciate many aspects of the production process.

New-to-me links:

I never miss an episode of Julie Klausner‘s hilarious and informative podcast “How Was Your Week?”, but this week’s interview with the director and stars of the documentary Advanced Style might be the push I need to start giving her money.  I was really inspired by the conversation about aging, mortality, community, and hats.

This week I learned that Madewell bought its name and story from a textile mill and clothing company in Fall River, MA.  While the brand’s bogus history made me even more disinclined to shop there, Dan Nosowitz’s article included a link to Save Khaki, USA, from whence I may purchase Gentleman Caller’s Christmas present.

“Why You Looked Weird in High School”: a breezy article that looks at performativity, style, adolescence, and Doin It Rong.

Debbie Harry’s Life in Ten Tee Shirts, and Amy Rose’s look back at the concert tee shirts of her life.

Also, ‘sup duderz.  This past week knocked the wind out of me, and I’m glad to be back.

WEEKEND DETRITUS: ‘Overdressed’ & old-but-interesting links


Ever wondered where your clothes were made, or the conditions under which they were sewn together? In the book Overdressed, author Elizabeth L. Cline takes a whirlwind trip around the globe to see how fast fashion was made, as well as the impact that perpetually popular cheap clothing has had on the environment and on the labor force.

The book starts with a history lesson that establishes how consumers have gone from purchasing expensive yet well-made separates and dresses to gobbling up perennially available clothing that falls apart if you look at it wrong. With that crash course, she looks at why so many jobs have gone overseas, and how our outsourcing has made parts of countries like China and Bangladesh all but uninhabitable. She explained import laws in an accessible and humorous way (never underestimate the power of a well-placed Monty Python reference). Likewise, her trip to the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic did justice to the complex issues of overseas labor and its positive impact on international economy. As a crafter, I found the final chapter – in which Cline learns to sew – galvanizing, but I recognize (as does Cline) that not everyone would be able to give up shopping for affordable clothing and just make their entire wardrobe from scratch. (Some additional issues related to making one’s own clothes, such as buying ethically-sourced thread and fabric, are implicitly dealt with in other parts of the book, but I kind of wish she’d drawn that into the final chapter a little more explicitly.)

In the back-cover blurb, book critic Katha Pollitt compared Overdressed to Fast-Food Nation for its thought-provoking look at an industry that affects various, seemingly unconnected areas. I found the book less shocking than FFN, in part because I’ve read a fair amount about the global problems associated with industrialized textile production. While Cline does write about the human cost of cheaply-made clothes, I do wish she’d gotten into greater detail about the labor and safety issues in many unregulated third world sweatshops. (The afterword addresses the fires and deaths at Bangladeshi shops in 2013.)

Cline’s first-person style does a great job of keeping the reader engaged through some tricky subject matter. That said, I did find her inconsistent use of the first person frustrating. While her early love affair with stores like Forever 21 and H&M makes her a relatable narrator, the inclusion towards the end of the book of her sewing lesson suggests the trajectory of a person who turns her back on fast fashion and moves towards a DIY approach to her wardrobe. The first-person narration would have worked better for me if Cline had a more conclusive personal narrative.

Overdressed makes the hidden costs and complexities of fast fashion comprehensible to its audience. If you want to know more about how your clothes get from the sewing machine or the cotton fields to your closet, definitely check it out.

Now reading: Fugitive Denim by Rachel Louise Snyder. Review forthcoming.

And now, some new-to-me links:

On her podcast The Dork Forest, comedian Jackie Kashian interviewed Brittnee Braun about her love of cosplay. In the interview, Braun discusses clothing construction for women at great length.

A few weeks ago, Rookie interviewed Sheila Heti about a new book she co-authored, Women in Clothes. I like what she has to say about personal style and clothing consumption, and I can’t wait to read her book.

While I’m not a huge fan of Brain Pickings (long story), this excerpt from Worn Stories definitely piqued my interest.