By Sara Tatyana Bernstein

Something odd happened to my clothes during the pandemic. Without meaning to, I amassed a wardrobe with a palette ranging from cremini mushroom to a particular purplish-gray — an unfortunate shade that reminds me of used chewing gum. This summer I splurged on a tangerine house dress, but it never left my closet. Cheery colors don’t feel right. After skimming through highlights from New York Fashion Week, it’s clear that my attraction to mud- and fungi-inspired styles isn’t just a private mood. This mushroom theme is everywhere: loose grays and browns, giant scarves that cover mouths and noses, and bucket hats that shield the eyes. Even cottagecore, possibly the defining social media aesthetic of the early pandemic, is giving way to earthier goblincore looks. Obviously, mud and mushrooms aren’t the only things happening in fashion right now. But if a lot of us are dressing this way, there must be good reasons why.

Here’s one possible explanation: As we settle into a new decade, there is more confusion than usual around what we should be wearing, how we should be buying it, and what we should care about. After two years in stretchy fabrics, we’re supposed to get back outside and look presentable, but it’s unclear what that means. Do we invest in a capsule wardrobe or revel in secondhand maximalism? Is it time we end our collective habit of fast fashion? 

With so much strife and uncertainty in the world, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and say that clothes don’t even matter. But they do. Getting dressed isn’t a low-stakes activity, nor is it something we can opt out of: After all, we have bodies. Our appearances are read according to cultural norms and expectations. Clothes, too, reflect a vibe, the culture of a moment; they define generations. And fashion is always political (even something as excessively innocent as twee has a radical history). What’s more, fashion is a global industry that provides millions of jobs to workers around the world. And for good, ill, and everything in between, fashion and adornment are our history. Thinking about all of this can be exhausting, making us want to retreat under the cover of our bucket hats. 

I’ve spent almost 20 years studying, teaching, and writing about clothes. I never tire of the subject: Our relationship with clothing is complicated, and fashion is endlessly fascinating, with its unique ability to cut across and connect every aspect of daily life: tied to the global economy, weaved into our personal memories.

I think there’s another way to look at this mushroom moment. If this is an era of murkiness and uncertainty, let it also be a time of reflection, learning, and unlearning — and a deeper understanding of our individual and collective experiences through fashion. The essays I’ve compiled in this reading list are part of that process: They help me put my current tastes into perspective, reflect on the big picture, and remember that what I choose to wear is just one part of getting dressed.

Maybe, soon, I’ll be ready for that tangerine dress.

A Stain on an All-American Brand: How Brooks Brothers Once Clothed Slaves (Jonathan Michael Square, Vestoj, Oct 11, 2021)

Why do legacy brands have such a terrible track record when it comes to acknowledging the ugly parts of their histories? So many storied European fashion brands have had connections to fascism — it’s hard to keep them straight. Coco Chanel? Nazi. Hugo Boss? Nazi. Adidas and Puma? Created by German brothers — both Nazis. To my knowledge, only Hugo Boss has formally apologized for this past. Other brands continue to offer platitudes and ask that we focus on what their values are “today.” 

For companies whose brands are built around their history, like Brooks Brothers, the disconnect is absurd. According to Jonathan Michael Square, the apparel brand’s history, dating back to its founding in 1818, includes selling clothes to be worn by enslaved men in the South. Square’s research draws mainly from museum collections and historical societies. As Square notes, Brooks Brothers keeps their own archives locked, missing a major opportunity to change their history by adding a meaningful contribution to an urgent conversation. 

While many others American corporations and families have roots in American slavery, few have maintained a continuous brand identity over two centuries. Brooks Brothers has survived in part due to the glacial shifts in menswear trends that protect it from the vagaries of a mercurial fashion industry.

Clothes and Daggers (Rafia Zakaria, Aeon, September 8, 2015)

In one of her most famous quotes, postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak described the historic justification of colonialism as white men “saving brown women from brown men.” Rafia Zakaria’s essay for Aeon shows the role that women’s clothing has played in that narrative. British colonizers in India wanted saris to conform to their ideas of modesty. Over a century later, Americans declared their goal of liberating Afghan women from the burka. As Zakaria points out, both campaigns made for titillating stories that cast invading armies as heroes and entire nations of women as exotically clad damsels in distress. As the fallout from America’s occupation of Afghanistan continues, it’s worth remembering that these stories haven’t had any demonstrable impact on the lives of the women they were supposed to be helping. 

Whether it is the covering of breasts in Southern India or the wearing of burqas in Afghanistan, women’s comportment and clothing have offered an emotionally powerful shorthand for all that is wrong with native culture and all that must be corrected by the empire.

At All Costs (Amna Chaudhry, Guernica, December 14, 2020)

The pandemic forced many of us to pay more attention to supply chains. We’re waiting longer for clothes ordered online to be delivered. Brick-and-mortar stores are an entirely different story. The last time I wandered into a Nordstrom there was an air of desolation in the women’s section. Bored sales associates refolded acrylic cardigans on a half-empty table and whispered to each other over a lonely rack of Not Your Daughter’s Jeans (more on the state of department stores below). But in the fashion industry, the people most impacted by COVID’s disruptions are the ones who make our clothes. As usual, the most precarious workers endure the worst consequences.

This piece by Amna Chaudry is remarkable for the way it centers workers’ perspectives and highlights their organizing. So much fashion journalism perpetuates the idea that garment workers are an exploited mass who either can’t do better or need rescuing. But if we really want to change the global fashion industry, we have to knock that off and listen to garment workers.   

The video is shaky, taken by someone who doesn’t want to be caught by the floor manager. It pans the factory floor, taking in the men and women who are looking at one another and waiting for someone to begin. Someone picks up a metal spool and clangs it against the table. One by one, each worker follows suit.

“We are protesting today against the non-payment of our salaries,” a voice says into the camera.

The Death of the Department Store and the American Middle Class (Jason Del Rey, Vox, November 30, 2020)

Last November, I took my cultural studies class on a field trip to the Lloyd Center, a classic mid-century American mall in Portland, Oregon. Even though I grew up five hours away, I have many memories of holiday visits to this magical place. In my mind’s eye, the Lloyd is packed with people in shops, gazing at animatronic elves, nibbling Hickory Farms samples, and enjoying its centerpiece: the ice skating rink. In 2021, while my students bought Auntie Anne’s pretzels, I leaned on the railing overlooking the ice. A single skater was doing figure-eights in front of a boarded-up Macy’s while tinny speakers played “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us).” A week later it was announced that the Lloyd Center was facing foreclosure. In this piece, Jason Del Rey teases out the intertwining threads of department stores, malls, and income disparity to explain how once-thriving hubs like the Lloyd Center died — and why that matters.

[W]hat becomes of the local communities across the country whose social identities and local economies rested on, at least in part, now-fallen department stores and the malls they buttressed?

Becoming an “It Girl” in the Las Vegas Body-con Dress (Tabitha Blankenbiller, Catapult, January 19, 2022)

We wouldn’t put up with fashion if it wasn’t at least kind of fun. This piece by Tabitha Blankenbiller takes us on a ride through the complicated pleasure of a single dress. Blankenbiller describes herself as Daria to her sister’s Quinn. She is decidedly not a Las Vegas-body-con-dress-and-bottle-service-at-the-club type. The pleasure here isn’t of the “I suddenly saw myself as sexy” makeover movie variety. Instead, the dress facilitates a shift in her relationship with her sister and the stories Blankenbiller tells about herself, and it allows her to enjoy a weird glimpse into a different world. It’s as much fun to read as it seems like the dress was to wear. 

I’d tried my best to pack for my sister Emma’s bachelorette party. I’d combed through my huge collection of dresses, mostly vintage-inspired circle skirts with whimsical prints, and sent her pictures of the lowest-cut, shortest options. Those are really cute, she wrote back, but do you have anything, like, skankier?

Lên Nước (Agnes Tran, Hippocampus Magazine, November 8, 2021)

I always love writing that conveys the physicality of dress and adornment. It’s much easier to express in words how clothes look than how they feel. I’m also obsessed with clothing’s time-traveling powers: how it connects our bodies to the bodies of people who have come before us.

Jewelry — being less vulnerable to the passage of time than textiles — has a special ability to carry generations of experience as it’s passed along. Agnes Tran’s essay is, in part, about a jade bracelet that holds all of these connections. It’s also about her grandmother and navigating life as a Vietnamese American. Tran’s words conjured the weight of a jade band as it scraped across her knuckles so lovingly and viscerally I found myself rubbing my own hands as I read. 

Sitting on the white tiles of my aunt’s kitchen in Saigon, my aunt and mother would soap down my left hand, preparing my skin for the pain. My mother would squeeze my hand down until my thumb would press against the middle of my other fingers. Their hands would begin to drag the band down. The jade would pass over my fingertips, and then my joints, and then over my knuckles before it would begin to scrape against my skin. Their hands would be gentle, but steady, unforgiving, resolute. The pain would be white, but impermanent.

What Fast Fashion Costs the World (Ryan Lenora Brown, Experience Magazine, January 14, 2022)

A fashion scholar friend of mine once quipped that the main service Goodwill provides is easing the conscience of North American shoppers. They make our old stuff disappear so we don’t have to think about it anymore. The comment stuck with me because I’m absolutely guilty of partaking in this service. I do it despite knowing that Goodwill does not do good by their disabled workers, and that most of their clothing donations will eventually find their way to secondhand markets and landfills in the Global South. Goodwill is a massive organization, but it’s just one piece of a bigger problem. If we are going to make fashion better, it’s important to understand the long afterlives of our clothes. As Ryan Lenora Brown points out, the ever-increasing speed of fashion production, paired with declining quality, has created a crisis in African countries that have been the recipients of our castoffs.

Each day, about 154,000 pounds of used clothing — whatever is too mangled or unfashionable to be sold — leaves Accra’s main garment market, Kantamanto, bound for a dump on the banks of the Korle Lagoon. There, a five-story mountain of waste towers above the inky black water, an estimated 60% of it clothing. Every gust of wind heaves scraps of cloth into the lagoon, and many are later coughed up on nearby beaches, often with the labels still intact.

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein, PhD is an editor and co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. Her writing can be found in Catapult, Hippocampus Magazine, Vox, BuzzFeed Reader, The Outline, and more. In addition to writing, Sara teaches fashion and cultural studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands


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