Capitalism and the Conquest of Clothes image

Capitalism and the Conquest of Clothes

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Niall Ferguson is a smart man. As part of my goal to learn more about the eighteenth century this year, I've read histories by C. A. Bayly and Eric Hobsbawm, but Ferguson's writing is at another level. In his provocative book Civilization, he seeks to explain why the West have dominated the Rest in the last five hundred years, and identifies six key reasons—competition, science, property, medicine, consumption and work—which (in the book's least impressive and most instantly dated moment) he calls "the six killer apps of Western power." (I know.) But his accounts of how each came to the fore, and gave the West a competitive advantage, are extraordinarily creative.

In one of his most ingenious moments, he tells the story of Western capitalism as the story of Western clothes. The Industrial Revolution was about textiles, the Meiji Restoration and Turkish secularisation were about fashions, the Cold War was ultimately won because of jeans, and so on. Most strikingly, he explains, the rich sartorial diversity of even a hundred years ago has all-but-disappeared today, in favour of a globally homogenous, yet recognisably Western-influenced, wardrobe: jeans, sneakers, T-shirts, brands, and so on. Why?

What is it about our clothes that other people seem unable to resist? Is dressing like us about wanting to be like us? Clearly, this is about more than just clothes. It is about embracing an entire popular culture that extends through music and movies, to say nothing of soft drinks and fast food. That popular culture carries with it a popular message. It is about freedom—the right to dress or drink or eat as you please (even if that turns out to be like everybody else). It is about democracy—because only those consumer products that people really like get made. And, of course, it is about capitalism—because corporations have to make a profit by selling the stuff. But clothing is at the heart of the process of Westernization for one very simple reason. That great economic transformation which historians long ago named the Industrial Revolution—that quantum leap in material standards for a rising share of humanity—had its origins in the manufacture of textiles. It was a partly a miracle of mass production brought about by a wave of technological innovation, which had its origin in the earlier Scientific Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution would not have begun in Britain and spread to the rest of the West without the simultaneous development of a dynamic consumer society, characterized by an almost infinitely elastic demand for cheap clothes. The magic of industrialization, though it was something contemporary critics generally overlooked, was that the worker was at one and the same time a consumer. The ‘wage slave’ also went shopping; the lowliest proletarian had more than one shirt, and aspired to have more than two ...

The result is one of the greatest paradoxes of modern history: that an economic system designed to offer infinite choice to the individual has ended up homogeneizing humanity.

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