One of the most powerful and memorable chapters I read as part of the History of Dress MA course was Kitty Hauser’s ‘The Fingerprint of the Second Skin’ (2005), in which she describes a series of bombings and robberies that took place in 1996 in the Spokane area of Washington. What was remarkable about this case was that the culprit was identified by his clothes: the seams and hems on their jeans showed patterns of wear and fade that were so distinct to the wearer that they acted almost like his fingerprint at the crime scene, allowing the detectives to eventually identify him.
Hauser’s article claims that each person’s clothes bear the imprint of the body of the wearer, becoming a second unique ‘fingerprint.’ However, it is not only the trace of the wearer that is visible on a garment. Clothing does not gain individuating features only from the consumer; the mark of the maker is also present. Visible traces of the creator’s hands can be seen in the structure of each garment, especially along seams and hems, where the subtle differences in the way they work the sewing machines will result in tensions building up in the material. Each piece is not a tabula rasa, it is already a highly personalized record of the maker long before it is worn.
Hauser’s article seems particularly pertinent in relation to the recent Fashion Revolution Day, which took place on April 24, and was conceived as a way to encourage consumers to be more conscious when making clothing choices and to consider where it has come from. It is especially concerned with raising awareness of the unethical sweatshop conditions that many thousands of people, often women, must endure for hours a day in return for very little pay. It encourages consumers to think about what the human cost of their cheap clothing is.
Last year, I attended a Fashion Revolution Day film screening and panel discussion focusing on the issue of ethical fashion. The film, directed by Mary Nighy and entitled ‘Handmade,’ was awarded silver in the Young Director Category at the Cannes Lions in 2014 and highlights the exact same concept that Hauser discusses. It begins with a scene that will be all too familiar to many fashion conscious women: clothes, accessories and shoes are strewn across the floor of a bathroom, while a girl wrapped in a towel washes her face and then proceeds to get dressed.
But it is not her hands that slip her dress over her back, zip it up, fasten her belt and put in her earrings. Multiple hands of different ages and ethnicities dress this glamorous woman; then, she looks in the mirror, and the faces of these people are revealed. The film ends with the quotation ‘you carry the stories of the people that make your clothes,’ forcing the viewer to be more conscious and curious when purchasing their clothes. As in Hauser’s essay, the dress already carries the identities and memory of the people who made it.
To the consumer, the people who make our clothes are completely anonymous, invisible and silent, however, their mark is all over our most personal objects, and therefore there may be more of a connection between creator and wearer than one might think.
Kitty Hauser, ‘The Fingerprint of the Second Skin,’ in Christopher Breward and Caroline Evans (eds) Fashion and Modernity, (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005) pp 153-170
Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday in June we will be posting the MA and PhD Dress History students’ responses to their chosen texts that constitute our ‘500 Years of Dress Historiography’ display, which is currently on show in the Courtauld Institute of Art. The display was created as part of our 50 Years of Dress History at the Courtauld celebrations, and was on display for our conference ‘Women Make Fashion/Fashion Make Women’. The display was a collaboration between the History of Dress department at the Courtauld and the Fashion Museology department at London College of Fashion. We hope you enjoy reading the posts as much as we did the texts and come back to the blog on Wednesday for the first in the series.