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  • Clothing: A Global History. Or, the Imperalists' New Clothes
  • Giorgio Riello
Clothing: A Global History. Or, the Imperalists' New Clothes. By Robert Ross. Cambridge: Polity, 2008. 232 pp. $64.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

Let me start with a story to explain the main argument of this book as well as its limitations. In the early 1630s the French explorer Jean Nicollet reached the area of the northern lakes of Canada where the tribe of the Winnebagoes lived. They had never encountered a European before, and Nicollet was welcomed as an important guest. Understanding the relevance of the occasion, Nicollet decided to dress up. As he was in search of a northern passage to China via America, he decided that a Chinese robe, embroidered with flowers and birds, was more suitable than his European clothes. One can only smile in imagining Nicollet dressed up in what to us would appear a carnivalesque scene. This story narrated in a recent book by Timothy Brook (Vermeer's Hat, 2008, pp. 49–50) shows the importance of sartorial choice. It is also a story of the donning of one's attire in favor of something else that is deemed more suitable, appropriate, or functional to the aim. The first paradox of this story lays in the fact that Nicollet—we now know—was very wrong, as the Winnebagoes were in no way connected with China and probably thought that Nicollet was wearing typical European attire. More important, however, this is a story of Europeans giving up their dress rather than using it as a token, tool, or weapon for the discovery, conquest, and exploitation of the world, as this book by Ross argues.

The hilarity of this story is not generated by the wearing of a Chinese robe, but by the fact that in the following centuries Chinese attire did not become widely used around the world. However, European [End Page 497] dress did. The fact that people in Asia, America, Africa, and Australia started wearing European clothes is never seen as hilarious. Actually, this book makes the point that the dismissal of local dress in favor of European clothes is a key material phenomenon in world history and has important political, social, and cultural implications.

The central problem of Ross's book is therefore why, how, and when European dress became globalized. It does so through eleven agile chapters, mostly based on a lively summary of existing scholarship, with the exception of materials concerning Africa, the author's area of expertise. The introduction is followed by a chapter on the so-called sumptuary laws, the legal acts governing dress and appearance in the period between 1200 and 1800. Ross shows that these acts of law, normally seen as quintessentially European, were to be found also in Ming China, Edo Japan, and colonial Latin America and provided a general global framework for the relationship between class and clothing, but also social competition and fashion.

The following chapter and chapter 5 provide instead an overview of key changes in clothing production and consumption in Europe from the late Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, including a discussion of mass production, distribution, and couture. Alas, these, together with chapter 10, dedicated instead to the twentieth-century European dominance in the production and marketing of lifestyle (from the triumph of couture to leisurewear), are also the weakest chapters in the book. This is because it is not clear how these chapters relate to the rest of the book; moreover, the topics covered in these chapters are key not just in the field of global history but also in the history of dress and fashion, an area that the author candidly admits bears little interest to him. The result is a somewhat incomplete analysis.

Notwithstanding this, the remaining five chapters plow through a vast array of materials, locations, and topics. Chapter 4 discusses the classic period of "European expansion" and talks about access to European dress, including the actions of early colonists and missionaries. Ross shows that European dress was seen as "exotic" and was not necessarily accepted with open arms. Its use in climates not conducive to European woolens was accompanied by negotiations...


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pp. 497-500
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