Review: Threadbare: Clothes, Sex & Trafficking

Banner for Threadbare comic, art by Ladydrawers, Microcosm, 2016

Threadbare: Clothes, Sex & TraffickingThe cover of Threadbare. Image courtesy The Ladydrawers.

Anne Elizabeth Moore (words), the Ladydrawers (art)
Microcosm Publishing
May 2016

When Microcosm sent the WWAC mailing list their latest releases, both Ginnis Tonik and Alenka Figa jumped on a comic about fashion, clothing, and the politics of production. Alenka had the chance to attend the launch party in Chicago and tell Ginnis about the context the party provided for the comic, so the two decided to incorporate this event in their review.

Ginnis: Microcosm sent me an advanced copy of Threadbare to review for WWAC, and Alenka had the fortune of going to the release party. Alenka, what was that like? How did it go?

Alenka: It was fantastic! They raffled off cool Ladydrawers stuff, and Anne Elizabeth Moore talked in-depth about her experiences visiting garment factories in Cambodia and interviewing retail employees in the United States. Delia Jean described the process behind creating her comics, and Serpent—the SWOP organizer interviewed in the final part of the book—answered questions about how we could support sex workers and avoid supporting NGOs that take away sex workers’ agency. All in all, a packed, but very rad event.

Ginnis: As someone who rarely gets to go to events like this because of where I live, I am curious, how does going to something like that change your experience of reading the book? You read the book after, right?

Delia Jean (right) with Threadbare. Image courtesy Delia Jean.
At the launch party, Delia Jean (right) holds the end result of arduous hours spent planning and drawing. Image courtesy of Delia Jean.

Alenka: I did read the book afterward; I bought it at the release party. I also went to the Ladydrawers’ panel at Chicago Zine Fest, which was about their process in general, but involved a lot of talk about Threadbare, so I got to hear a few of Moore’s stories about visiting the garment factories and get a lot of background info about Jean’s process and what she learned along the way. It was really fascinating to learn what enabled them to tell this story; lots of retail employees sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from speaking to journalists, but apparently a comics reporter is not a journalist, so they’d talk to Moore. I kind of wish I’d read the book before the party, though! I would’ve been able to ask better questions, and I think having already learned some of the info made me gloss over a couple of the comics.

What was your experience like as someone who didn’t have that background? Were all of the stories and statistics new information?

Ginnis: Somewhat—as someone who loves fashion as a form of artistic expression, I am aware of the fucked up labor politics of the garment industry, but the connection to sex trafficking was new. I’ve also been dabbling in learning more about slow fashion, and the part about Austria was particularly interesting to me.

I think that the experience of going to these events might have added a better view of an overarching narrative, because in the first part of the comic, there wasn’t really a narrative—it was a smattering of facts, but a narrative started to emerge as the comic progressed. In this way, it felt like a writer who is new to the medium getting an increasingly better feel for it. I would be interested in knowing if Moore wrote the stories in the order in which they are presented in the book. Do you have any background insight you can provide from attending the events?

Alenka: One fact that Moore mentioned, but that didn’t stand out to me much from reading the book—perhaps because I’d heard her talk about it in person—was that a lot of women leave the garment factories, because they experience sexual harassment from their bosses and employers. That adds another level of insidiousness to the whole picture.

The most unique opportunity that the release party provided was Serpent Libertine’s presence; she’s the SWOP Chicago organizer whose interview makes up the last two comics in the book. Serpent highlighted how sex trafficking NGOs shift the narratives of the women they’re supposed to help and push them all to view themselves as victims. She connected that to the anti-sex trafficking advertising that she discusses in the comic, which also paints all sex workers as victims and disallows them from owning their own narratives. I think that connection is evident in the book, but Serpent exposed that framework very clearly and succinctly at the book release.

I’m curious about how you, as someone who has background knowledge on some of the fucked up aspects of the garment industry, were impacted by seeing these truths laid out in comic form. What was it like to see this story play out visually?

Moore talks about Threadbare to Chicago Zine Fest attendees. Image courtesy Delia Jean.
Moore talks about Threadbare to Chicago Zine Fest attendees. Image courtesy of Delia Jean.

Ginnis: Considering that this fashion we are talking about, it makes so much sense to present it visually—to add this human element to the beautiful pieces of clothing we collect and covet. I think it’s such a smart move, and I also felt the limited color palette really added to that human-centric focus. It’s parallel to how models are supposed to present clothes on the runway; they are blank canvases for the clothing. Similarly, the people who assemble these designs are blanks, even more invisible, as they are not even embodied in the process. It is so easy to forget the middle of fashion design altogether. Instead, we go from design to runway, and I think showing that middle in a visual format is far more impactful than traditional prose.

I am curious, Alenka, what about you? What do you consider your relationship to fashion and clothing?

Alenka: Oh geeze, that’s so complicated, but isn’t it for everyone? My relationship to clothing is very heavily tied to gender and stereotypes of femininity. I grew up thinking that traditional femininity was this thing I would one day feel miraculously comfortable with, and for a year in my earlier 20s, I tried really hard to pretend that I’d hit that point; that dresses and skirts didn’t make me feel like total garbage. Now that I know that’s all bullshit, I pay more attention to how clothing makes me feel before I buy it, and I’m trying to really analyze how my feelings about certain kinds of clothing are tied to gender and feel out where that comes from.

It’s interesting to think that clothing is something I have this tumultuous gender-related relationship with on a personal level and then expand that to a political level. In the middle section of Threadbare, about Austria and how a very home-based garment industry became another piece of the fast fashion puzzle, there’s an interview with a tailor named Johann Perezi. He describes the personal relationships he has with his customers, and also describes H&M as “abusing the human relationship,” because of how the workers are treated. One of the ideas behind shopping local is that you can really know the person who produces whatever you’re buying and that will allow you to know the products are ethically made. But having a human relationship with a producer also allows them to better meet your needs, both because they understand your needs in detail, but also because they know you and genuinely want your needs to be well met. In the world of fast fashion, things like tailoring clothing that can be helpful to people whose gender identities don’t quite fit into the for-men/for-women fashion divide become very expensive and inaccessible.

Let’s flip this! What’s your relationship to fashion and clothing, Ginnis?

Ginnis: Well, my mom likes to joke that it didn’t take long before I started dressing myself and refused to let her do it any longer. Growing up, when I would write and draw my own comics, fashion was a huge part of it, which I think is why I am still so partial to fashion comics and comic creators who care about fashion and design, like Sophie Campbell and Joelle Jones. But I always saw fashion as a costume, not necessarily as an expression of who I am. For me fashion was always about trying on different personas. When I did theatre, the costuming was one of my favorite parts. I like it as eye candy, as visual theory, but ultimately when it comes down to wearing it myself, I generally stick to a uniform of sorts. I would rather study it than obsess over wearing it.  

In thinking about fashion and location though, my interest in fashion and haute couture has embedded fashion in my mind as global—Paris, London, New York, Milan, Beijing—but this is where the glamour is at, not the actual assemblage. Fashion has been that way for as long as I have been around, not something you do or make locally. It’s always been fast fashion.

Alenka: So, as someone with that level of investment—although the message of Threadbare is that we are all invested in the garment industry and should be awake to the injustices built into the system—what do you think is the role of a book like this?

Ginnis: Oh, good question! I can see it as twofold. One, it shows how a topic like this benefits from the comic book medium (that’s my comic nerd shouting out), and two, because of that visual impact, I think a comic like this can provide a face to this side of fashion. Fashion isn’t just limited to the runway and the cool designs; assemblage is crucial, and we need to be more aware of that. I think the art in the comic makes this so much more impactful.

What about you? How do you see the role of a book like this? Did anyone at the review party have anything to say?

Alenka: This question came up at both Zine Fest and the release party; at Zine fest, an audience member asked the Ladydrawers why they chose to publish a book instead of just putting all the comics on Truthout, where several of the comics are available for free. Sheika Lugtu pointed out that it’s much easier to censor content on the internet than it is to censor print. At the release party, Delia Jean and Serpent commented on the audiences that comics can reach; for Serpent, comics would allow her to reach a different and potentially wider audience than her work with SWOP, and for Delia, comics allowed her to take material that would be very dense in writing and present it in a more palatable format. It really boils down to audience and reach.

Ginnis: Oh, I like that. It says a lot about the comics medium and what it can offer that regular prose mediums cannot.

Alenka: Yes! This concept circles back around to how Moore was able to speak with retail employees who had signed non-disclosure agreements, because she was “not a journalist.” Comics are still largely thought to be innocuous, and that can help them evade censorship. I think readers who are searching for something they can do to combat the exploitative nature of the garment industry can help by expanding Threadbare’s reach. Tell your schools and libraries to purchase it, order it from your local comic shops and bookstores, and buy copies for your friends! Awareness is important; awareness can increase the number of people who try to vote for policy-makers who have these issues on their radar. Ultimately, there isn’t much we can do on an individual level, but we can spread the word.

A cohort of Ladydrawers. Image courtesy
Left to Right: Delia Jean, Anne Elizabeth Moore, Rivven Swanson, and Sheika Lugtu. Image courtesy
Ginnis Tonik

Ginnis Tonik

Smashing the patriarchy with glitter, pink lipstick, and cowboy boots. You can follow her on Instagram @ginnistonik