THEORY TO THINK WITH: Mary McCarthy and “The Toil of Many Hands”

Fashion is a craft, not an industrial, conception, exemplifying to perfection the labor theory of value. The toil of many hands is the sine qua non of fashion. The hand of the weaver, the cutter, the fitter, the needleworker must be seen in the finished product in a hundred little details, and fashion knowledge, professionally, consists in the recognition and appreciation of the work that has gone into a costume. In gores and gussets and seams, in the polish of leather and its softness, the signature of painstaking labor must be legible to the discerning, or the woman is not fashionably dressed. The hand-knit sweater is superior to the machine-knit, not because it is more perfect, but on the contrary because its slight imperfections reveal it to be hand-knit. The Oriental pearl is preferred to the fine cultured pearl because the marine labor of a dark diver secured it, a prize wrested from the depths, and the woman who wears Oriental pearls believes that they show variations in temperature or that they change color with her skin or get sick when they are put away in the safe. In short, that they are alive, whereas cultured pearls, mass-stimulated in mass beds of oysters, are not. This sense of the accrued labor of others as a complement to one’s personality, as tribute in a double sense, is intrinsic to the fashionable imagination, which desires to feel that labor next to its skin, in the hidden stitching of its underwear. Hence the passion for handmade lingerie even among women whose outer clothing comes off the budget rack.

— Mary McCarthy, “Up the Ladder from Charm to Vogue,” July-August 1950, from On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946-1961


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