One of the last fashion-related books I read this year has set the tone for what I think the biggest challenge will be in the new year. It's Fiona Anderson's Tweed, the latest in Bloomsbury's ongoing library of Textiles That Changed the World series. That label sounds pompous, doesn't it? But in the case of tweed, as the woven woollen group of twilled cloths has been known since the 1830s, it's a textile family that lives up to such reverence.
Tweeds emerged, Anderson writes, in the Romantic era, "and they eloquently express the tensions and contradictions of a time in which industrialization and urbanization were having a transformative effect" on society. It was key to the changing social conventions of class – worn not only by male aristocrats in rural and leisure settings but by lower– and middle-class workers – and of gender, thanks to its durability enabling 19th-century women to participate in sport, specifically cycling, the first liberating mode of transport. Anderson visited archives and factories in Cumbria, County Donegal and the Outer Hebrides to flesh out the economic and cultural history of British tweeds within international contexts. She began the undertaking around the beginning of the economic downturn – and the cloth's resurgence in fashion – in 2008. Today tweed is omnipresent, on Gucci's embroidered Blind for Love skirt, for instance, or Spanish luxury house Loewe's signature handbag by designer Jonathan Anderson.
I was specifically taken with her history of Harris tweed and its legal concerns with labelling and provenance. It's a prominent and prized material today, and that isn't merely due to a revival of interest piqued by the likes of period TV series such as The Crown and Peaky Blinders. As Anderson outlines, there's plenty of other tweed out there – salt-and-pepper Donegals, French novelty bouclés – but it is Harris tweed that has had the recent boom. I think that's because the label means something specific: Harris tweed enjoys the fabric equivalent of Champagne's dénomination d'appellation controllée – it is the only one of its kind in textiles.
Harris tweed weathered both fluctuations in popularity as well as innovations in automation that balanced tradition with diversification. In the 1950s, to keep up with the new men's-wear informality and commensurate growth in demand for it, some Harris tweed was produced on the mainland until a government ruling restricted the specifications. Following a 1964 dispute between Scottish mainland and island manufacturers, a judge clarified that for Harris tweed to be legally called as such the entire production process had to take place in the Western Isles – it must be wholly spun, dyed, manufactured and produced in the Outer Hebrides from 100-per-cent pure Scottish virgin wool. Designer trust, consumer confidence and the textile's popularity rose commensurately.
This could be used as a case study as the Made in America movement picks up steam under the new president-elect. Unlike Harris tweed, Made in U.S.A. doesn't have any distinctive aesthetic characteristics to retain, only a geographic legal one, designated where the product is built. Technically, components can be from abroad but the "last substantial transformation" of a product must happen in what's listed as its country of origin. Some further policing on materials, however, has recently begun. For example, the Federal Trade Commission recently ruled that Detroit-based Shinola can no longer claim in its advertising slogans that its watches are "Made in America," because the brand uses so many imported parts. The FTC told the company earlier this year that it had to cease and desist, and must instead use the words "built" or "assembled."
The meaning of Made in Italy has had the same challenges. And there are similar rules for non-food products in Canada. Revisions in 2010 to the Competition Bureau's Act include more detailed "Made in Canada" and "Product of Canada" guidelines – the goods represented must have had their last substantial transformation here, and 51 per cent of the direct costs of producing it must be in Canada, or else the label must declare "Made in Canada with domestic and imported parts," and so on. Assembled in Canada and Designed in Canada labels exist, though they don't have quite the same cachet.
There's also the issue of how a product is made. When we hear Made in America, we aren't picturing sweatshops. Yet in November, when the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division revealed the findings of its investigation into 77 cases in the Los Angeles area, 85 per cent of the cases involved minimum wage and overtime violations totalling more than $1.3-million (U.S.) in back wages owed to workers (penalties were levied against repeat and wilful violations). Shoppers can generally trust they're getting the real deal with Made in U.S.A. garments from the smaller, hands-on contemporary independent labels like Zero Maria Cornejo or Emerson Fry, who oversee small-scale manufacturers blocks away from their design studios in the New York garment district, but what about retailers of more mass-priced goods? The apparel factories in violation of laws were vendors and subcontractors making clothes for clients such as Macy's, TJ Maxx and Forever 21.
Harris tweed became a respected product in part because its pricing was determined based on those behind the products receiving a fair living wage and working conditions. When those Southern California sweatshops were busted with record-keeping, wage and labour violations, David Weil, the Division's Wage and Hour administrator and a former Boston University professor of economics, said that the domestic non-compliance problem will persist as long as retailers set low prices. The problem is that the expectation of artificially low prices was established when American production was outsourced to Asia in the first place.
Tweed, Anderson posits, embodies the "powerful tensions and contradictions that are inherent within fashion in modernity," a fashion historically and strongly connected to the search for authenticity. The country of origin label, as a political tactic as well as a marketing tool, will only become more powerful in 2017. But let's make sure the tag means something.