Gus Casely-Hayford Unpicks the Hidden History of Fashion

  • 14.10.2022

Torn, a ten-part series made by Novel for BBC Radio 4, unpicks surprising stories behind the clothes we wear, from the contentious tale of the miniskirt to the globe-hopping history of African wax print fabric. Andrew Dickson caught up with host Gus Casely-Hayford, cultural historian and director of V&A East, to discuss some of his favourite moments from the series.

A stallholder selling African wax prints in Arua, Uganda. Photograph: Virginia Wanjiru/Wikimedia
A stallholder selling African wax prints in Arua, Uganda. Photograph: Virginia Wanjiru/Wikimedia

What’s Torn about, to you?

The series tries to tell stories from the history of fashion that aren’t often told. The interesting thing about fashion, and what makes it unusual as a creative discipline, is that all of us have a relationship with it. All of us have clothes in our wardrobe; what we wear is a set of curated statements that we make to the world every day. But we don’t think enough about both how those clothes are made and the huge industry that lies behind them. So the series is full of surprising stories – how Air Jordans revolutionised the market for sneakers in the 1980s, how the invention of viscose rayon at the end of the nineteenth century made luxury clothes affordable for the first time, the controversial history of the miniskirt. It’s stories behind the things that mean something to us, and the ways in which the industry and the sector behind all of that operates.

As you say, fashion is something all of us have a connection to, even if we claim not to follow it.

Open up your wardrobe, have a look, and there’ll be stories there. There are things that you don’t wear very often, things that you love and wear all the time, things that you forget that you had, the things that you’ve inherited from other people that you’ve loved. As soon as we choose what to wear, we become curators. We think about the things that we love and how we want the world to see us.

One thing that comes through really strongly in the series is how political fashion is – not just in terms of wearing something to make a political statement, but because it becomes enmeshed in these huge historical trends: colonialism, the consumer revolution, the Civil Rights movement.

Absolutely. Fashion is a way in which people can make statements about resistance, people trying to formulate their own identities. If there’s an underlying trajectory in Torn, over the 250-odd years of history that we cover, it’s about how fashion is often a way for people who feel disempowered to push back and find their own voice, their own identity. Fashion gives people those spaces. Sometimes it can feel like it oppresses and it controls us, other times it frees and emancipates us. It has the power to do both.

The story of viscose rayon or “fake silk”, which you tell in episode 5, is particularly powerful. These days we take it for granted that we have choice about what we can wear, but for most of human history that’s just not been the case: only people who were at the very top of society could afford to have clothes for special occasions, or own something that looked luxurious or smart. The invention of synthetic fabrics totally changed that.

Yeah, the story of synthetic materials like viscose is fascinating. When it was invented at the end of the nineteenth century, the fashion industry exploded. Working-class and lower middle-class people wanted to have the freedom to express themselves through their clothes, but until cheap fabrics came along that just wasn’t possible – even fabrics like cotton and wool were sufficiently expensive that you had to hang on to what you had, so that meant wearing hand-me-downs or things that were very poorly made. But synthetic fibres were a revolution. All of a sudden you could buy clothes that were new but were also affordable and durable. Of course, there’s a cost to that too, and we’re living with it now: the effect that fast fashion has on the environment is something we’re only starting to grapple with. Sustainability is one of the biggest issues in the fashion industry right now.

In episode 3, you talk about the history of African wax print fabric, which many people might assume originally comes from West and Central Africa, because it’s so omnipresent in those places. But it turns out to come from somewhere else entirely.

Yeah, it’s a really interesting example of how fashion gets caught up in globalisation. There are different versions of the story, but what seems to have happened is that Dutch industrialists who’d colonised Indonesia spotted how well the local batik print fabric sold and wanted to get in on the market. They copied the designs and replicate them using industrial processes, thinking they’d be able to undercut local producers. But Indonesians just didn’t like the results – the designs looked mass-produced, all the idiosyncrasies had been ironed out. The fabric just didn’t sell. But then the Dutch noticed that when they exported it to cities in Africa – in Ghana, Nigeria, other countries – people there loved it. It sold astoundingly well, and still does. So a fabric that many people feel is one of the most African things there is turns out not to be African at all .

Gus Casely-Hayford. Photograph: Jaimie Gramston
Gus Casely-Hayford. Photograph: Jaimie Gramston

Is there a particular story in Torn that surprised you, something you hadn’t known before you started working on it?

The story of Ray-Ban sunglasses was something I wasn’t aware of. You see them everywhere on the street, they’re a real fashion classic, but they turn out to have this amazing history. They were invented in the 1930s to try and solve problems that test pilots were having with their eyes: they were blinded by the sunlight at high altitude, and it was incredibly dangerous. So a US Army aviator, John A. Macready, worked with the optical and medical firm Bausch & Lomb  to come up with special lenses that would cut out the glare and protect pilots’ eyes. Those became Ray-Bans.

I find it fascinating that something so utilitarian, which has this practical application, also becomes something beautiful. The very best fashion is a balance between something which is beautiful and innovative, but also deeply practical. This was a piece of engineering that came into being to save people’s lives – flying at high altitude would maybe not have been possible without something like it – but simultaneously it’s so gorgeous.

It’s a fascinating moment for fashion right now because of the pandemic, isn’t it. When covid first hit and we were all stuck at home wearing sweatpants, some people said it would kill the fashion industry entirely. But the reverse seems to have happened.

Totally. If anything, I think fashion means more to a lot of people than it did. If you’re making the effort to go out – even go into the office – you want to dress up a little. When I go to parties, I see people really making an effort. They’re wanting to make statements; maybe they’ve spent a little more on an outfit that feels special. If you’re on Zoom or Teams all day, you don’t have much incentive to dress up. But if you’re out there in the real world, you want to make more of an impact. I think that’s glorious.

OK, we have to ask, what are you wearing today?

[Laughs] Because I also present on the TV series Time Team, I’m wearing a Time Team sweatshirt. I’m working from home today, and it’s a very comfortable item to wear. It’s just nice to be in. Sometimes that’s important too.

• The complete series of Torn is available on BBC iPlayer 

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