The collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building outside Bangladesh’s capital city, in 2013 killed more than 1,200 workers, and most of them died while producing clothes for some of the world’s lowest wages. The garment sector’s deadliest accident owed to dubious construction permits, abusive labor policies, and more systemic problems. A heavily footnoted, absolutely depressing but crucial comics series reported by award-winning writer Anne Elizabeth Moore and drawn by artist collective Ladydrawers explores the industry and how our apparel purchases affect its majority-women workforce.
“The garment industry employs between one-sixth and one-seventh of all of the women on Earth, and therefore is probably the single-most responsible entity for the global gender wage gap,” writes Moore in Threadbare: Clothes, Sex & Trafficking, published by Microcosm.
Originally published at Truthout, Threadbare’s comics and essays demonstrate how the apparel industry is “keeping women in poverty around the world” and illuminates parallel issues such as its impact on how we discuss and understand sex work and human trafficking.
For example, thanks to a Cambodian anti-sex trafficking institution’s no-photography policy, Ellen Lindner’s lively visuals of assembly line–like interiors become crucial in depicting “so-called rehabilitation programs” — which sometimes include forced religious conversion and frequently recruit women against their will. Moore writes in “Out of the Factories” that these NGOs (non-governmental organizations) “restrict women’s employment options” by training them solely for apparel roles that are exploitative and subject to rampant discrimination; in turn, many of the women end up trading the jobs for better-paying sex work. Lindner’s thick black strokes contrast sharply with carnation and coral pinks here, and her expressive figures remind me of fellow graphic journalist Josh Neufeld’s. Her strip weathered the transition to print better than others in the book.
In another story, Moore and Julia Gfrörer track the phenomenon of fast fashion: an effort “to make stylish but affordable clothing available to the consumer” at the cost of “pushing new apparel items out the door in as few as six weeks.” Glossy ads — “the output of models’ underpaid labor” — take up the charge thereafter.
“Whether they’re dressed in factory uniforms, sensible slacks or glittery couture, women remain first-order targets of oppression for the fashion industry—which then proceeds to target them again as they line up to pay heavy markups on all the hottest styles,” reported Moore last year on the role of fast-fashion chains for Talking Points Memo.
The wiry, blue, hand-lettered copy and textured illustrations in Threadbare‘s “Fast Fashion” piece looked stronger online before being substantially reduced and shoehorned into five-by-seven-inch pages. Inexplicable web-to-print edits are most pronounced in the comic’s second half, where the art is crowded into one-third of the allotted space. This clumsy production also damages other important strips in the book, namely “The Business of Thrift” (Gfrörer) and “It’s the Money, Honey” (Lindner).
Gfrörer’s marvelously frazzled lines may not get enough room here, but the impact of her choices resonates. In “Fast Fashion,” a depiction of a Bangladesh factory fire is “reflected” within an ornate dressing-table mirror — rightfully visualized near Gfrörer’s drawing of NYC’s Triangle Shirtwaist disaster, whose orange-red flames match the color of the first panel’s splashy patterned dresses. The artist also includes Tazreen Fashions Factory’s 2012 blaze, which killed more than 100 people working overtime shifts to meet orders for Walmart and more. Employees were kept at their machines even after the alarms rang. Five months later, bosses ignored dire warnings about new wall cracks at Rana Plaza, demanding factory workers report to work anyway. As the majority of the site’s workers were women, so too were the casualties of its collapse. Despite the setbacks it suffers in transitioning to print,Threadbare isn’t going to let us forget them, or the industry that marched them penniless to their graves.