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You know the scene. You’re trying something on in a shop, and as you look in the mirror you notice that it hangs better on one side than the other. One seam—usually the one on your left—sits slightly awkwardly, with a little pucker, so that the smooth line of the garment is broken. And you know before you even look: it’s because a label, or sometimes a whole sheaf of them, has been sewn into the seam.
When you get home, you might be able to remove the label. Might. It will rarely be clear whether the stitching on it is also holding the seam together. But if it is, the whole seam is likely to come undone, and you’ll be repairing your purchase before you’ve even worn it. Sometimes there’s a helpful dotted line and a pair of scissors printed on the label, indicating that you should cut it off. But this, you know from experience, leaves a scratchy little stump, which still spoils the hang. You might be able to pluck out the remains of the label, fibre by fibre, with tweezers, but by now this piece of clothing is starting to feel like a full-time job. And sometimes—if you’ve bought a swimsuit, say—the seam has been densely overlocked, and the truncated label is destined to remain trapped there for ever, unsightly and uncomfortable.
It’s the same story with labels at the back of the neck, which can irritate like a mosquito bite and which children routinely beg to have cut out. These usually display the brand name and they often have a little, extra-scratchy size tag attached to them. We should be grateful to those companies that have wised up and print information directly onto their products. Because a label can make the difference between whether you live in a garment, or whether it lives at the back of a cupboard.
Why do we need so much writing on our clothes? The relationship between words and what we wear must, once upon a time, have been so simple. It seems reasonable to assume, for instance, that the loincloth existed before the word “loincloth” did, and that it was centuries, or possibly millennia, before it was necessary to say anything else on the subject. But as soon as clothes began to be described—for literary, advertising or journalistic reasons—this relationship became more complex. And with the mass-production that grew from the Industrial Revolution, clothes needed words attached simply in order to, er, keep tabs on them.
The gap between the signifier and the signified is today a yawning chasm, filled to the brim with excess verbiage. Exhibit A is a pair of grey jeans I bought recently from Zara, so bristling with labels that it looks like the result of a high-speed collision between a wardrobe and a filing cabinet. There were two cardboard tags on a string plus one stitched through the waistband, all quite easy to remove; inside were five further labels of fabric, firmly sewn in. Between them they carried more than 700 words, not counting washing symbols, barcodes and numbers. (For comparison’s sake, this column is about 800 words.) That seems like a lot of words for a pair of trousers to need.
It is a consequence of globalisation that one of these labels informs me, in 31 different languages, that “this garment may fade and stain surfaces and/or other garments in lighter colours”. You have been warned. I bought the jeans for one sort of arse-covering, but got both kinds: a two-for-one deal. Washing instructions are another symptom of blame culture. They’re helpful up to a point, but when a jumper that costs £19.99 says “dry clean only”, you know it’s just so the shop can say “I told you so” if you put it in the wash and it comes out the right size for Barbie.
As well as numbers and a barcode for all their electronic encounters, my jeans have a name—announced on a tag of its own. Offputtingly, it is “Black Rock Denim Biker”. Presumably this is to distinguish it from the dozens of other jeans in the shop and to make it easier to find online. The sheer magnitude of the fashion business, and the technology that underpins it, mean that our clothes have to be nailed down with words and numbers.
If I sound grumpy, it’s not because I once had to go to a party with a scratch across my forehead from a tag in a shop. Nor is it because so many labels are about complying with a forest of regulations or protecting the retailer from liability. It’s not even because labels can spoil your clothes. Rather it’s because they are physical reminders that the clothes we buy, in which we want to feel individual and to express ourselves, are in fact being churned out on the scale of a natural disaster by the vast, impersonal machine of the clothing industry.
The chatter of the labels makes me feel I’m being processed. Their verbosity makes me nostalgic for a time when clothes didn’t have three forenames and a surname, and when the country of origin was not a trigger for planetary guilt. My 700-word jeans give me existential angst: I wish they would hush.