Most books about clothing make me want to put a bullet in my head. It is thus my unique torment to have become something of a collector of them, panning for tiny specks of gold amid nuggets of false erudition and repeated truisms. For every diligently perceptive James Laver or Teutonically earnest Bernhard Roetzel quacks a multitude of hacks regurgitating brands’ marketing, unfounded and unquestioned half-truths, or dated and dimestore Freudianism that would have gotten laughed out of a book on any other topic. Still, we do not love with our minds, and when we find… I find… resonance on even the smallest scale for the history, the hidden truth, some new perspective or connection, it is possible to live again however briefly the romance of whatever brought me to this point, eternally tensed between a love of the story of clothing and the obscenity of truth, Marcel Duchamp by way of Bryan Ferry and The Bride Stripped Bare.
Books about luxury clothing are generally lifestyle porn, part and parcel of what people buy to congratulate themselves for affording or coveting. They situate the purchaser along some unbroken line of heritage, care and tradition, carefully pictured and described in terms that are simultaneously muddled and specialized enough to hide any corners the book’s subject is now cutting. Essentially, they are expanded versions of the puffery in magazine articles, usually written by people who have little familiarity with clothing construction or the technical side of the business and little experience owning and wearing the clothes they write about. I suppose as well that many men’s clothing magazine writers would prefer to be writing about something more serious, Chinese economics or international relations or something where they get to namedrop Xudjakov. Not, of course, that the Internet is much better. Changing times have meant that many makers, shops and tailors who previously avoided publicity will now talk to just about anyone (who can then spread that information online). Unfortunately, many of the people they talk to will believe just about anyone.
Against this wasteland of critical thought The Inventors of Tradition by Beca Lipscombe & Lucy McKenzie (Walther König, Köln/Koenig Books) is a welcome, informative, original and somewhat sobering recent addition to my bookcase. This collection of interviews, essays and analysis was assembled by two Scottish design firms, Atelier and Panel, with the collaboration of the Scottish Screen Archive, and is based on the exhibition of the same name they organized in Glasgow, fairly described by television Scotsman Craig Ferguson as Scotland’s answer to Detroit. The exhibition and the book address Scotland’s textile industry: its cashmere companies, its hand knitters, its rubberized raincoat company Mackintosh, and others, describing a past of evolution and attrition and an uneasy future. The book features photographs of new designs created for the exhibition by some of these last remaining Scottish makers, among the producers of the John Laing cashmere sweaters on this site and the cashmere scarf weavers Alex Begg, as well as Caerlee Mills, the oldest continuously functioning woolens mill in Scotland, which previously supplied the greats such as Hermès, Sulka and Charvet in the glory days of Scottish cashmere. The Inventors of Tradition makes clear that for these makers, relevance requires struggling against contemporary values of cheapness and against the imposed stasis of outsiders’ vision of “Scottishness” – as well as the appropriation of other traditional brand names and histories by investors who have moved production, along with everything else but nominal inspiration, out of Scotland.
Unlike other high-concept endeavors, The Inventors of Tradition drills deep to provide unsentimental, frank interviews with the contemporary knitters, artists and mill owners who had taken part in the old days of Scottish industry, when that tradition was being invented (a more recent invention than most think). Blessedly, they discuss their work and production without entering into the hushed and worshipful tones of the usual clothing coffee-table books – sanctification being one form of distancing and distortion between the process of production and the layperson’s contemplation and emotional experience of contemplating an image of that process.
Through these accounts, The Inventors of Tradition can share with readers its subjects’ “uniquely personal vision,” and literally sketch out across them the web of connections between the different companies it features can spread, ripples across common themes and common linchpins, crossroads at shared yarn suppliers or temporary corporate parents, work placements, and more. And in reviewing that web the well-informed can notice where those ripples end, some at defunct names or companies that are just shells of what they once were.
An essay exploring Scottish style attempts to pry it away from the twee and move towards a contemporary that quotes from or appropriates what is left of the old makers. Reminding us of the recent manufacture of Scottish tradition through the historical fantasies of Sir Walter Scott, among others, it also recounts more recent myths such as that now advanced by the brand Pringle, which closed its last Scottish mills after being sold off by its old owner and is now selling itself as a Scottish heritage brand.
In contrast to this modern heritage brand mythomania, The Inventors of Tradition also includes information on Bonnie Cashin, who designed for the legendary Scottish knitwear house Ballantyne in the 1950s and 1960s and whose designs were worn by Elizabeth Shepherd in her abortive turn as Emma Peel on The Avengers (Shepherd is now best known for getting her eyes pecked out by a crow in The Omen II).
An essay by Nicholas Oddy discusses Scottish industrial decline and the rise of the creative, a necessary stage in postindustrialism. In this context, the pictures of clothes created for the exhibition itself represent a sort of synthesis of these themes of local inspiration without parochialism and local production: towards an idea of Scottishness, cognizant of what came before and what remains.
A section of critiques of films about the Scottish textile industry from the Scottish Screen Archive is entertaining, reminding us how dated and stilted certain styles of narrative and paternalistic self-congratulation now seem. The remarked contrast in tone from the period to the present echoes in the juxtaposition of Scottish cashmere companies’ materials throughout the book: pictures of past samples, catalogs and press kit images featuring 1970s blow-dried toffs in appalling sailboat-themed lambswool intarsia sweaters; the cover of a 1970s catalog from Ballantyne featuring a strange Digital Age logo that must have seemed as cutting edge and amazingly sophisticated as a digital watch or pocket calculator at the time; advertisements for twin-sets at Harrods showing 1980s reversions to superannuated form.
While The Inventors of Tradition was published to accompany an exposition on Scottish design and production, it appears that the Scots still have that particularly British issue of shying away from the publicity they court: Will and I discovered that another showcase of some of the same producers featured in The Inventors of Tradition recently took place in New York without anyone in the States learning about it: Scotland Redesigned apparently took place the week of April 9, and is now back at The Lighthouse in Glasgow. For now, we suggest exploring what is accessible, both literarily and sartorially, from Scotland.
‑ Réginald-Jérôme de Mans