Book Review: Fugitive Denim

Rachel Louise Snyder’s Fugitive Denim comes with the tagline, “a moving story of people and pants in the borderless world of global trade” — and that’s exactly what it is. Having had no previous introduction to the ins and outs of things like global textile laws or the mechanics of a cotton gin, I was prepared for a book full of hard-to-follow facts and, although determined to learn, feared I might be in over my head. But Snyder (an author, journalist, and professor from Washington D.C.) takes this intimidating subject matter and makes it not just interesting, but relatable. Throughout the book, she shares the stories of people in five different countries: from cotton pickers in Azerbaijan to fashion designers in the United States, bridging our mental distance between the clothes on our bodies and where — and who — they come from.

Fugitive Denim begins by explaining the termination of the World Trade Organization’s Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) in 2005 — an agreement that, in simplest terms, “set limits on the amount of textiles and apparel any one country could export to the United States.” According to Snyder, limiting exports to the United States meant that no single developing country could have a monopoly on the developed world’s market, giving many small nations (such as Cambodia, Laos, Peru, Nepal) a way of entering a market in which they otherwise might not have been able to compete. With the termination of the MFA, competition would increase and clothing prices would drop. Developing countries previously given access to large consumer markets would now have to compete against manufacturing giants like China and India without help. It’s the uncertainty and upheaval set into motion by dissolving these laws that Snyder addresses in Fugitive Denim. She puts names and stories to the people whose livelihoods are affected by the global textile industry and in doing so, makes readers aware of exactly what exists within every fibre of their pants.

There were moments where Snyder’s story felt disjointed. While the book is organized into four major parts, they have no title to indicate the section’s overlying theme, and the chapters have titles such as, “The Little Volcanoes we Carry,” and “The Ghosts in the Trees,” which are interesting and poetic, but give the reader little indication of what they’re getting into. In a book that attempts to address such a far-reaching and complicated topic, a little structural guidance would have gone a long way.

Most interesting to me was the writing itself. I expected a book about the intricacies of textile laws and their effects around the world to read more like a textbook than a good novel — but it doesn’t. Snyder presents facts with creativity, offering information to the reader through stories about people. One that stands out in my mind is a garment worker and former union leader in Cambodia who notes, after recounting being attacked on her way to protest for holiday pay, “We all die; I wasn’t afraid of dying. In living we lose control.” Along with effectively telling the story of globalized fashion, Fugitive Denim is full of these kinds of small and stirring observations, making it, truly, a moving story of people and pants.

Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade by Rachel Louise Snyder.
W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
review and photography by Hailey Siracky