Book Review: A Woven World, On Fashion, Fishermen, and the Sardine Dress

By Alison Hawthorne Deming

Counterpoint Press, 2021

Here, at long last, is a book that intertwines fashion and fish. You might not have even known you were waiting for such a non-fiction combination, but I suggest you expand your literary diet. Alison Hawthorne Deming is a noted environmental author and poet (Zoologies and Stairway to Heaven are personal favorites), adept at keeping her subjects in play with one eye on our warming planet and the other the internal world.

The sardine dress of the title refers to a gown at the MET Costume Institute designed to look like fish skin with the artful application of sequins, those great imitators of fish scales. And here the exploratory adventure begins. Sardines being small herring, Deming reflects on her childhood memories of the herring weirs (stationary fish traps) on Grand Manan island in the Bay of Fundy, then reaches back to examine the long history of the small fish. She quotes Mike Smylie, a herring historian, (yes, a herring historian) who called the fish “the potato of the Middle Ages.”

In the same way that Deming unwinds the herring’s impact on human communities past and present, she inter-weaves the history of fashion with her own. A Connecticut native, her family bought the Grand Manan summer home thanks to a legacy from a librarian befriended by Deming’s mother, Travilla. A name like that begs the question of who named her, hence the search for the maternal line of talented seamstresses. Deming arrives at a cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y. in a gas-guzzling black Cadillac rental, but drive it she must in order to find her mother’s mother, who was unceremoniously abandoned there. “So many skilled and accomplished and specialized artisans stand behind history’s performance of wealth and power,” but “history does not care about the makers, only the overtakers.” Then she’s off to Paris to try to find her great grandmother, to no avail. “The endless erasure of women,” she laments, as the city falls under siege with terrorist attacks.

And here we are in another Gilded Age, just like grandmother’s time in Manhattan, with immense amounts of money being spent on dresses and parties, and where a woman’s body remains an emblem of wealth, fitted out in a museum-quality sardine dress as the planet continues its consumer-fueled march to environmental devastation. The impact of the fashion industry on the planet comes in many forms, including on the sardines themselves: “White fabric, often associated with cleanliness, even godliness, rely on special brighteners for their whiteness, Optical brighteners are made using stilbenes, which are toxic to fish.”

And yet, even as Deming bemoans the snail pace of the Paris Climate Accord, she believes the anti-apocalypse is happening now. God love her, as my own grandmother would say. Her deep affection for the natural world is the emotional heart of this lovely book, and keeps her moving forward in optimism. She even has good words to say about the seals, who she refers to as assholes due to their wanton destruction of the weirs, but then “the little beady-eyed heads pop up and the seals tread water, staring at the humans on shore. Perhaps they listen to our conversations as a kind of landward music.” Or perhaps they’re just wondering when we’re going to stop partying in time to clean up our act.

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