Politics in Fashion or How I Grew to Love Ramie

We in the fashion industry pride ourselves on making the products our customers want.  If my fourteen-year-old son wants the baggy pants look, talented designers working with the most professional merchandisers swing into action to ensure that he too can look like the most hardened recidivist in jail awaiting trial.  If my daughter suddenly thinks corduroy blazers are cool, then executives at some of the largest corporations in the world will immediately heed her demand.

Overnight jacket factories in China, Hong Kong and India double their size, while at the same time sweater workers in Bangladesh and Indonesia are thrown out of work – all to meet the demands of a sixteen-year-old girl.

Our mission statement is: We make what you want.  Or at least that is how it was supposed to work, and did work, until some time ago when a bunch of southern senators decided to change the rules.

Getting to the point of this article, when was the last time a real customer walked into a store to ask for a ramie shirt?  I am pretty sure the answer is: Never.  Yet in 1992, U.S. retailers sold over a $1 billion worth.

What about ramie sweaters?  Do you think Saks Fifth Avenue is about to run a full-page ad in the New York Times?  Ramie, the miracle fiber that Italian and French designers are raving about.  Not in my lifetime.  Yet in 1992, U.S. retailers sold over $1.5 billion worth of ramie sweaters.

What is this ramie and why are all these people trying to sell it to me?  Therein lies a tale.  Ramie is bast fiber, like linen, only considerably stiffer.  Do you know those stiff pile welcome mats outside your front door, the ones that hurt your feet when you walk on them with bare feet?  Well, those are hemp, not ramie.  Think stiffer.

Do you know those hairbrushes that psychopathic nineteenth-century parents used to spank their children with?  Those are pig bristle.  Think even stiffer.  Think bed-of-nails that Indian fakirs lie on to prove they are impervious to pain.  Think hair shirt that Dark Age flagellants wore so they too could suffer as did their Lord.  Now you are getting the feeling.

In any case, with modern technology, a process known as retting softens ramie fiber to the point where its feel is indistinguishable from cotton, provided the cotton has been reinforced with barbed wire.  You can understand that no one in their right mind would actually produce, much less sell, a garment made of this stuff unless totally forced to do so.  And that is just what happened.

The ramie story is really about our cotton and our government’s effort to protect our cotton by ensuring that nobody outside the U.S. buys any of it.  Cotton is America’s most important clothing fiber.  The United States is either the largest or second largest producer of raw cotton.  More importantly, the U.S. is the world’s largest cotton fiber exporter.  Some years ago, southern senators from the U.S. textile industry imposed quotas on cotton garment imports.  Not only did they limit the number of garments that could be imported but they also ensured the cotton garment duty rate was six to seven times greater than the duty on cotton substitutes such as – don’t you know it – ramie.

During all this quota-setting and tariff-raising, nobody in Congress stopped to think, “Gee, if we stop cotton garment imports, this might stop people from buying American cotton.”

Which is exactly what happened.  The Chinese, who were America’s largest cotton customer, finding themselves unable to export their cotton garments, looked for something else to substitute and what they found was ramie.  Not only did China have almost all the ramie in the world, but the U.S. Government, by restricting cotton garment imports gave the Chinese almost virtual unrestricted entry into the restricted market.  And, because of the high cotton garment tariffs, the U.S. Government ultimately subsidized the Chinese ramie at the expense of U.S. cotton.

Of course, the U.S. cotton farmers were not particularly happy, but were mollified by the farm subsidies that the government threw at them.  The result of all this was to tax everybody to support the farmers while simultaneously ensuring that consumers paid more to buy something they did not want in the first place and at the same time providing cash assistance to Chinese ramie producers to compete against U.S. farmers.  This all goes to prove: Every nation has the government it deserves.

Now, all things must come to an end, and this includes the good, the bad, and even the absurd, although ending the absurd does seem to take longer, in this case 43 years.  On January 1, 2005, quotas will be phased out and U.S. farmers will finally be free to increase cotton exports to China.  At the same time, ramie sweaters and ramie shirts will finally disappear from store shelves and we will be free to put ours upstairs in the attic to be forgotten about.

Years from now, when your granddaughter comes running down from your attic crying  because cut her hand on a sharpened sleeve cuff on one of your ramie shirts, do not even try to explain the truth.  Say, “There was a time when your grandmother and I thought seriously about joining a group of Dark Age flagellants.”

Believe me, under the circumstances, this is a more plausible explanation.

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