When investigating the social costs of the fashion industry the first thing that tends to spring to mind is the unfair deal workers are often getting – overworked, underpaid, exploited – whether in the garment sewing factories of today’s Bangladesh and China, the textile mills of 19th century Lancashire or the cotton slave plantations of the antebellum Southern US. However, during my reading on the history of the cotton trade I found that the wearers of garments can be “fashion victims” too. Basically, some 200 years ago women were attacked and harassed in the streets of London and elsewhere for wearing the wrong clothes. Here’s why.
From the mid-17th century clothes made from Indian printed and/or painted calicos or chintzes became very popular in England, offering light, attractive, affordable and easily washable alternatives to clothes made from wool, linen or silk. Predictably, local weavers felt threatened by these attractive imports and successfully lobbied for a ban on the import of patterned Indian cottons, which came into effect in 1700. However, plain Indian cottons were not banned, and local printers quickly learned to imitate the popular Indian pattern designs, so the 1700 ban did not achieve its aim to slow the consumption of cotton. (Also, it must have been pretty hard to distinguish between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ cloth). Therefore, from around 1719, the campaign by English wool and worsted weavers against Indian cotton imports became increasingly violent. Mobs of weavers and their supporters roamed the streets and attacked women wearing the ‘offending’ garments in public, ripping or cutting them off, setting them on fire, or throwing acid at the wearers to burn their skin. These violent events are extensively described in Chloe Wigston Smith’s “Callico Madams: Servants, Consumption and the Calico Crisis” (2007), as well as in chapter 3 of Beverly Lemire‘s book “Cotton” (2011), as part of her survey of the social politics of cotton and the democratisation of style between 1600 and 1820. The anti-calico campaign led to the Calico Bill of 1721 which imposed a ban of plain and patterned Indian textiles.
Lemire and Wigston Smith both highlight the fact that whilst the attackers purported to protect local industry they were also quick to brand ‘calico madams’ as disreputable or whores. More often than not the attackers did not appear to contend themselves with destroying the clothes; they specifically wanted to hurt the women wearing them. This was very gendered violence; men were not subjected to similar attacks. One of the attacks mentioned by Lemire and Wigston Smith (quoting from old newspapers and the Old Bailey Proceedings) particularly stuck in my mind: “In June 1720, Dorothy Orwell was caught ‘by a Multitude of Weavers in Red Lion Fields in Hoxton, who tore, cut, and pull’d off her Gown and Petticoat by Violence, threatened her with vile Language, and left her naked in the Fields; that she was in such a Fright that she did not know them again.'”
So what we see here is an issue of competition policy/protectionism rapidly morphing into an anti-fashion and anti-women campaign. Printed cottons were pretty and conspicuous – hence seen as decadent, frivolous and corrupting. And if the fashion was like that, then surely the wearer must be too! Potentially even more dangerous was the fact that calicos were affordable, meaning that now working class women could dress (almost) as nicely as their richer peers. Contemporaries remarked that the calico craze extended to all social classes and blurred the sartorial distinctions between them. Now, if the servant can dress like the lady, will she then also want other privileges? Will she want her place? You can see where this was going. Misogyny and class appear to have been at the root of the violent nature of the anti-calico campaign.
On reading Lemire and Winston Smith’ research I was completely fascinated. The anti-calico campaign rang so many feminist bells: Women harassed in the street…. women attacked for wearing the wrong clothes….women’s ‘immoral/immodest’ dress… women ‘asking for it’ by dressing in a certain way… women having ideas above their station…. that casual equation woman = slut …..women’s appearance and sexuality seen as a threat…. the desire to control women….And then there was this period illustration celebrating the passing of the cotton ban:
The weavers are dancing around a bonfire supposedly fed by bolts of cotton textiles, but what it reminds me of is the burning of witches.
All this provided a very strong inspiration for an artwork. I wanted to focus on the cycle of women fighting off their attackers, lying defeated (like Dorothy Orwell in the field), but then carrying on wearing the ‘forbidden’ clothes regardless. As life drawing is a regular part of my practice, preparing this aspect came easy – although I had to book a model for a special session where we experimented with (invariably very short!) poses “fighting off an attacker”.
The next step was to find out how imports of early 18th century Indian calicoes and chintzes looked like, and then find a suitable reproduction fabric to incorporate in my work. Not that easy, as I discovered, because there are actually not many surviving examples from that period. It seemed easier to find examples from 1650-1700 and from 1750 onwards than from the time in between. I attribute this at least in part to the import ban which, whilst far from 100% successful, must have greatly reduced the number of Indian printed cotton textiles available in the UK. Plus those that did manage to get in were probably worn “to death” via the second hand clothes market.
The V&A has some nice examples of patterned Indian cottons on show in its South Asia section. Additional items are in the V&A’s new Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion, which can be visited by appointment. But because the Museum’s textile collection had been closed for a long time while it moved to the new Centre there is a very large backlog of interested visitors, so it’s not that quick to get an appointment ( a bit like a trendy London restaurant!) . However, I found that I didn’t actually have to do this because Rosemary Crill, Senior Curator for South & South East Asian textiles and dress at the V&A, has written a beautifully illustrated book about the very textiles I was researching: Chintz: Indian Textiles for the West. Sorted!
The second challenge was to find the right reproduction fabric, preferably at an affordable price. First I had to make decision whether to go for a simple, one or two-colour small pattern that would have been affordable to working class women, or for a more elaborate, larger, multi-coloured pattern which would have been worn by more well-to-do ladies (although poorer women might have worn them second hand).
Although my heart was with the servants, the more elaborate patterns seemed both more challenging and interesting artistically so I decided to go for those. I had samples sent for and then… back to the V&A! The invigilator in the South Asia Galleries looked on bemused as I was sitting on the floor next to the textile displays, comparing my pattern samples in detail with the original patterns, struggling, given I’m not an expert in the field. I did have a first choice but nothing seemed 100% right. Fortunately Rosemary Crill had kindly agreed to take a look at my samples, and she pointed very decidedly at my first choice. I did feel a bit chuffed.
Making the piece was a lot of fun. As usual I put a lot of effort into composition but once that hard bit was done, I really enjoyed interlacing paint, print, and pattern. I had to change my plans though. Inspired by the fact that some anti-calico campaigners threw acid at women wearing patterned cottons, I had initially wanted to splash bleach on the fabric and bleach out parts of the printed pattern. All my fabric samples bleached beautifully…except the one I had decided to use in my piece – this is the most colourfast print I’ve ever seen in my life! “Just use white paint instead” suggested my partner. No,no, no – it would look different, and also that’s adding, not reducing, and process is important.