Posted on 1 Comment

How Marie Antoinette’s dress propelled slavery, fast fashion and made America a superpower

marie antoinette in the robe de gaulle or

More than 200 years later, the entire world still lives in the aftermath of Marie Antoinette’s most scandalous outfit choice. In 1783, the Queen of France sat for a portrait which would scandalise French society, upend the silk industry and ignite the violent fire of slavery and capitalism by the United States and Britain. At the time, the controversial Marie Antoinette scandalised the French public by appearing in a robe de gaulle, a white dress made of thin layers of cotton/muslin with puff sleeves and a sash belt at the waist, which closely resembled the chemises and shifts that 18th-century women wore as underwear. The painting, essentially the equivalent of the queen’s nudes, had to be replaced immediately but Marie Antoinette, ever the rebel and trendsetter, sparked a powerful sequence of events that affect our world today.

The last queen, the first influencer

To this day, Marie Antoinette is still a fashion icon. It’s to the degree that her name is often shorthand for any remotely 18th century, Rococo or historically French.

Beginning with her arrival to France from Austria, there wasn’t very much love for between the foreign queen from the French court. She held little political influence and instead turned to fashion and the arts to establish herself. Paris was the world’s authority on fashion and Marie Antoinette was adept at recognising the talent and skill in the capital. Soon, whatever Marie Antoinette wore was what the whole (Western) world wanted to wear.

marie antoinette by jean baptiste andre gautier d'agoty 1775
Marie Antoinette by Jean Baptiste
Andre Gautier D’Agoty (1775)

She wasn’t just indispensable to the fashion industry at the time; fashion plates and magazines were published as frequently as every ten days to keep up with the queen’s style—she was the fashion industry.

She was reported to have commissioned over 300 dresses a year and hardly wore anything twice, spending $20 000 a day.

Even though many wanted to dress like her, she was a divisive figure amongst the nobility and French citizens alike. Amongst a long list of ‘transgressions’; she was more Austrian than French, it took her nearly a decade to produce an heir, she rebuked court etiquette, exceeded the crown’s budget, had an affair, committed incest and liked to retreat into Petit Trianon, where she and her friends would cosplay as peasants.

The robe de gaulle would be come to be known as the chemise à la reine (the queen’s undergarments) after the premier of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s portrait. Everything about this painting was a radical statement by Marie Antoinette—she was no longer a reflection of the maximalist French fashion industry (wearing cotton instead of silk was unpatriotic), she appeared pastoral and rustic like a commoner and there were no references to her husband, the king. Naked and alone, Marie Antoinette was just a woman—not a wife, not a mother and, certainly, not a god. Undeifying her own image didn’t stop the dress spreading like wildfire across Europe and intensified the demand for cotton.

mrs francis russell 1787 george romney
Mrs Francis Russell by George Romney (1787) – wearing a chemise a la reine

Cotton is king

Today, we use cotton in almost everything. Beyond our clothing, it’s in our home textiles, medical supplies, toiletries, paper, oil, computer chips and television screens. It’s our most prominent non-food agricultural products and our dependency on cotton today is all thanks to the marriage of influence and innovation.

While the queen and her aristocratic friends created the desire for cotton products in the 18th century, technology made it accessible and violence made it affordable.

georgiana cavendish duchess of devonshire by thomas gainsborough 1785
Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire by Thomas Gainsborough (1785) – wearing a chemise a la reine gifted
by Marie Antoinette

The cotton gin was invented in the United States, mechanising the cotton production process and allowing for unparalleled levels of productivity. Before, India was the provider of the world’s cotton but as cotton fibres were still being separated from their seeds by hand, the process was slow, labour intensive and unable to keep up with European demand.

Now, not only was America able to match the demand for cotton, but planters also used enslaved labour making cotton incredibly cheap.

Of course, Marie Antoinette’s dress didn’t create the devasting legacy of chattel slavery in the US but it certainly pushed it forward. By 1807, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was over and northern American states began to outlaw slavery following the American Revolution. However, the astronomical profits possible from cotton created further incentive for slavery and America’s enslaved population became as valuable an industry as its banks, railroads and factories combined.

Without being able to enslave new Africans, slavers had to “naturally increase” the enslaved population. From the 1770s until the Civil War, the enslaved population grew from 400 000 to 3.9 million, a yearly increase of 25-30%. It is estimated that enslaved women would give birth 9-10 times in their lifetime all to satisfy the insatiable hunger for productivity and profit.

Brutality is inextricably tied to America’s cotton boom, with a 400% production increase 1801 to 1862. Enslaved people were under constant supervision, and their productivity and value were gauged by their daily outputs. Failing to meet quotas led to torture and realising quotas could also lead to torture as a means of motivation. Even the legacy of this working environment, where employees must always visibly busy and their productivity must be quantifiable, would come to inform capitalism the world over.

The South, which now had the most millionaires per capita , could survive seceding from the North because cotton and enslaved labour made it economically feasible.

James Henry Hammond famously said, “Without firing a gun, without drawing a sword… we could bring the whole world to its feet… What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilised world with her to save the South. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on Earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.”

And even though slavery would end with the Civil War and the cotton industry declined, America was still one of the wealthiest countries in the world. The wealth generated by slavery didn’t disappear either, it was absorbed to create 1% and the mass corporations that still exist today who now have bought the power to manipulate and control the free world.

marie antoinette 2006
Kirsten Dunst in Marie Antoinette (2006)

The legacy of fast fashion

Although we think of fast fashion as a very 21st century issue, the fashion industry in the 18th century wasn’t so different from our own. Even without digital mass media, the dissipation of trends was rapid in the late 1700s. It was even said that if your maid stole your latest fashion plate, by the time you got a new one all the styles would already be outdated.

1780s fashion plate of chemise gown
1780s fashion plate

The guillotine didn’t cause the end of the little white dress or the need for cotton either, in fact it may have made it worse. The dress itself was an appropriation of the aesthetics of the lower and working classes and in distancing themselves from the monarchy and symbols of excess, the new French Republic adopted the chemise à la reine, now the robe en chemise, as a uniform that represented their new neoclassical, egalitarian beliefs.

All over the world, cotton became the textile of choice for everything from dress to home goods and machinery. And that never ended. Cotton opened the gateway to mass production in fashion. As it become cheaper and easier to produce goods, trends came and went with the speed of light. The industry has become a rat race of large corporations trying to be the first to get poor quality clothes into as many hands possible.

By now, we’re inundated with messages about sustainability, ethics and consciousness in fashion, and the first proactive measure is often natural fibres over synthetics. But not all synthetics are bad and not all natural fibres are good.

Cotton is an incredibly thirsty plant, the thirstiest of all agricultural products—the water used for India’s cotton farming in 2013 in one year was enough to provide 850 000 000 Indian citizens with 100 liters of water every day in the same period. The crop uses 2.5% of the world’s arable land but makes up more than 16% of global pesticide use; pesticides which are often poisonous to cotton labourers. Benin, Burkina Faso, China, India, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan combined produce 65% of the world’s cotton and all have had several reports of using forced labour and child labour to farm cotton.

Cultural appropriation and the butterfly effect

There’s still much debate about the origins of the chemise à la reine. A similar dress, known as the robe à la creole, was popular amongst white French settlers in Caribbean colonies—a look they may have appropriated from the free and enslaved Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous women of Haiti and Martinique.

free women of color with their children and servants in a landscap agostino brunias 1796
Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape by Agostino Brunias (1796)

Whether or not this is true, the dress remains an instance of Marie Antoinette getting to adopt the aesthetics of the lower classes while actively contributing to those same people’s oppression and demise. Her rejection of French finery and court etiquette might endear us to her today as an example of a woman attempting to take agency over her life and image, and some view it as an attempt to show the French public a more humble and altruistic side to their monarch.

But no matter her intentions, this rich, white woman and her dress are complicit in the way white supremacy permeates the world and the fashion industry today. Fashion is such a powerful creative outlet for ingenuity, expression and individuality but, just like with the last queen of France, we cannot even begin to imagine how our personal choices can cost so many lives and freedoms.

Posted on Leave a comment

Monetising the male gaze: being an online sex worker in South Africa

monetising the male gaze blog banner

South Africans are obsessed with sex workers. It’s all anyone seems to talk about. If it’s not slut shaming blessees (sugar babies), or watching Bonding and Euphoria, then we’re fascinated by stories of women raking in R70k a day on OnlyFans. Of course, this obsession is a contradiction of hatred and admiration. The male gaze—a way of looking that empowers men by objectifying women—makes sure we praise women who fit into what men want but we terrorise them for demanding respect or money in return.

“It sucks but men thinking I’m hot is financial freedom for me.”

And that is what sex workers do for the most part. They pander to the male gaze. However when women step in front of a camera and they decide how they are dressed, how they are framed, and when and where men get access to that, they’re manipulating the male gaze for their own benefit. When I spoke to a Joburg sex worker, Gabrielle*, she said, “It sucks but men thinking I’m hot is financial freedom for me.”

The male gaze is almost inescapable. Whether you’re sharing a selfie or walking down the street, you’re probably going to be sexualised. So why not make money off of it?

“I liked taking sexy photos. Receiving male attention and money was just a plus.”

Gio, another Joburg online sex worker, has always been into sharing suggestive photos of herself online. She satisfied what men wanted to see but not for male approval or romantic partnership necessarily. She was just a woman, with agency over her body and how and where she got to presented it. She even began her OnlyFans account before there were any real payout options for South Africans. “I liked taking sexy photos. Receiving male attention and money was just a plus.”

Monetising something she enjoyed doing is what hustle culture keeps telling us to do, no? The only difference is that we act like exchanging sexual service for money is somehow selling your soul more than everything else we do to survive under capitalism.

“We make ourselves poeses all the time for [regular] jobs,” Cleo adds.

A model and former stripper who’s moved to sugaring to supplement her income under the lockdown, she doesn’t see a difference between shaking ass for a cheque and pretending to love long hours in a job interview. How many humiliating things do we endure so we can be overworked and underpaid in ‘regular’ jobs? At least with online sex work, you can have some control.

In fact, it was being a nightclub promoter that influenced Gabrielle’s decision to become a sex worker. In the nightclub, the male gaze is pervasive. Everything in the nightclub is about rewarding men for spending money on premium liquor. Girls are paraded in revealing clothes and high heels, often at the requirement of management, and club staff especially must laugh at jokes, endure groping and make it clap for male enjoyment. “[Because of the club] I realised how profitable my body could be.”

“Sex work is not a get rich quick scheme at all.”

Don’t be fooled, however, much more goes into sex work than just being a beautiful girl. “Sex work is not a get rich quick scheme at all,” says Swazi, a stripper who’s also had to move to remote work because of COVID-19. “There are so many skills beyond the obvious ones you need to be successful. Sex work is all about selling a fantasy… You have to give [clients] something worth paying for.”

Too often the rhetoric around people sex work is that it’s a last resort for people who’ve failed miserably in their lives (I’m looking at you, ‘I’ll just drop out and become a stripper’ tweets), or the untalented and unskilled. But any actual sex worker can confirm that if you want to be successful, there’s real effort involved.

“The biggest misconception people have about online sex work is that it’s easy,” Gabrielle says. “People think it’s like taking nudes for your boyfriend but, like, it’s not.” Gio’s had girls reach out to her for help because of how well she’s crafted her presence online. There are serious considerations about angles, lighting and desirability that go into an explicit picture. And it’s not always hardcore porn either. Gio’s lamented that she does softcore body appreciation, which involves simulation. She spends her time looking to other sex workers for inspiration and support where she sees women innovate the scope of sensuality. It can be anything from doing lingerie hauls or reading literature aloud because men find your voice enticing or filming your face while you’re sitting on someone else’s.

Swazi adds, “You also have to be very clear about what your persona is and stick to it. Are you the unapproachable bad bitch? Are you the soft, sexy girl who wants to please the customer at all costs? Are you the controlling dominatrix? Are you the ‘cool girl’ who likes to just hang out and have a good conversation, that just happens to be really sexy and knows how to hit a split? Are you the really, really freaky nympho that deepthroats beer bottles just to prove you can do it?”

You have to know what men like intimately in order to be confident enough to insist they pay for it. Gabrielle even adds, “If anything I’ve become more confident and comfortable in my body because I get paid for being sexy.”

Cleo* cites her time taking exotic dance lessons at The Royale as one of the best times of her life. Having always felt “awkward and skinny”, learning to strip made her realise that she didn’t necessarily have to have a fat ass and big tits to be sexy. There was power in her body and uniqueness and even more power in getting paid.

“I’ve seen white girls charge five times what I charge. I could never get away with that.”

Of course, even though there are many different niches online, it doesn’t mean sex workers are immune to pay gaps and misogynoir. “It’s actually really hard to [achieve] success—especially the really fast success we see examples of on the internet all the time—when you’re a black woman. Even more so if you’re not a particular type of black woman. Thicker, lighter more conventionally attractive black women have more success and white women have [the most] success,” says Swazi. “I feel like I saw this a lot more clearly at the club. You just have to work five times harder, have so many more skills, be immaculately put together, and have a sparkling personality to get men in the club to feel like spending money on you is ‘worth it’.”

Gabrielle and Cleo, also Black women sex workers, both have dealt with this too. “I think people are less tolerant with me because they think I deserve less respect,” Gabrielle explains. “I’ve seen white girls charge five times what I charge. I could never get away with that.”

I wondered though if the fact that the internet has made sex work more visible is the right step towards acceptance. “The thing about South Africa,” begins Swazi, “is that just because something is ‘normalized’ or talked about more openly that doesn’t mean people legitimately accept it 100%.” While working online offers a greater layer of protection than being a streetwalker, it exposes you to trolls and harassment.

For most online sex workers, they lead double lives. “There’s no way in hell I’d tell any family members about my work, I just know there’s no way they would receive it well,” Swazi asserts. “They see this kind of thing as a moral issue.” For Gabrielle, the possibility of being found out by her family is a constant fear. It’s something she could possibly be disowned for.

But what happens if you’re exposed?

For Gio, she had to validate her job to her conservative mother after an anonymous troll outed her. Though she was able to sway her mother to tolerance, it was a choice she was denied. Now she deals with her family no longer looking at her the same. But, she adds, no one can really shame her for it anymore either.

Hopefully one day we will live in a South Africa where our obsession with sex workers means not only do we accept them but we advocate for their rights too. In the meantime, as Gabrielle posits, “I’m still deserving of respect even if people don’t give it to me.”

Please consider donating to the Sex Worker Empowerment and Enabling Environment Program or the sex worker Advocacy Law Reform Programme. You can find more information on how to assist South African sex workers at SWEAT.

*Names have been changed to protect people from ruthless trolls. This article was originally published on the 17th of June 2020.

Posted on Leave a comment

Fashion IS Function with Nike’s 2020 Future Forum

nike future forum 2020

The first time Tokyo hosted the Olympics (in 1964), it had to be moved to October because of unbearable heat and typhoon season. South Africa was banned for the first time because of its Apartheid sporting policies. And the USSR still existed.

This year, the Olympic Games are back in Tokyo and the temperatures are even higher. South Africa is participating and today, climate change is the hill we just might all die upon. 2020 is going to continue to be filled with a lot of posturing about greener solutions, zero waste and zero carbon–particularly from the fashion and textile industry. Though I was moved by Nike’s Future Sports Forum last week Wednesday that might actually deliver on the promise?!

nike 2020 olympic uniforms

I think about what makes for actually sustainable eco-fashion often and so far I’ve concluded that true eco-fashion must be made to last (this entails the quality of the materials, pattern making for minimal waste, and innovative construction techniques), a thoughtful production process that prioritises slower fashion cycles, ethical labour practices and aims for a longevity in the garment’s lifespan, and it should be able to either return to the Earth (biodegradable materials, allow itself for recycling).

The Nike 2020 Olympic uniforms check a lot of these boxes for me. The skateboarding uniforms (which, hey, is also a new addition to the Olympics), were cut from waste efficient patterns and consist of 100% recycled polyester. The Space Hippie footwear collection is made from “space junk”; the scrap materials from the Nike factory floor, along with 100% Space Waste Yarns constructed from recycled plastic bottles, T-shirts and other yarn scraps. The Team USA 2020 medal stands (also 100% recycled polyester) were inspired by the 2020 medals which the Tokyo Organising Committee has spent the past 2 years soliciting small electronic device donations to extract gold, silver and bronze to create 100% recycled materials.

nike future forum 2020 fashion show

And beyond lowering their carbon footprint, decreasing the water use and innovating new, greener materials; the 2020 Nike collections are a balance of sustainability and performance. I think back to this piece by Tinuke where she examined how utilitarian fashion is becoming. Longevity, quality and endurance are what separates eco-fashion from fast fashion and it’s also what makes or break a winning dash across the finish line or a world record break in athletic wear. The “fashion over function” tag we all used to echo when we had to carry teeny-tiny purses or squeeze into restricting jackets is dead and in the future shown by Nike, fashion is function.

The Olympic track and field uniforms feature their new Dri-FIT Aeroswift material which is optimised to wick away sweat and disperse moisture throughout the garment for even and quicker evaporation. And most impressive to me is their focus on accessibility in their Fly Ease shoe technology which focuses on “making shoes easier for everyone”. The shoe accommodates a broad range of foot shapes (such as braces, supports and prosthetics), wearers with one or no hands and alternative entry systems.

If all design is problem-solving, then I think that Nike has tangible solutions to finding the balance between beauty, functionality and sustainability. And none of them has to be mutually exclusive.

nike flyknit sneaker

This post was originally published February 2020.