We speak of the fabric that covers our body, but what does the fabric itself embody? Some say thread has a soul, for nothing has a closer connexion to our naked bodies, our largest organ called skin, than our clothes. This seems like reason enough to dig into some history.
I’ve been meaning to write this article for a while now. As I write, I am fully aware of my privileged position as a white female born in an upper-middle class family. I am lucky. I recognize that some of my ancestors may have taken part in the atrocities mentioned below.
This article speaks of bodies, more precisely, of what work can do to a body. I am not referring to office work, behind a screen like my own, but that of those who make our clothes, from cotton picking to sewing. This article also speaks of those who were dispatched to serve this industry, of those who were left to die, past, present, and future.
To fully comprehend this article, we must travel back to the 18th century and look at the history of cotton.
Photo credit: Fashion Revolution
The Cotton industry
Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber in the world. In 2021, it represented about 24.2% of the world’s fiber production.
Its popularity increases significantly during the 18th century. Before the industrial revolution started (1750), most cotton was grown on family-owned farms in Asia,Africa, in the Ottoman empire and in South America. The cotton was spun, woven, or knitted on site to serve national demand.
Throughout the 18th century, many core inventions allowed all stages of cotton production to accelerate significantly, mainly centralized in Manchester, England. This fast evolution sets the tone for upcoming globalisation and capitalism. Cotton imported from the Ottoman empire or India won’t suffice: Agriculture needs to revolutionize for the market to expand. To keep feeding insatiable British machines, much, much more cotton is needed.
A system is rapidly put into action in the Caribbean, with rich, greedy, garment hungry Europe on one side, and cotton producing America on the other. Europeans could finally do what was impossible in India: expel populations to make grander cotton fields maintained by African slaves. This was possible in America, for which most territories were colonized at the start of 1492.
We must wait for the mid 18th century for rich European merchants to view the United States of America as the new cotton El Dorado. The climate is ideal, particularly in the South where First Nations have been growing it for centuries. The main advantage motivating entrepreneurs during this era, is the easy access to land. By easy, we mean shamelessly expelling First Nations from their territory to plant monoculture cotton fields for miles on end. The soil rapidly gets drained by nutrient hungry cotton plantations. As the years go by, more territory is invaded for profit, and treaties are signed to relocate entire populations.Photo credit: Unsplash
Unspeakable numbers of First Nations people were forced to sign accords and disown their ancestral lands with nothing in return for Europeans to pursue their cotton frenzy. These inhumane operations were supported by the governments in place. The Creeks, Chickasaw, Choctaws, Cherokees, to name but a few, suffered deeply.
Another important factor to consider, is the easy access to profitable workforce: slaves brought overseas from Africa. Up until the beginning of the American Civil War, the number of black slaves was ever increasing. Between 1500 and 1800, over 8 million slaves are estimated to have been deported from Africa to the Americas .
Upheaval can be sensed on the horizon in the middle of the century, resulting in the American Civil war(1861-1865). This war will lead to the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery. The fact that cotton farming fully depends on enslaved workforce worries Europe. For England, depending exclusively on American importations, it becomes more and more risky.
Photo credit : Joshua Olsen
England then turns to India, which is colonized in 1853. Forcing the locals to undertake intensive cotton production is far from easy. The Indians have a very strong artisan network, most families within the industry produce finished products and own small-scale plantations they sustain themselves. The British achieve domination through starving and weakening the people. According to the medical journal The Lancet,19 000 000 Indians perished in the 1890s, with an increased concentration in areas with cotton fields .
From India to the Caribbean to Brazil, colonial empires were built off the backs of slaves on ancestral lands, fully controlled by colonizers and the European market.
« Without slavery, there would be no cotton. Without cotton, there would be no modern industry. » Karl Marx
Photo credit: Museum Victoria
We often consider the industrial revolution as the birth of train tracks and massive development such as the automobile industry, but we forget that these markets were developed because of the substantial profit made through the European textile industry. In many cases, the governments of these colonialist countries allowed the markets of their choosing to expand by sponsoring the industries, creating laws, imposing taxes to ensure economical development.
All things considered, capitalism cannot entirely be founded on market privatisation, as States have, on multiple occasions, allowed and sponsored the expansion of these different industries.
“Imperial expansion, expropriation, and slavery- became central to the forging of a new global economic order and eventually the emergence of capitalism.” Empire of cotton, A Global History, Sven Beckert
The 18th century and India may seem far away, but when we take a closer look, this abominable system is not that different from what is happening today.
In 2021, India is the second largest cotton producer, right behind China.
In 2002, Monsanto’s Bt cottonseed was introduced, and was the first GMO seed accepted in the country, selected for its’ resistance to certain insects. For other nuisances, a complementary pesticide and herbicide cocktail is applied to the soil. During this time, the Bt cotton seed is seen as a miracle to save the plantations. It costs 18 times more than the traditional seed, and it is forbidden to preserve seeds for the years to come. The treatments spoil the soil considerably, and its’ health quickly deteriorates. Astronomic amounts of irrigation are necessary for the plants to grow. Within a few seasons, only the GMO seeds can be harvested with an insane amount of pesticides. This system traps the farmers in a dark vicious circle of debt. The seeds are purchased on credit and reimbursed on the value of next season’s yield. If an extended drought hits the fields like it has been the case in the past years, the families will find themselves in eternal debt.
Between 1999 and 2015, 250 000farmers have reportedly committed suicide. We’re talking about one farmer every 30 minutes. Ironically, the most common method of suicide is the ingestion of pesticides, which, according to health experts, dangerously resembles Coca-Cola. 2015 isn’t very far behind us, is it?
If we move along the production chain, we can also shed light on the women who make our clothes that cannot afford to buy the 3$ t-shirts they produce for us. I say women, because in 2021, 79% of the global garment industry was supported by women.
What happens to these bodies forced to work 6 days a week without being permitted to use a restroom? These bodies who work so hard to earn so little. These bodies we forget about, because “out of sight, out of mind”. Unfortunately, the rare moments we see these bodies, are amidst tragedies that earn global attention such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse, where wounded survivors were being evacuated from the rubble on live television. Many people seem to think the dirty history behind the textile industry is part of the past: Think again.Diversity is an increasingly hot topic in the garment industry, but what about shedding light on the people who make our clothes? If the world we live in today is said to be globalized, why don’t we make basic human rights and dignity a global concern of ours?
This week marks the 10th edition of Fashion Revolution Week, and the theme is: MANIFESTO FOR A FASHIONREVOLUTION
Photo credit: Fashion Revolution
We can only support this initiative that requests more equality and dignity in the garment industry:
“We love fashion. But we do not want our clothes to exploit people or destroy our planet. This year, we are coming together as a global community to bring our manifesto for a fashion revolution into reality.” – Fashion Revolution
To learn more about this initiative visit the Fashion Revolution website.
Photo credit: Fashion Revolution
NB.: To write this article, I relied on the research of Sven Beckert (Empire of cotton: A global History) and Sofi Thanhauser (Worn: A people History of clothing).
 Empireof cotton, P. 36