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Cotton: A Capsule History Part II — Cotton and the Clothing Revolution

With the second post of this series, it comes time to delve into cotton’s radical reenvisioning the world, of clothing, and of global power relations as we know them today. Before cotton became so commonplace as to be known as ‘the fabric of our lives’, cotton was widely farmed and historically produced in Central and South America, Egypt, and Africa — areas of the subtropics and tropics to which the crop was indigenous before the age of industrial capitalism. And, immediately preceding the advent of global European colonization, the world’s premier cotton producer and exporter to Europe of woven and intricately dyed cotton fabrics, was Muhgal India. 

Man's Robe (Jama) with Poppies, Cotton; painted, with applied gold leaf
Burhanpur painted & printed muslin Jama, 17th c. from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cotton production reached its height in 17th century Muhgal India due, by in large, to Muhgal dress’s departure from more traditional Persianate styles of the region, which emphasized silk textiles for members of the upper rungs of society. Muhgal emperors set themselves apart from their predecessors and compatriots in the region by relying upon the cotton cloth of Bengal, known as mulmul, or muslin, which had long been known as a high quality cloth popular in maritime trade. The imperial court patronized local textile techniques even though they were not traditionally associated with regal decoration or attire, and thus boosted the stature of high quality cotton textiles in the eyes of their eager European trading partners.

These new Indian textiles were especially appealing to incoming European markets for another reason as well — their revolutionary vibrancy. 

The brightest reds and rich indigo-blues of all kinds of patterns were being printed on this durable cotton fabric with unique mordant dye techniques, and the rising bourgeoisie of 17th century Europe began to take notice. Infinitely easier to care for than traditional silk fabric, dyed cotton began to overwhelm particularly the ultra fashionable French markets, threatening to push France’s hitherto well-established textile guilds out of their own domestic markets. The upper-middle class taste for this new Indian cotton grew so such much that, in 1686, King Louis XIV banned the importation of cotton to France.

Indian Chintz gown
Robe à l’Anglaise, 1785-95. Cotton, painted mordant, dyed, baleen. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, similar to the Chintz gown currently held by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Perhaps the best, and certainly an interesting example, of this phenomenon is an Indian Chintz gown currently held by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Such an article of clothing is historically documented as having instigated a heated exchange between a Mrs. MacIver, wife of a ferry owner, and one of George Washington’s slaves whose documented name was Charlotte. Walking down the street in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1786,  Mrs. MacIver thought that she spotted on the body of the enslaved woman a gown that had been stolen from her two years before.

The gown was a fashionable one: an “Indian Chintz, white Ground, with Stripes and Figures of different Sorts of red, if not other Colours.” Such a gown even on the second-hand clothing market would have been a large investment — but why did Charlotte select this Indian chintz dress? And why was Mrs. MacIver so certain it was formerly hers, and eager to get it back? 

Whites in many slave-holding societies associated enslaved people with the coarse linen that planters distributed to them as rations, and held cotton to be the province of white settlers. In particular, printed cotton fabrics, like chintz, connoted elite status, as they were commonly worn by merchants and planters, who had easier access to imported goods. Indian chintz was, then, for Mrs. MacIver, a power grab — an assertion of her association with elite white planters, and, for Charlotte, a source of empowerment. 

And so the production of cotton textiles both symbolizes their created hierarchies and bookends both sides of global power relations for the empowered and the oppressed. To wear cotton is to be within the province of white settlers, to be within the privileged status of the colonizer, while to produce cotton and to be forbidden from wearing it is to be the colonized, the enslaved, the worker on whose back the cotton system came to rest and continues to rest in the present day. Indeed, global power patterns shifted as never before when the displacement of indigenous Caribbean cotton and indigo production used by Carib peoples, and possibly also Taino and Arawak peoples, was supplanted by British and French sugar-cane plantations and cotton crops were instead newly introduced to the American South. The cheapest cotton fiber in the world came from the U.S. by 1800, though cotton has never been indigenous to American soil. The slave trade and the joint global forces of capitalism and colonialism shifted the sites of production to their most ‘profitable’ ends, and forcefully shifted the whereabouts of an enslaved African labour force alongside it. 

cotton gin | Definition, Inventor, Impact, & Facts | Britannica
African Slaves Operating the First Cotton Gin, engraving for Harper's Weekly by William L. Shepherd, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc.

As Sven Beckert clarifies in a chapter of his book on the history of imperial European cotton production and its afterlives, cotton’s cooptation of a system of “slavery, colonial domination, militarized trade, and global land explorations provided fertile soil for a new kind of capitalism to sprout”.

The invention of the cotton carding machine in 1789 and the cotton gin in 1793 were only the beginning of a whole system of textile technologies made specifically for the commercial manufacture of cotton cloth. And these are the technologies that the textile industry is still dependent upon today, as well as a global power system we seem unable to escape, as was  described in my previous post. So the question remains, with this long history and uncertain trajectory of cotton in the present — what do we do with this information? In what ways can cotton be rethought and retaught? That is a question for another post. 

Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton : A Global History. Vol. First Vintage Books edition. New York: Vintage, 2015.

DuPlessis, Robert S. “Sartorial Sorting in the Colonial Caribbean and North America.” In The Right to Dress: Sumptuary Laws in a Global Perspective, c.1200–1800, edited by Giorgio Riello and Ulinka Rublack, 346–72. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 

Georgini, Sara. “An Indian Chintz Gown: Slavery and Fashion.” The Junto , September 12, 2018.

Houghteling, Sylvia. “The Emperor’s Humbler Clothes: Textures of Courtly Dress in Seventeenth-Century South Asia.” Ars Orientalis 47 (January 1, 2017): 91–116. 


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