Read__26 October 2020

Putting an end to Slavery - exploring the history of fashion and its relation to slavery.

In the 1990s, India opened up its markets that lead to the thriving fashion world we see today, all based on fast fashion, e-commerce and haute couture for years now, all interlinked by centuries of oppressive systems. Being a girl who spends most of her time on social media and is always keen to learn about brown history, my research lead me to realise how the current fashion system is completely built on slavery and oppression, just packaged differently.

The system as we know, can be traced back to British colonialism. In the 19th century, England became one of the biggest cotton manufacturers, after surpassing India. The cotton textile in India was completely taken over by the British, who in turn, grew them under their own regulations. They benefited from it by finishing it into cheap textiles and over selling it to the colony itself.The crop industry being the only means to earn a living was made to change its structure by the British, leading to a cycle of debt for the farmers, eventually giving rise to poverty.

Indian Cotton Farmers

Weighing cotton in Virginia, circa 1905.

The Indian cotton trade soon became a three continent spanning enterprise: cotton from India, slaves from Africa, and sugar from the Caribbean, turning it all into a complex commercial dance. No wonder people remark that India “paid for its own oppression” under the British rule as it procured its own slavery, along with Africa. Though, the real colonisation was not just the British economic exploitation, but the transition of India from a self-sustained economy to an industrialised nation which still preserves and perpetuates the class divide.

It’s clear how cotton was the king of crops, it was one of the world’s first luxury commodities, after sugar and tobacco but it also gave rise to slavery. They were bought and kidnapped from Africa, the Caribbean and Mexico by plantation owners to farm their harvested cotton fields. Their lives were basically controlled by everyone except them, from being sold or bid on at auctions to forced to settle in labor camps, their only task being: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton. America is the world’s leading economy because cotton slavery transformed and maximised the country’s profits, all through years of torture, violence and family separations.

 

the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh

“Mourners from the Ladies Waist and Dressmakers Union Local 25 and the United Hebrew Trades of New York march in the streets after the Triangle fire” 1911.

Sadly, slavery didn’t just end at farming but was experienced by Garment workers as well. Cotton harvested by the slaves from different parts of America was sent to sweatshops like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York, where immigrant women and girls worked in a cramped space at lines of sewing machines. These women were not only young, but also did not speak English and worked 12 hours a day, every day. This system of unfair practices where fast fashion brands set up sweatshops in third-world countries, employing women and young children at minimum wage leads them to a dangerous life where they become potential victims to many at-work tragedies due to the poor conditions the companies provide them with. Incidents like the fire at Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York (1911) and the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh (2013) cost those workers their innocent lives. We cannot bring them back or reimburse their lives with money but we can put them out of their misery and save them from future tragedies.

We’re all still part of this system where fast fashion brands sell us their overpriced products, even though its production is carried out in this very country at a much cheaper price. We might not see slavery now like it was during the British rule, but it still exists and we empower it every time we choose international brands over the local self-made ones. It’s about time we wake up and act, it’s time to Break the Cycle!

Written by Shruti Kotiya