How whiteness was invented and shaped in the colonial era of British expansion

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By Beverly Lemire, University of Alberta | –

(The Conversation) – Fashion is political – now as in the past. As the British Empire expanded dramatically, people of all ranks lived with clothing and everyday objects in a surprisingly different way from previous generations.

The years between 1660 and 1820 saw the expansion of the British Empire and commercial capitalism. The social policy of the British cotton trade reflected profound global transformations linked to technological and industrial revolutions, social modernization, colonialism and slavery.

As history professors and scholars Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn note, the “British monarchy began the large-scale involvement of the English in the slave trade” after 1660.

Vast profits flowed from the plantation slave areas, especially from the Caribbean. The mass enslavement of Africans was central to this brutal system, with laws and enforcers enforcing the subjugation of blacks in the face of repeated resistance from slaves.

Western fashion reflected the racialized politics that permeated this period. Indian cottons and European linens were now traded in ever-increasing volumes, fueling the vogue for lighter and potentially whiter textiles, which were increasingly in demand.

My research explores dimensions of whiteness through material histories – how whiteness has been shaped into work structures, routines, aesthetics, and daily practices.

Multi-scale whiteness

Enslaved men and women were never given white clothing except as part of the livery (servants’ uniforms, sometimes very luxurious). The wearing of white textiles became a marker of status in urban centers, in colonizing nations, and in colonies. The whiteness of textiles was a transitory state requiring constant renewal, shaping ecologies of style. The resulting black/white dichotomy hardened as the profits from slavery soared, with a startling impact on the culture.

Scenes of women washing themselves were a staple of European artists. A bleach wash, using an ash-based lye, was common as washerwomen strove for whiteness. Undated photo by British artist Julius Caesar Ibbetson (1759-1817).
(Yale Center for British Art/Paul Mellon Collection)

The whiteness of clothing, decoration and fashion has amplified, becoming a marker of status. Elaborate washing techniques were used to achieve material goals.

British sociologist Vron Ware stresses “the importance of thinking about whiteness on many different scales”, including “as an interconnected global system, having different inflections and implications depending on where and when it was produced”. As a result, fabrics, laundry, and fashion were entangled in imperial goals.

Immaculate whiteness of clothes

Laundering was codified in housekeeping manuals from the late 1660s, a chore overseen by housewives and housekeepers. Women with fewer options were sweating over tubs, engaged in ubiquitous labor in pursuit of pristine whiteness.

In colonial and plantation areas, where lightweight fabrics were essential, black enslaved women were tasked with this endless drudgery. Only a few benefited personally from their shaping skills.

This workforce was large. Yet few museums have invited visitors to consider the soaking, bleaching, washing, bluing, starching, and ironing processes required by historic clothing.

A recent exhibition at Queen’s University’s Agnes Etherington Art Center curated by Jason Cyrus, a researcher who analyzes the history of fashion and textiles, examined slavery and cotton production in North America.

Agnes Etherington Art Center: “Black Bodies, White Gold: Unpacking Slavery and North American Cotton Production”

Laundry work of enslaved women

The skilled labor of enslaved women was a central feature of every plantation and an essential colonial urban trade, given the resident population and the thousands of sailors and sojourners arriving in the Caribbean each year – all wanting to freshen up their clothes.

Ports across the Atlantic were filled with washing tubs and women working on them. The ordered whiteness of the material was the goal. Mary Prince recorded her thoughts of a demanding mistress in Antigua, who gave the slave prince each week “two bundles of clothes, as much as a boy could help me lift; but I could give no satisfaction.

Prince only made money for money laundering ship captains while his “owners” were away. In port cities, including the Caribbean and imperial centers, this trade allowed some enslaved women mobility and sometimes self-emancipation. But shaping the whiteness was a difficult process, with many historical threads.

Color erased from salvaged statues

From the 1750s, European fashion and artistic style increasingly drew on perceptions of the classical past. Countless portraits were painted of wealthy people like Greek gods, with the classical past becoming, as cultural theorist Stuart Hall observed, a “reservoir of myths.” These have become sources for imagining the origins and destiny of Europe.

European scholars and the educated public considered this cultural lineage to be white. The remnants of polychrome coloring have been cleaned from the recovered Greek sculptures.

This supposed legacy of a classic white past defined what became known as neoclassical styles, further expanding the craze for light, white dresses, a political fashion in need of endless care.

At that time, “the term classic was not neutral,” as art historian Charmaine Nelson explains, “but a racialized term…” Nelson states that the category “classic” also defined the marginalization of darkness as its antithesis.

Today, some scholars struggle with the legacy of racism embedded in classical studies.

Racialized masquerade

A woman draped in white clothing against a dramatic dark background.
European scholars and the educated public saw the ancient Greek and Roman past through their contemporary imperial politics, which included embedded racism. Portrait of Elizabeth, Viscountess Bulkeley, as the Greek Goddess, Hebe, by George Romney, 1775.

Neoclassical dresses reflected this zeitgeist, as ladies argued like Greek goddesses. Women’s magazines urged female readers to play the role of deities. The simple socialization in vogue would not be enough. Fashion demanded a larger stage.

Masked balls became the place where whiteness and empire aligned, as white-clad goddesses mingled with black-faced guests or the appropriate insignia of colonized peoples.

Masquerades became unmissable occasions, parties led by members of the royal family, nobles, and people enriched by slave trade and labor.

Applied racial hierarchies

Seemingly mundane routines (and elegant affairs) reveal cultural facets of the empire where racial hierarchies have been reinforced. At that time, everyday wear and party fashions demanded relentless attention.

These routines were tied to empire and race, whether in the colonial Caribbean or in a grand London masquerade.

The proliferation of white linens and cottons was deliberately employed to impose hierarchies. The rise of white clothing and the neoclassical style can best be understood by addressing mass slavery as an economic, political, and cultural force shaping styles, determining fashions, and promoting the fashions of whiteness.The conversation

Beverly Lemire, Professor, Department of History, Classics and Religion, University of Alberta

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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