The Great Costume Massacre

I have always dreaded people asking to borrow my clothes. This doesn’t happen very often these days, but as a teenager, the process of getting ready for a night out would usually involve a fair amount of clothes-swapping between friends. I would more than often oblige unwillingly, succumbing to peer pressure. However I have always drawn the line at shoes. It still somehow pains me to think of someone else wearing my shoes. It seems like a loss of my identity somehow, or at least a dint to its careful creation.

This is perhaps due to the importance and power attached to dress in our family. Growing up, I remember being taught to be protective (and overly precious) of my gear by my mother – not letting any of my classmates try on my trademark headbands at primary school for example. If my brothers wanted to annoy or ‘get to me’, they knew that one particularly successful route was via my clothing. I remember the scenes one New Year’s Eve, when my brother had hidden the dress I planned to wear in the garage, and then there were the traumatic occasions when my clothes, not yet discarded, were used to polish the car.

I recently read Robert Darnton’s ‘The Great Cat Massacre‘ and it got me thinking about the symbolism of the sabotage of dress as a violent act. Darnton describes a tale, told by Nicolas Contat, of proletarian artisans in the eighteenth century, who attack  their master by killing his wife’s cat (along with many others). The cat is the mistresses most prized possession, just as the wife is their master’s. By hurting the cat, the workers hurt the cat’s owner, and in turn the owner’s husband, their cruel employer.

Through my archival research on colonial Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the eighteenth century,  I have come across references to enslaved seamstresses who would occasionally damage or destroy their masters’ garments, as a symbolic act of violence against their oppressors. These subtle forms of revolt represented real acts of physical violence against the ‘bodies’ of the colonial powers. The destruction of the most valuable material objects of the plantation system – including the slaves themselves via infanticide and other forms of resistance to reproduce – ensured a covert and contained attack, disguising the perpetrators, before the eventual onslaught of open rebellion.

Andre Pierre, 'Vodou Pantheon', 1960

Andre Pierre, ‘Vodou Pantheon’, 1960

More explicit, yet perhaps considered more ambiguous, tactics were then employed during the beginning revolts in 1791, when the ball gowns of the mistresses were appropriated, torn and worn by male revolutionaries (see Madison Smartt Bell’s ‘All Souls’ Rising‘ for a fictional account of this phenomenon). This playful burlesque performance, which involved looting the wardrobe of the colonial other and recombining incongruent elements of the social order, was itself a powerful symbol of freedom.

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