Blue Jeans

Blue Jeans | Once upon a time in the 16th and 17th centuries there were two cloths. One was from Genoa and used by its far-travelling sailors. The French called it bleu de Gênes though the story is that it was originally more of a yel- low. It became known as jean and was made from a mix of thread, which was imported into England and soon produced there. Meanwhile denim is alleged to have originated as serge de Nîmes and was made from silk and wool. What both had in common was that they were a twill weave—developed as early as 10 centuries BCE in Hallstatt—which makes for a fabric that is both fl exible and resilient and has a distinctive diagonal ribbing. At the same time in the Dongari Killa area of Mumbai, a coarse plainweave fabric called dungaree was used also by sailors, both as sails and for their own clothes.

All three clothes were worn by poor working people. Italian paintings of the late 1600s like that of Giuseppe Bonito show beggars and workers in blue denim. What they also had in common was that the two European fabrics came to be woven with cotton at the end of the 18th century, when slave labour on cot- ton plantations in the Americas made it available worldwide. By 1789, George Washington was able to see both jean and denim woven at the Beverly Mill in Massachusetts.

It is in name only that dungaree survived, both as particular overall, but still interchangeable with jeans until the 1970s. Back in the 1850s in the USA, jean as a fabric continued to co-exist with denim. General workers including those in non-manual jobs dressed in the lighter jean, but mechanics, painters and those doing heavy work wore blue denim. Now the two are married, one became the trousers, the other the cloth.

The story of Levi Strauss is well known, but it is signifi cant that even before the famous blue jeans with the metal rivets, denim came in blue. This was surely not accidental, a second marriage between denim and indigo was a natural. Writing about the use of indigo Jenny Balfour Paul writes: “Indigo-dyed cloth in some parts of the world has had a largely decorative function. In southern Arabia, as for the farming communities of South East Asia, its prime importance has been practical, hence the lengths to which dyers went to render the cloth as windproof and hard wearing as possible. It performed a function similar to the anorak or army jacket. Though primarily used by the humbler classes, its striking decoration quality appreciated further up the social scale. In this it shows simila- rity with the development of blue jeans made from denim.” And this is indeed the development that took place as jean changed from fab- ric to the Levi-Strauss trousers style, the classic 501 still going strong, but the range of both style and the very fabric of denim inexhaustible. Which is another story to be told in Denim Triumphant.

2006 | “Where are the men? Here are the Women” So shouted around 3000 women garment workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company com- plex in Mahalla al-Kubra in the Nile Delta to those male workers who had not switched off their machines just when a strike was gathering momentum. Somewhat ashamed the men stopped work and went to the Tal’at Harb square outside the factory to join other workers who had assembled there. They had been promised an increase in the annual bonus given to public-sector work- ers by the Prime Minister, but when pay packets came in December, there was no increase. Soon riot police were deployed around the factory but did not know what to do when there were 10, 000 in the square. With the encourage- ment of Egyptian state security apparatus, management offered 21 days pay. The women again took the lead in scorning the offer. Some of the men then re- occupied and locked themselves in the mill. The police cut off water and power to the occupied mill, but the following morning they had massive sup- port from 20,000 workers outside. On the 4th day, a 45-day bonus was offered with an assurance that the company would not be privatized. This was accepted but a campaign began against the state controlled ‘Trade Union’ of the Mubarak regime. In the 3 months that followed, 30,000 textile workers in ten mills in the Nile Delta and Alexandria went on strike or on slowdowns to get for themselves what had been won at Misr in Malhalla. In Misr mills in Kafr al-Dawwar strikers kept hold of a leader of the discredited offi cial Union inside the factory compel- ling him to be a striker too.

It was some 17 months later that the general strike called by textile workers in Malhalla for 6th April 2008, was blocked by a heavy police and military pres- ence, but the fi ght back that day included local residents ripping down posters of President Hosni Mubarak, and this date has been seen as the real start of the movement that eventually brought about Mubarak’s fall. The continuation of strikes in the city and its textile factories that continued from 2006 onwards against the regime’s neoliberal policies and the accompanying imposed offi cial trade union, and for an independent union, built up the momentum that resulted in his fall from power. Since then it has continued in the absence of signifi cant regime change. As early as February 11th 2011 they called a general strike, and in September, 22,000 workers at the Egypt Weaving and Textile Company, also in Malhalla, went on strike with their own union for a better minimum wage.

“As a homosexual, a philosopher too, and a cross-dresser, I research cross- dressing in the history, the culture of Peru, but with the Museo Travesti I make praxis and perform as a cross-dresser, that is I dress in many forms. I empha- size this for several reasons. For one thing, I don’t call myself gay because the gay thing is linked to a lot of things about belonging, and I don’t want to belong, but rather to stop belonging, in order go in for the next form of belonging. For another because there is so much ethnic clothing in this country, each region has different clothing and each one is more beautiful than the next. And finally because of all the cross-dresser clichés that exist. Their distorting and deme- aning power was clear to me at an exhibition I presented about a museum of drag and all these journalists and TV gossip programme people came and they were full of presuppositions about what a cross dresser is. They spoke very badly about it, even an important art critic, because for him, a drag queen was cheek, scandal, that is he wanted a performer to shout and contort and undress. Otherwise, for him, it wasn’t a genuine drag queen, which is more to do with the vulgar clichés of a dangerous woman.

Now at the same time there is great ethnic drag here in Peru, even on prime time television with the programme, the Chola Chabuca. And he is gay and HIV positive and a drag queen but people don’t think about him as either gay or HIV positive because he really becomes his character, the defenceless cholita, an Indigenous Andean woman in the city wearing ethnic dress. He is very good but, and what’s especially significant is, that he has another character who was La Negra, and whilst La Chola is very funny and everything, she’s not sexual, whereas La Negra was an explosion of sexuality. But his character La Negra wasn’t successful whereas the one of La Chola was successful. Because it’s not something dangerous, I mean she can pick up your son and be with him and caress him but she’s not going to do anything to him, you know what I mean? She’s safe.

It’s also related to what I would call marketing around the cholo world right now. It is being integrated, the cholo world, that is ethnic men and women from the country, it is being integrated into consumerism, but first of all, so that this can happen, this world is being stripped of everything dangerous. And he knows, this drag queen knows that he must project this image, while of course the women on the street begging, they also know that they have to project, don’t they? I mean they are people who you have to help so what they definitely don’t have to show you is their sexual side, because the sexual side is a side with power with strength, isn’t it, and that would be the wrong projec- tion, too dangerous.

But then, despite how good the TV performance is, I don’t think a drag queen, an ethnic drag queen, needs to be created, because there already are drag queens in the dances of Peru. I’m talking here about las chinas those characters that act as she-devils, and what’s so impressive is the strength required for the performance. It’s the same with the characters played by men in festivals, a lot of, their activity is very physical, I mean, they are like acrobats. They really are acrobatic, they turn in mid air and jump or climb one on top of the other. What’s also interesting is that every time I have spoken with the specialists of the Wititi dances they would tell me, but no, in the Wititi the man dresses as a woman because he is going to kidnap the woman that he is in love with. That is, he is not gay, Oh no no no. He dresses up because he has to kidnap the woman he is in love with. But if the dance had ended with this line of men and women like in all dances now, then to get the spirit of the dance we should put the cross-dressers back at the centre of it. With the androgyne at the centre, then it was a way of reconstructing the dance. What is crucial to Andean choreography has to do with the opposites mediated by the androgyne. That is, men, women and the androgyne mediated in the ritual which then became dance, and you can see graphic representation of this in talegas, the woven bags for carrying potatos or coca, and the way the different stripes of colour are placed against each other when they are woven.

Or look at the figure of Manco Capac. What they teach us at school when we’re little, is that Manco Capac was a very macho man. And he fought, a real fighting man, but the historians now have challenged this idea. In fact Manco Capac was a shamán, who belonged to a caste of shamáns, who didn’t go to war. Rather, it was through spells that they won wars. Of course it was another way of access- ing power, another form of power but without the characteristics that macho idolizes.

Ah, but if you look closely at this image, this person here is an androgyne from the clothing, but it is never stated whether it is a man or a woman. And that is a very chauvinistic view on the part of anthropologists, isn’t it? Because it says here is a character, it the research says: “… there is a character dressed with men and women’s clothes, having sex with another character dressed with the clothes of a God.” So then, the God is God, and the other is a man dressed in men and women’s clothing, but why is it a man dressed? It could also be a woman dressed in men and women’s clothing, but there is always this idea within the Castilian language itself, which gives priority to the masculine. And at the same time I don’t understand why they want to look at drag kings and drag queens as if they were the same, they are totally different things. The drives, what lies behind the crossdressing act, is different.”