The Anti-Revolution of the Sans-Masks
The history of clothing is a subject that has been word to threads elsewhere; certainly, I’m no expert. That said (isn’t it always like that- so easy to disown expertise but still render opinions!), three expressions of this history (and present) are of particular interest to me here. One takes us back over two centuries, another less than one century, and the most recent, well, we are living through it.
Those unfamiliar with history will have a hard time comprehending the degree to which France played a role in world affairs in the 18th century. Near the end of the century, the Ancien Regime — so odious in its violence and iniquity- was toppled by revolutionaries; indeed the French revolution spurred and inspired revolutions all over the world; no matter, here, that it quickly devolved and succumbed eventually to Bonapartism. For this piece, emphasis should be put on one group of revolutionaries: The Sans-culottes, a largely urban, working people who believed in direct democracy and inveighed (and organized) against the aristocracy, who were known for wearing silken knee breeches (culottes.) Disagreement exists as to when the term was first used; nevertheless, the Sans-culottes made history, shunning the mores, decadence, and pomposity of the aristocracy.
An equally tectonic world-event — the Indian Independence Movement- had a deep connection with clothing as well. The British encounter with India was the most economically extractive instance of colonialism in world history. When the British arrived, India’s GDP was 24% of the world’s; when they left, it was 3%. One of the several ways they destroyed the economy- and effectively murdered tens of millions of Indians- was to divert Indian agriculture from subsistence to cash crops and to force the importation of British goods, including, clothing from the mills of Lancashire and Manchester. As tens of millions suffered and millions died at their hands, they doubled down on their systems- just as they had done in Ireland but on a massive scale- until Gandhi and the people of India finally broke the back of British colonialism. A key tactic: Boycotting imported British clothing and spinning clothing with Indian cotton. Sans-Imported British clothing! The spinning wheel is still a powerful and inspirational symbol of India’s resolve to gain Independence and its eventual victory.
Fast forward to 2020. We have another Sans-situation but this time, it is hardly revolutionary. This time, it is downright deadly. Indeed, from the ramparts of the Bastille through to the ramparts of the Red Fort, we have fast-forwarded into the Twilight Zone of the Sans-Masks. This time, a small piece of cloth or fiber that if donned can save lives, is the subject of violent “revolutionary” fervor by Rightists. They have made even the US news look like something out of the 1970s in Latin America- armed militias on the streets, plots to kidnap elected officials, and promises of violence if elections don’t go their way. As hundreds of thousands of their fellow humans die around them, they refuse to mourn or even to protect the living. Indeed the Sans-Masks are not the Sans-culottes or the Indian revolutionaries. They are fake revolutionaries in a time of reaction.
We are in retrograde times. There is so much to glean from history. It is unclear whether we’ve collectively heard the tocsin sound. Have we all become Sans-Sense?