The first pair of denim jeans was patented in 1873 by Levi Strauss. Celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Jamie Dornan have starred in popular advertisements for this renowned brand from the 1990s to the 2000s. These advertisements used a story-telling direction aimed at showing a retro-America, with a common takeaway: those who wear Levi’s jeans are irresistible. Typical Levi’s advertisements start in different settings but lead to the same conclusion: people, or a couple passionately embracing and kissing each other. As a consumer, you are made to believe these people have chosen to fondle each other due to their attractive pairs of jeans. Despite their current status as a cultural symbol, jeans were actually first designed as workwear for labourers on the farms and mines of the USA in the late 19th century. Jeans were proven to be incredibly durable. However, current advertisements and marketing campaigns have consciously opted for a more glamorous image for denim jeans, in order for them to be attractive to a diverse and global audience.
My positionality, informed by my educational, social, and financial background, allowed me to understand jeans as a trendy garment, and as a woman, a garment that accentuated your curves. In working life, jeans are typically associated with dress-down Fridays in the office. In one such job of mine, I was working with the migrant worker community in Singapore. As of 2020, there were about 848,000 migrant workers in Singapore, who held work permit visas. They predominantly came from China, India and Bangladesh. Work permit holders account for the lowest-wage category of the labour force in Singapore. Migrant workers usually work in construction sites, land reclamation sites and shipping ports of Singapore. Their work includes many specialised skills, and gruelling physical labour. I quickly noticed how commonly jeans were worn within the community. Surely, it was not for the same reason as I did: to accentuate your curves. Why did thousands of migrant workers wear jeans to work every day in the unforgiving humidity and heat of tropical Singapore? Although denim jeans companies chose to portray jeans as a glamorous product, in this instance the original purpose of denim jeans prevailed: labourers were still drawn to the garment due to the durable indigo-dyed denim with pockets and sturdy riveting. Different denim purposes are reflected in the range of jeans’ pricing – and producing costs, with the cost of labour always marked down to be competitive, and even more so to mass-produce affordable and cheap jeans.
In fast fashion, incidents such as the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 shed light on the inhumane and unsafe conditions that workers are subjected to by multinational companies (MNCs) that outsource the work of making their cheap clothes – including cheap denim jeans – to manufacturing companies in countries like Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza was an eight-storey garment factory that collapsed and led to the death of 1,134 people in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The international brands that used the labour of those that died in Rana Plaza were not held accountable to any degree. The safety and well-being of workers is not a consideration to corporations that shift this responsibility to various other entities such as local planning authorities, or local businesses and employers. It cannot be ignored that these international companies have the most resources and power over the production of their goods. Just as the collapse of Rana Plaza was not a stand-alone event, the history of the production and selling of denim jeans and the indigo dye component has been tainted with blood for centuries.
A historic understanding of the production of indigo dye – which gives denim jeans their signature dark blue colour – shows how enslavement and subjugation of racialised bodies have always been necessary to produce this commodity. In the 1700s, to satisfy the growing demand of the English textile industry, South Carolina planters would seek and enslave West Africans who could harvest and produce indigo. Indigo dye was already an important component of textile traditions throughout West Africa, hence their specialised knowledge was required. Due to the reliance on enslaved labour, states such as Georgia legalised slavery for the indigo industry to survive.
In the 1800s, the British Empire shifted their focus from the USA to India to produce indigo. Many Indian farmers and labourers were not able to own the land they farmed on due to the Indian caste system, hence the British exerted their influence through the Zamindar (landowner) system to force farmers to grow indigo plants over the cultivation of food crops. The British also used more direct tactics of intimidation and violence to force farmers to cultivate indigo. Moreover, the hereditary nature of the caste system meant that families of farmers were bonded to the production of indigo for generations. This has meant that generations of farmers have had to grow indigo, from colonial times to now.
The discovery of synthetic indigo in 1878 was framed as a breakthrough in the denim industry. However, the negative consequences of this were felt by labourers, whose pay was depleted even further for production to remain competitive. In addition to poor working conditions and abysmal pay, the use of synthetic chemical dye has caused irreversible environmental damage in indigo-producing and garment-manufacturing countries. Rivers and waterways in India and Bangladesh have been continuously polluted for more than a century, due to the dumping of these synthetic chemicals.
Migrating labourers depend on jeans for their durability which translates to security, however, the production of jeans relies on the denial of security and safety for those making them for fast-fashion corporations. The erasure of the history of empire, slavery and bonded labour associated with indigo dye and cotton has allowed for historic networks of oppression to be co-opted by modern MNCs that continue utilising racialised people as cheap labour. It is no coincidence that cotton and indigo-dye producing colonies currently play a crucial role in the manufacturing of cheap fashion garments. The separation of the past from the present has allowed for modern networks to mimic and co-opt colonial forms of production. The violence of the modern fast-fashion industry is masked by the active participation and complicity of the masses. Because who wears jeans? Everyone.
Bava Dharani is an independent researcher based in Singapore. She is passionate about understanding how colonial labour migration has impacted/influenced postcolonial labour migration. She is currently interning with the Stockholm Environment Institute.