Madras and the Poetics of Sartorial Resistance in Caribbean Literature

“Revolutionary Material Culture Series”

This series examines the Age of Revolutions through its material markers, reminding us that materials themselves reflected and shaped political cultures around the revolutionary Atlantic and World.

By Siobhan Meï

In Gina Samson’s 2018 mixed media piece Sous le regard des Ancêtres (Under the Gaze of our Ancestors) fashion serves as a bridge between connected struggles in Haitian history.[1] Newspaper clippings documenting the Petrocaribe scandal that resulted in massive protests in Haiti in November of 2018, slice across the face of a figure resembling Jean Jacques-Dessalines, one of the military leaders of the 1804 Haitian Revolution. In this piece, Dessalines’ transverse bicorn hat—a staple of nineteenth-century French military regalia—blends into the deep red textures of a woman’s headscarf. The visual intimacy of these two fashion items—military hat and headscarf—suggests that the people’s struggle for economic, social, and political justice in Haiti continued long after the Revolution.

Samson’s depiction of the headscarf, or madras (madwas in Kreyòl), as a gendered symbol of resistance can be located within a larger history of Caribbean artistic engagement at the intersections of fashion and protest. While madras in French, Kreyòl, and English can refer to a headscarf in a general sense, the word also denotes a specific kind of fabric. Originally produced in Southeast India, madras is a checked linen that features strongly in Afro-descendant women’s traditional dress in the Caribbean, and continues to be used today in the making of dresses, skirts, scarves, and handkerchiefs. Often a white, red, and pink cotton cloth or cotton-silk blend, madras arrived in the seventeenth century in Martinique and Guadeloupe by way of Indian ocean and transatlantic trade routes established by the French Compagnie des Indes and the British East India Company. Madras was originally produced in the Tamil Nadu province in India, the capital of which is Chennai, formerly known during British colonization as Madras. Tamil Nadu is a region known for its ancient tradition of textile production and particularly the use of colorful, fast dyes. The cloth was later reproduced in the colonial metropoles of France and England as part of an eighteenth-century shift of global manufacturing centers from India to Europe, designed to stimulate the consumption of European domestic goods while still meeting public demands for “exotic,” trendy items.[2] Indian fabrics such as chintz, cashmere, and madras were not only in high demand in terms of fashion trends in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; they were also highly valuable in the context of the slave trade. Bolts of madras fabric often came to the plantation societies of the Caribbean by way of West Africa on European slaving ships. These cloths were known as guinea cloth or indiennes de traite.

Like contemporary artist Gina Samson, Haitian author Marie Vieux Chauvet (1916-1973) was keenly aware of the historical power of fabric and fashion as a means of protest. Chauvet’s second novel, Dance on the Volcano, re-imagines the male-dominated narratives of the Haitian Revolution by centering the voice and experience of a young, free woman of African descent, Minette. During the late 1700s when the novel takes place, Port-au-Prince was a city on the edge of revolt: members of the white ruling class and their families were being poisoned, slave uprisings on plantations became increasingly frequent, and coalitions of formerly enslaved and free people of color were rapidly forming across Haiti’s rural and urban regions as part of an underground effort to eradicate slavery. In describing this context of social upheaval, Chauvet’s prose brims with lush descriptions of dress— an important external signifier of race and class status in colonial Haiti. During this time, dress was regulated through legislation such as the Code Noir, a 17th century decree outlining the legal conditions of slavery. Provisions of the Code Noir dictated what Afro-descendant peoples, free or enslaved, could wear in public space. These laws became more strictly enforced in the colonies as race emerged as an increasingly unstable marker of class and societal position. Following the execution of two men of color in the wake of the murder of a white sailor, Chauvet describes Port-au-Prince’s free women of color protesting the white Creole ruling classes by wearing velvet and lace—items forbidden to them through the Code Noir:

Following the sailor’s murder, the planters hung two men of color as an example. Though they swore they had been mere innocent bystanders, they were brought to the public square and hung from lampposts after a mockery of a trial. Coincidentally, as if they had been tipped off, a group of free colored women, abandoning their sandals, their Indian-style skirts, and their madras scarves, but decked out in velvet and lace, chose that same day to display themselves ostentatiously on the arms of the most handsome officers of the colony.[3]

While the accommodation of European dress functions as an important form of protest in the novel, the madras headscarf—as a public assertion of Black femininity within the white colonial social order of Saint Domingue— emerges as a symbol of Minette’s commitment to fighting for freedom for Haiti’s enslaved peoples. Chauvet’s exploration of the relationship between fashion and social resistance in Haitian history is directly referenced in the cover art of the most recent English language translation of Dance on the Volcano, which features a painting of a young woman in a tiered white and red headscarf by Edouard Duval-Carrié.

Book cover of Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet.
Dance on the Volcano (Archipelago Press) Cover Art by Edouard Duval-Carrié.

In Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco, vibrantly painted madras scarves abound in its depictions of pre-abolition era Martinique. Texaco weaves together multiple forms of oral and textual expression to offer a multigenerational account of the city of Texaco, a shantytown located outside of Fort-de-France. The first section of the novel follows the story of Esternome, a free Black man who has left the plantation he grew up on to start a new life in the city. Through Esternome’s eyes (as recounted by his daughter, Marie-Sophie Laborieux), Chamoiseau describes the years leading up to the slave rebellion of May 20th, 1848, an event which resulted in the Martinican government’s hasty declaration of emancipation for all enslaved peoples. In describing this powder-keg moment in Martinican history, Chamoiseau describes how enslaved peoples would come down to the capital city of Fort-de-France from the plantations to sell goods and socialize. In these passages, both women and men are extravagantly dressed: “tiers of madras scarf” adorn the necks of men, and women’s hair is done up elegantly in “madras calendé whose ends looked like wild cabbage leaves.”[4]

Painting of a woman dressed in traditional Afro-Caribbean dress.
Michel Jean Cazabon, La Martiniquaise, n.d.. The madras calendé (also called “tête calendée” or “coiffe chaudière” in Martinique and Guadeloupe) is often associated with the douillette, or wòb dwiyèt, a form of Afro-Caribbean women’s traditional dress consisting of “a Madras headpiece, a long back trail, a petticoat, and a triangle-shaped like foulard [scarf].”[5]

In these scenes public self-fashioning and madras cloth specifically, serve both as a “a response to physical and social violence” [6] and as a form of pleasure situated in a long tradition of Afro-Atlantic style. As main character, Esternome later reflects on these moments of joy and festivity: “With necklaces and jewels, ribbons and hats, they were erecting in their soul the little chapels which would at the right time stir up the fervor of their short-lived rebellions.”[7]

Siobhan Meï is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her dissertation, “Adieu madras, adieu foulard: Reading Dress, Textile Artisanship, and Resistance in the Plantation Economies of the Atlantic World,” explores the ways in which technologies of dress (including its modes of labor and production) continue to shape politics of belonging and resistance in the Americas.

Title Image: Gina Samson, Sous le regard des Ancêtres (Under the gaze of the Ancestors), 2018, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 18×18.

Suggested Reading:

Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion: a New History of Fashionable Dress,     (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).

Chamoiseau, Patrick. Texaco, trans. Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, (New York :Vintage, 1998).

Chauvet, Marie Vieux, Dance on the Volcano, trans. Kaiama L. Glover, (New York:         Archipelago, 2017).

Ford, Taneisha, Liberated Threads, Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul,(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Kobayashi, Kazuo, “Indian cotton textiles in the eighteenth century Atlantic economy,” Why India-Africa Relations Matter blog series, Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa Online Series London School of Economics, June: 2013.

Miller, Monica. Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

Parthasarathi, Prasannan and Giorgio Riello, eds. The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1300-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Zamor, Hélène, “Indian Heritage in the French Creole-Speaking Caribbean: a Reference to the Madras Material,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 4, No. 5; March 2014.

Caribbean culture and fashion blogs addressing the Atlantic history of madras cloth:

Le blog de Myriam Alamkan: Histoire maritime et patrimoine de la Caraïbe

Blake’s : Tellement…moi/Le media caribéen

UK Soca Scene 

For more on the issue of fashion in colonial contexts see the roundtable “Colonial Couture” featured on the early Americanist group blog, The Junto.


[1] “Sous le regard des Ancêtres” was featured as part of a recent exhibit at Brooklyn College titled “Beyond Vertières,” curated by Jean Eddy Saint Paul, director of the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute.

[2] This process is known as import substitution. For more on the history of 18th century cloth manufacturing in Europe, see Giorgio Riello, “The Making of a Global Commodity: Indian Cottons and European Trade, 1450-1850,” World History Studies and World History Education: The Proceedings of the First Congress of the Asian Association of World Historians, (2010).

[3] Marie Vieux Chauvet, Dance on the Volcano, trans. Kaiama L. Glover, (New York: Archipelago, 2017), 121.

[4] Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco, trans. Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, (New York: Vintage, 1998), 78.

[5] Hélène Zamor, “Indian Heritage in the French Creole-Speaking Caribbean: a Reference to the Madras Material.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 4, no. 5 (March 2014): 157.

[6] Ford, Ibid, 6.

[7] Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco, trans. Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, (New York: Vintage, 1998), 81.

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