Mail & Guardian

Putting real beauty on show

15 Feb 2013 00:00 | Brent Meersman

An exhibition of the garments for the annual Spring Queen event is also an ­exploration of the creativity and dreams of working-class women.(Supplied)

An exhibition of the garments for the annual Spring Queen event is also an ­exploration of the creativity and dreams of working-class women.(Supplied)

Few people haven’t heard of the Miss World beauty pageant. The globally telecast media event is fed by 130 national franchises. When the last one was hosted in Johannesburg, it cost ratepayers tens of millions of rands.

But how many South Africans, or indeed Capetonians, are aware of the annual Spring Queen pageant, which has been going on for more than three decades on their doorstep?

Far removed from the world of international glitz, feminist protests, big bucks and golf tours, this unique event is staged by women factory workers in the clothing and textile industry in the Western Cape.

Starting in late June and early July every year, up to 60 factories hold in-house pageants to elect their queen, who represents them at the semi­finals at the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union hall at its head office in Salt River.

The competition culminates in November with an entertainment-filled final event in the Good Hope Centre, where the coveted title of Spring Queen: the Queen of Queens, is bestowed, along with a First and Second Princess, a Miss Personality and a Miss Best Dressed. At the finale, contestants show off their ballgowns, but there is also a casual-wear event in which clothing from local, sponsoring factories is modelled.

The competition has waned since the 1980s, mainly because of the decimation of the textile industry, the many closures and massive staff lay-offs. The reigning queen does not even have a factory — the Ellen Arthur factory in Ottery closed down at the time of last year’s competition. But the event still attracts nearly 10 000 boisterous supporters, largely female, cheering for their candidates.

Now, the Centre for Curating the Archive at the University of Cape Town has gathered, and in some cases rescued, private and public collections from the pageants to put on exhibition.

The curators Siona O’Connell and Dale Washkansky acknowledge that pageants may objectify and dehumanise women, that they promote oppressive and stereotyped notions of beauty, and that, during apartheid, they served to distract and patronise workers while their labour was exploited. However, the exhibition “interrogates ways in which people wished to see themselves above how they were represented by others”.

The history of the pageant also gives us a sense of daily life, of “untold stories of dreams fulfilled or crushed, of backstage planning, support and intrigue, of the pursuit of excellence in the design and production of garments” — all of which form an important part of the Cape Town archive of working-class history.

Researching this paradoxical event has uncovered “unexpected acts of freedom, where those women framed, marked, named and burdened by oppression and the label of otherness, enact the rite to creativity. It is here that these predominantly ­coloured working-class women take to the stage in a public display to imagine and dream of an image of the beyond.”

Bianca Jo-Ann Adams, Spring Queen 2007, tells how “the whole Spring Queen experience is something I would never have imagined would happen to me … I wanted to do modelling as a child but then, somehow, it just did not become a reality. It would just be a far-off dream”.

The idea of the Spring Queen came from both the unions and management at a time when younger, more radicalised workers were entering the factories. But its survival indicates that at some point the pageant was appropriated and transformed by workers usually invisible to society.

The “glittering proletariat” is, to its credit, a far cry from the commodified realm of Miss World feeding on the socioeconomic bias of mainstream media.

View the original online publication here