Staging of the Glittering Proletariat, District 6 museum

The Spring Queen pageant is one of the largest and longest standing pageants in history. It is a unique annual event in which female factory workers from the clothing and textile industry in the Western Cape take to the ramp and model. They showcase not only beauty, but also personality and style. The pageant began in the late 1970s and was at its height in the late 1980s. Even though its apotheosis may have waned, it remains a highlight on the Cape Town social calendar. There are up to 10 000 excited and jubilant supporters attending the final event which is hosted by the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) at the Good Hope Centre in Cape Town. Spring Queen fever begins around June/July each year. Thousands of women participate in in-house factory pageants. A factory Queen is then chosen along with a first and second princess. The factory Queens represent their factories and participate in the semi finals held at the SACTWU hall at its head offices in Salt River. The women who make it through the semi finals, anything between 40 and 60 women, go on to compete in the grand affair that is the SACTWU Spring Queen competition held in November. The coveted title of the SACTWU Spring Queen, the Queen of Queens, is awarded, along with a first and second Princess, as well as a Miss Personality and a Miss Best Dressed.

The SACTWU Spring Queen pageant is not a traditional fashion and beauty pageant. For several years local talent was also showcased with dancers and singers taking to the stage. The event also promotes the message of supporting South African products and industry. Along with the finale that showcases glamorous, extravagant and sometimes even daring ball-gowns, there is also a casual wear section where the participants are divided into groups and model local designs from sponsoring factories. The pageant is advertised as an event that aims to assist in positioning Cape Town as one of the fashion capitals of the world through its presentation of locally produced fabrics and designs. In recent years, with the closure of many textile and garment companies, and with job layoffs a harsh reality, this remains beauty with a purpose – the crowning of the Proletariat Queen.

This exhibition has engaged with the various collections of the Spring Queen pageant, from the private to the public, and aims to imagine another kind of archive, one where the past weaves its way through the present, and where temporality and spatiality is disturbed. This will be a space for connectivity, creativity, storytelling, and the re-imaging and re-imagining of history. This archive will seek to assert its position within the larger historical narrative of South Africa, and particularly that of the Western Cape. The Spring Queen pageant shows us that things are not always what they seem to be, that history, instead of affording us answers as to make the present comprehensible, involves narratives that remind us of the variance of daily life. It is here that we can discover 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.

Pageants, however, are not without their controversy. They can be viewed as showcasing the objectification of women, where an idealised image of women is paraded and put on display in the name of entertainment. However, could something else be going on within the Spring Queen pageants? Although the Spring Queen may have originated as a union and management initiative, its longevity and the continued and enthusiastic support from participants can be an indicator that at some point the pageant has been appropriated and transformed. It is no coincidence that the pageant was introduced to workers at a particular point in apartheid South Africa. Public resistance to apartheid often resulted in violent racial conflict and for the first time in the garment industry there were acts of retaliation to low wages in the form of strikes. This new energy of defiance was often instigated by the youth, the younger ‘non-white’ workers who were entering the factories. It was specifically these younger workers who would be willing beauties to model in the Spring Queen pageant. It is within this climate of dissent, oppression and silencing, that the Spring Queen pageant emerges. Surreal antidote or soporific diversion, the Spring Queen opened a space notably anomalous to reality.

Back in its early days, and still to this day, the Spring Queen offers its participants the chance to unite, to get together after the tensions of annual wage negotiations, and have fun. But for what precisely are they uniting? What is the goal? Does the Spring Queen offer a moment on stage, a flash of a different world and a fleeting illusion of an unattainable reality, or are its effects more meaningful and resilient? Does the Spring Queen open up a space for dignity, self-assurance, self-empowerment and self-improvement? Is the walk down the ramp a moment that claims visibility for a group of people who often find themselves on the periphery? Are these moments of performance perhaps fleeting and elusive acts of freedom? It is our intention through this exhibition to begin to ask the questions: Who are these women? What are their stories? And how can we hear, and see them?

Present and past Spring Queen contestants will state that participating is not even about winning. Instead, they claim that it is all about the performance, where art and life are stitched together and transform lived reality through the power of fantasy. Is the gender performance and public display of beauty in the Spring Queen pageants an assertion and inscription of femininity as a commodity? Or is there a maverick inversion, where these women, who are the makers of commodities, use their femininity to assert their independence and sever, if even momentarily, the bonds of production and consumption? Be it collective acquiescence or an enactment of collective liberty, the annual Spring Queen pageant has and will continue to foster paradoxes.

But it is within this arena of rethinking history – the archive and identity on a private and national platform – that the Spring Queen reminds us that these structures exist within the dynamics of performance. There’s the stage, lights, make-up and costumes. The actors captivate the audience, and that which is seen, presented and represented exists in tandem with the unseen, where the spectator/ actor roles can be reversed. It is a space, perhaps, where fragments of freedom can be imagined.