Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Before Drug Prohibition, There Was the War on Calico

In 18th century France, wearing the wrong fabric could get you in big trouble.

On a shopping trip to the butcher's, young Miss la Genne wore her new, form-fitting jacket, a stylish cotton print with large brown flowers and red stripes on a white background. It got her arrested.

Another young woman stood in the door of her boss' wine shop sporting a similar jacket with red flowers. She too was arrested. So were Madame de Ville, the lady Coulange, and Madame Boite. Through the windows of their homes, law enforcement authorities spotted these unlucky women in clothing with red flowers printed on white. They were busted for possession.

It was Paris in 1730, and the printed cotton fabrics known as toiles peintes or indiennes—in English, calicoes, chintzes, or muslins—had been illegal since 1686. It was an extreme version of trade protectionism, designed to shelter French textile producers from Indian cottons. Every few years the authorities would tweak the law, but the fashion refused to die.

Frustrated by rampant smuggling and ubiquitous scofflaws, in 1726 the government increased penalties for traffickers and anyone helping them. Offenders could be sentenced to years in galleys, with violent smugglers put to death. Local authorities were given the power to detain without trial anyone who merely wore the forbidden fabrics or upholstered furniture with them.

"The exasperation of the lawmakers, after forty years of successive edicts and ordinances which had been largely ignored, flouted or circumvented on a wholesale basis, can be sensed in this law," writes the fashion historian Gillian Crosby in a 2015 dissertation on the ban. Her archival research shows a spike in arrests for simple possession. "Impotent at stopping the cross-border trade, printing or the peddling of goods," she writes, "government officials concentrated on making an example of individual wearers, in an attempt to halt the fashion."

They failed.

In the annals of prohibition, the French war on printed fabrics is one of the strangest, most futile, and most extreme chapters. It's also one of the most intellectually consequential, producing many of the earliest arguments for economic liberalism. "Long before the more famous debates about the liberalisation of the grain trade, about taxation, or even about the monopoly of the French Indies Company, philosophes and Enlightenment political economists saw the calico debate as their first important battleground," writes the historian Felicia Gottmann in Global Trade, Smuggling, and the Making of Economic Liberalism (Palgrave Macmillan).

Other European countries, including England, prohibited calico imports during the same period, but France went the furthest. It blocked not only imported prints but plain-fabric imports and forbade domestic printing, even on French-made cloth. The French prohibition also lasted the longest, stretching for 73 years. It never worked.

Calicoes were popular for good reason. Introduced by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, the Indian fabrics were unlike anything Europeans had ever seen. The blues and reds were spectacular and, thanks to dyeing skills honed over centuries, the colors survived laundering.

Printed fabric for clothing was itself new to Europe, providing an irresistible cornucopia of pictorial designs. Savvy Indian producers adapted their patterns to local tastes and offered new styles as fashions shifted.

Even without decoration, the finely spun cotton cloth made for more comfortable undergarments than the linen previously in use—and at a lower price. Inexpensive, easily washable muslin allowed poorer people to more frequently change the shifts they wore next to their skin.

And indiennes offered something for every income. An aristocratic lady might wear a finely painted skirt to court while, for less than a day's wages, a servant girl could spruce up her drab ensemble with a floral kerchief. "The trick to their success," writes Gottmann, "was that they came in a vast range of qualities, from the finest hand-painted chintzes to the cheapest block-printed or dyed calicoes."

By the mid-17th century, indiennes were everywhere, on everyone. French silk, linen, and wool manufacturers were not pleased. As the country's largest export industry, textiles provided an influx of currency, which economic doctrine at the time held essential to national wealth. In October 1686, the royal council banned the popular prints to protect local producers.

Even the supposedly absolutist rule of Louis XIV, however, faced conflicting demands. Notably, the French East India Company, owned by the king and his courtiers, wanted to sell calico. To preserve its lucrative trade, the council let it auction fabric to be sent abroad. Smugglers took advantage.

Forbidden fabrics came across the border from Holland, Switzerland, and Savoy. They crept in through Avignon, which was then under papal control, and out of ships and warehouses in Marseille, where they were supposedly destined for re-export. State-sanctioned auctions attracted bidders stocking up on calico to trade for slaves in West Africa, which was legal, and those planning to sell it in the French West Indies, which was not. "Switzerland and the Channel Islands, who top the list of foreign buyers, were the two main entrepôts for smuggling textiles into France," Gottmann observes.

Anyone in France who wanted calico—and most everyone did—could get it. Worn by the country's most fashionable women within sight of its most powerful men, the prestige of indiennes never dimmed. And so instead of building the kingdom's wealth, the ban turned countless citizens into outlaws.

It also stifled the development of a French fabric-printing industry even as startups in England, Holland, and Switzerland were devising their own successful techniques. Their prints weren't as fine as Indian textiles, but they were good enough for many customers, including in France.

Finally in the 1740s, the regime granted a few entrepreneurs the right to print on domestic fabrics, including cotton from French colonies. Once these enterprises were producing acceptable prints, the clamor for legalizing Indian imports increased. After all, even Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the father of French dirigisme, had argued only for protecting new industries.

Photo Credit: Rogers Fund, 1937/Metropolitan Museum of Art

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Number 2||

    Clearly, calico is a gateway fabric. One day it's calico, the next its Dacron polyester!

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Bring back corduroy pants. I like annoying people just by walking a couple steps.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Fire danger.

  • Number 2||

    Calico addiction was a serious problem in 18th Century France. Parents would spend money on fancy print dresses instead of buying food for their children! Employers were forced to subject employees to random fabric testing, especially in jobs that affected Public Safety. Underage calico wearing and binge calico-ing were serious problems, Requiring the crown to spend millions on calico prevention.

  • NashTiger||

    If you outlaw floral prints, only outlaws will have floral prints

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    There's a brand new dance but I don't know its name
    That people from bad homes do again and again
    It's big and it's bland full of tension and fear
    They do it over there but we don't do it here
    Fashion!
    Turn to the left
    Fashion!
    Turn to the right
    Oooh, fashion!
    We are the goon squad and we're coming to town
    Beep-beep Beep-beep
    Listen to me - don't listen to me
    Talk to me - don't talk to me
    Dance with me - don't dance with me, no
    Beep-beep
    There's a brand new talk, but it's not very clear
    Oh bop
    That people from good homes are talking this year
    Oh bop, fashion It's loud and tasteless and I've heard it before
    Oh bop
    You shout it while you're dancing on the ole dance floor
    Oh bop, fashion
    Fashion!
    Turn to the left
    Fashion!
    Right
    Fashion!
    We are the goon squad and we're coming to town
    Beep-beep
    Beep-beep
    Listen to me - don't listen to me
    Talk to me - don't talk to me
    Dance with me - don't dance with me, no
    Beep-beep
    Beep-beep
    Listen to me - don't listen to me
    Talk to me - don't talk to me
    Dance with me - don't dance with me, no
    Beep-beep
    Beep-beep
    Oh, bop, do do do do do do do do
    Fa-fa-fa-fa-fashion
    Oh, bop, do do do do do do do do
    Fa-fa-fa-fa-fashion
    La-la la la la la la-la

  • Mickey Rat||

    When a freer trade in textiles was established in France, it devastated the domestic manufacturing. Apparently the economic disruption and discontent caused by this was part of the foundation of the French Revolution and all that goes with that.

  • Shirley Knott||

    Nobody expects the French sabots.

  • Mickey Rat||

    When a freer trade in textiles was established in France, it devastated the domestic manufacturing. Apparently the economic disruption and discontent caused by this was part of the foundation of the French Revolution and all that goes with that.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I've heard of the fashion police, it did not know that got its start in France.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Well, France has long been associated with high fashion....and with arrogant governmental bumbling.

  • Conchfritters||

    Lord know the hell that would have broke loose had they knitted the Indian cotton into pussy hats.

  • Juice||

    Who exactly was doing the arresting? I'm told that police forces as we know them today were first formed in early 19th century England and Massachusetts.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Trade protectionism in France did not die with the ancien regime. I lived there in the 80's and nearly every import was restricted and/or taxed in order to satisfy both native businesses and labor unions. Sure, it seemed inspiring to see all the consumer goods "Made in France", but everything cost 5 times what it did in the free world. My mother sent a xmas gift box that included some cheap knit hats, subject to something like a 25% tariff. We never bailed them out of French customs.

  • sarcasmic||

    I assume that the French economy must be booming, the most powerful economy in Europe, with all of these protectionist policies in place. After all, free trade impoverishes nations. So the more protection industry has, the more the economy must thrive.

    Right?

  • sarcasmic||

    A great example of how legislation and law are not synonyms.

    Society didn't care. There was no law against using certain fabrics. However the government did, which is why they wrote legislation backed with violence.

    Society continued to flout the legislation. I'm sure that people were outraged when themselves, their friends, and their family ran afoul of this unjust legislation. After all, there was no law against it.

    When legislation conflicts with the laws of society, then it is not rule of law. It is rule of man.

  • Eidde||

    "After all, even Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the father of French dirigisme, had argued only for protecting new industries."

    As explained in his famous Colbert Report.

  • perlchpr||

    Anyone in France who wanted calico—and most everyone did—could get it. Worn by the country's most fashionable women within sight of its most powerful men, the prestige of indiennes never dimmed. And so instead of building the kingdom's wealth, the ban turned countless citizens into outlaws.

    Drug war, anyone?

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Yes. And the future of the war on guns, if the ones without them get their way.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    No thanks, I'm full. Perhaps later.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    You know what else was introduced by Portuguese traders in the 16th century...?

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    Inexpensive, easily washable muslin allowed poorer people to more frequently change the shifts they wore next to their skin

    This is what you lose when you put Islanophobes in charge.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    Will our descendants be able to believe that our nation was truly as enlightened and civilized as we now like to say when they read that in the middle of the eighteenth century a man in France was hanged for buying in Geneva at 22 sous what he was able to sell in Grenoble for 58?

    Nothin's creepier than a dead guy speakin' right at you.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online