Spring Queen: The glittering proletariat of Cape Town

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

For one night each year, female factory workers across Cape Town shun their worker’s overalls in favour of tailor-made evening gowns for the Cinderella-like Spring Queen beauty pageant.

These ‘factory girls’ – as they are generally referred to in the Cape – abandon their sewing machines, cutting tables and factories filled with endless rolls of fabric to descend into a moment of feminine glamour.

Siona O’Connell, curator of an exhibition documenting this tradition, calls it ‘The Staging of the Glittering Proletariat’ in her collection of photos, text and installation on show until September 25 at a gallery Cape Town.

O’Connell explains in her exhibition statement that the Spring Queen pageant 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 ’70s and 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 in November,” she says.

“Spring Queen fever begins around June and July each year. Thousands of women participate in in-house factory pageants. A factory queen is 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. 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.”

O’Connell says also that the pageant is also “showcased with dancers and singers taking to the stage”. For her exhibition, she interviewed former pageant winners. O’Connell says that as a woman of colour, but not from the working class where most factory girls live, she was “humbled” while sewing together her exhibition.

“Spring Queen was an event that was on the periphery of my upbringing as I did not have parents who worked in factories. We knew about ‘factory workers’ and the fact that as a coloured woman this could be well have been my story,” says O’Connell.

“Putting together this exhibition has been humbling. For someone who has been fortunate enough to get a PhD, I am constantly taken aback at how much I learn from these interactions. Narratives of resilience, of imagination and humour, all held together by a seemingly banal event – a pageant.”

O’Connell says that she was conflicted about the concept of a beauty pageant though. Working class strugglistas celebrating showing off their feminine qualities on stage – purely for the sake of celebrating that – is perhaps not an entirely politically comforting narrative. It sounds, perhaps, like setting the poor free from their misery for one night of partying, or parading women’s bodies for a few thrills.

“I admit that the idea of the pageant as a beauty contest was difficult for me, until I started to hear the stories of all these women. During the pageant process, conventional ideas of beauty, gender, age, are clouded. All these systems of classification which we hold so dear are blurred,” says O’Connell.

“This is the antithesis of a beauty pageant which relies on stereotypical notions of beauty. Spring Queen has participants who are married, who are older, who have children, whose body types do not echo the Barbie doll. This is less about a chance to validate themselves in terms of beauty; rather it is a chance to validate their lives and their presence. Their dresses, the attention to hair, shoes and make-up all attest to their claim of ‘Look at me, I am here’.”

Bianca Adams was 20 years old when she was crowned Spring Queen in 2007. She told City Press that she had no plans to work in a factory but ended up working as a machinist. She believes also that Spring Queen offers factory girls a sense of validation in a society that otherwise looks down on them.

Bianca Adams. Photo Supplied

“I didn’t want to work in a factory. I thought it was a place for desperate people. I was one of those desperate people and I just wanted to work. I didn’t study after matric. A friend told me about a factory job and I tried it,” says Adams.

“Getting a job at a factory is normally where Cape Flats people go and work when they are not able to get careers and get a job. It is part of the heritage of the people of Cape Town. A lot of people work in factories. That’s where they spend most of their time.”

Spending all those hours in a factory has its down sides too, says Adams.

“The only thing about being a factory worker is that you work the whole year and just wear overalls. You can only look nice on weekends. Spring Queen is a chance to show our feminine side. It’s when we can dress nicely, wear heels and feel confident.”

Adams says that each factory covers the cost of a worker who makes it to the final round of the Spring Queen contest.

“When you represent your factory they get the in-house designers to make you a dress. Or you can design the dress and the factory can get somebody to make the dress for you. I know one girl got a well-known fashion designer to make her dress and the factory paid for everything,” says Adams.

“I had an idea of what kind of dress I liked. We decided that my dress would hand-painted.”

O’Connell says that during her interviews she gained the impression that the bueaty pageant was a “chance to escape the overall worn on the factory floor, albeit for a very short while”.

“This item of clothing is more than simply that. It indicates on a very profound level the day-to-day lives and representations for factory workers. It shows that women who come from coloured areas on the Cape Flats have a particular role to play, that they ‘shouldn’t rise above their station’ and that they are no more than the cruel representations of coloured women,” she says.

Through her interviews, O’Connell was also able to build an archive of collective heritage of factory worker’s lives in Cape Town.

Farieda Ebrahim is one of the Spring Queen stories reflected on at the exhibition. She was the title winner in 1994 and won again in 2002. She has also won runner-up prizes a few times.

Farieda Ebrahim. Photo Supplied

Ebrahim was born in the historical District Six neighbourhood, with its romanticised free spirit, but was forcibly removed under apartheid to Hanover Park slum-land on the Cape Flats.

Ebrahim has two marriages and four children to her name and still works in a factory. She says that she entered beauty pageants to overcome personal stumbling blocks.

“I was a very shy person and entering pageants allowed me to step out of my shell. I entered a few times and loved being involved. It was exciting and it gives you an adrenaline rush. I like all the glitz and the glam and getting dressed up.

“Going to the Good Hope Centre the first time was amazing, because I have never seen such a lot of people in one building and in one huge event. It was nerve-racking and it was mind blowing. It was fabulous, the make-up and being creative and coming up with your own style and making it all work. It uplifts you spiritually and brings people together.”

O’Connell says that she wants to document more stories of those living on the periphery to “rattle the cage of those who subscribe to the ideas about heritage being in the safety of monuments and memorials”.

“Spring Queen argues that the practices and performances, the daily lives of ordinary people, are to be valued as something more. This is difficult, for then it forces mainstream heritage practitioners to consider that heritage is at times illusive, that it changes and morphs, at times opaque,” she says.

“Spring Queen is less a story about a pageant, rather a story about the ongoing reverberations of the past. These women, winners from across the decades, speak of achingly similar stories.

“All speak about lives which reflect a constant deferment of dreams, about a dampening of imagination. They speak about the unfairness of a system, where they, being the monsters of the past, now appear in different guises.

“They speak about politicians who play with their lives as factory workers in ways that reinforce the notion, that once gain, they do not matter. They are expendable.”

‘The Staging of the Glittering Proletariat’ runs at the Centre for African Studies Gallery at the University of Cape Town until the September 25. It then travels to the District Six Museum in Cape Town. Next year it will be exhibited at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley and the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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