We’ve all heard about the butterfly effect: a butterfly flaps its wings in New Mexico and causes a hurricane in China. The expression seems mystical, like a Japanese koan, but it’s simply a matter of cause and effect. One of the best examples starts with a dress.
In the 18th century, Marie Antoinette posed for a painting in a gauzy cotton gown. The chemise was so similar to undergarments worn beneath silk fashions, it caused a scandal. Prudishness wasn’t the real reason, however. The French silk industry feared a challenge to its sartorial dominance and charged the queen, Austrian by birth, of being unpatriotic.
Ultimately, Antoinette lost her head, but throughout Europe, she left behind an appetite for cotton. India, the primary source, couldn’t keep up with the demand. That’s when the American south stepped in. Till then, its major agricultural exports had been foodstuffs like tobacco and corn. Cotton was a domestic product, harvested by indentured servants. When southern farmers saw their opportunity to enter the cotton trade, they resorted to slaves to make it profitable. Until then, slavery had been dying out. By 1790, however, the population mushroomed from a few hundred thousand to 1. 1 million. It kept growing until the Civil War. (“The Dress That Drove the Slave Trade,” by Caroline London, reprinted from Racked.com in The Week, Feb. 9, 2018, pgs. 36-37)
If Marie Antoinette’s is guilty of anything, it is for the butterfly effect. From a dress, to a beheading, to the French Revolution, to the destruction of the French silk industry, to a demand for cotton, to the rise of slavery and the American Civil War. More than a pretty face, she changed the course of European and American history.