Recently I attended the State of Fashion exhibition in Arnhem (June – July 2018). It was a magnificent exhibition, well worth the more than 12 hours that I spent there in total. As someone who has considered the decolonization of fashion from an anthropological viewpoint, the exhibition gave me important new insights into what decolonizing can and should mean. It really is a revolutionary concept. I learned that much of thought-shaking significance has transpired since I wrote about what amounts to the racism of Western Fashion — but I also perceived that the State of Fashion still needs to undergo more decolonizing to become whole.
Let’s face it. The West is NOT superior. It is the Big Bad Wolf. The West is the undisputed leader in destroying our beautiful-but-abused Planet Earth. The conceit that we in the West have managed to uphold as descendants of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution is surely due for eternal rest, but it is still ubiquitously alive and, unfortunately, kicking. Fashion is our proof. The West had it, but the rest did not, according to conventional wisdom. Now that the rest seems to be having it too, we lull ourselves with the happy delusion that the world has become a more fair place and that ‘they’ have caught up. In reality, this global fashion system demonstrates that the tentacles of our destructive, now global, economic system have reached the farthest corners of the globe. It is exploiting the universal human need for clothing and body decoration to reproduce itself everywhere like a virus. The process is complex and can inspire creative anti-fashion, contra-fashion, alternate fashion and subversive fashion responses as people tangle with its dominance, but it also true that local indigenous systems of clothing dynamics are wiped out quietly in its path and claim no headlines as they go.
At the State of Fashion event, people who work critically within the fashion system scrutinized it thoroughly and unapologetically. Fashion has failed, was their message: it is hugely wasteful, the most destructive industry after oil and gas; it serves to make the rich richer on a massive scale; it ruthlessly denies local creativity; it alienates us all by failing to take account of our emotional needs; it heartlessly tells us that we are lacking unless we buy in, literally; it straightjackets us into filling expectations about gendered ways of being; it refuses to keep abreast of developments that could reduce our ecological footprint; it uses fibres that destroy our rainforests and water; pesticides and herbicides that ruin our soils, dyes that turn our rivers black; labour practices that reduce makers to slaves. Buying in is an agonizing form of global suicide. This is not the fashion that we want! We are seduced and railroaded into buying and wearing what we abhor in principle.
So, what is the fashion that we want? Can do we achieve it again? (Yes, it was once available.) What are the changes needed? How do we go about achieving those changes? What kinds of new systems and structures do we need to create?
The State of Fashion shone its light on a plethora of strategies currently being explored: new dyes, fibres, construction techniques. New systems of making, new ways to value and not waste, new ways to recycle and re-use. It encouraged conscious reflection on what fashion is and what it should do for us, and on the thought systems incorporated in the making of fashion. It was deep, thorough and thoughtful and it should be required fare for all. May the exhibition travel!
What I saw in the exhibition and its programs was a gratifying awareness of humanity. It was not Us vs them (the West vs the rest, Those with Fashion vs those without). It was about constructing a new, global fashion morality; about respect for our deepest needs and longings as creative, gendered, caring, diverse humans; about fairness to all involved in fashion production, and also consumers and our dear Mother Earth. It passionately and earnestly conveyed the imperative of breaking free of the straightjacket into which the global Fashion system has strapped us and the boundless potential that revised clothing production holds for creating goodness in the world.
For all its rightness, however, it failed to integrate the fundamental awareness that fashion is NOT and has NEVER BEEN exclusively Western. It focused on the reformation of the Global Fashion System. Yes! Necessary! Kudos! But it did that almost exclusively, and in so doing, it continued to walk on the same fundament on which the Western Fashion System was constructed in the first place. Its recognition that there are other fashion systems was weak. They have always been there — although now largely forgotten and ignored, and worse yet, undermined and destroyed by that obese, conceited Western variant. Among those desecrated systems are examples of what is being sought in the West: sustainable systems that meet local needs, that don’t harm the earth, that respond to local creativity, that are not exploitative, that are meaningful, that do good for all involved. They were always overlooked in Fashion Studies. Now they are still being overlooked in critical fashion analyses.
I attended a thoughtful session in which I tried to explain my own efforts to keep an exemplary system in a Southern nation alive. “Who can support me in this effort? How can I find support?” I asked. From this radical group, I expected and desperately wanted an endorsement, a recognition of the preciousness of my alternate, non-Western fashion and of its importance as an ideal or a model for our current industry, an answer to so many of our questions, a possibility of working together, of turning the non-Western example into a potential hero of a disastrous Western story, a way to build more fairness in the story of North and South. I was disappointed. One answer that I received was, “Why not appeal to a church group for charity? They may be interested in craft.” I should not have been surprised. I know that there is still no extant framework by which to assess my tale and my passionate quest to save an indigenous fashion system. I want collaboration, and recognition from industry and producers that what the Global Fashion System has almost completely decimated is still available to be supported and recognized as the ideal that they are looking for. Before it is too late, and the last jewels have been quashed in its merciless path.
There is plenty of urgent work to do. We, the Research Collective for Decolonizing Fashion still need to impress upon teachers and practitioners how powerful and pervasive the colonial and racist notion of Fashion still is, that a new Fashion model must accommodate and respect cultural diversity and multiple historical narratives, that our Obese Global Fashion Mono-System must, in the future comprise diverse threads, diverse patterns, multiple layers, and various techniques; that it must be restorative of what it has crushed in its thoughtless, greedy pursuit of wealth. For me, that would be ‘the new luxury’. It is there, and has been there all along, but it will not be seen or found unless fashion is decolonized.
Niessen, Sandra. 2010. “Interpreting ‘Civilization’ through Dress” in the first international (10-volume) Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Vol 8: West Europe, Part I: Overview of Dress and Fashion in West Europe. Oxford: Berg Publishers, pp. 39-43.
Niessen, Sandra. 2003. “Afterword: Reorienting Fashion Theory” In Niessen, S.A., A. Leshkowich, and C. Jones (eds.) Re-orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress. Oxford: Berg Publishers. pp. 243-266.
Sandra Niessen is a steering committee member of the RCDF. She did her BA in Anthropology at Wilfrid Laurier University, her MA in Anthropology at the University of Toronto, and her PhD cum laude at the State University of Leiden, in The Netherlands. Her research has focused on the textiles of the Batak people of North Sumatra, Indonesia. Since 2014, she has been part of the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum team to research and exhibit the batiks collected by King Chulalongkorn at the turn of the 19th century. During the past three years Sandra Niessen has invested her energies in textile revival in North Sumatra so that the art does not die out.