Due to a dominant Eurocentric fashion discourse, the idea prevails in many so-called non-western countries that fashion is a recent phenomenon, that there was no fashion ‘before’ (European fashion was introduced through trade, colonisation and cultural globalisation). Simultaneously, local dress is often argued to be ‘traditional’ (e.g. static), ‘ancestral’ (e.g. old) and ‘authentic’ (e.g. pure), whereby changes are believed to be ‘modern’ (European) and therefore not ‘local.’ Under (European) colonial rule, colonized societies and cultures were characterised as traditional/ancestral/authentic to emphasize difference with the colonizing society and culture, defined as modern and cosmopolite, and as such, to justify its oppressive and destructive colonial politics. This artificial divide between so-called traditional (non-western) and modern (western) societies has been adopted and internalised over time and continues to create an artificial divide between notions of tradition and modernity throughout all aspects of formerly colonised cultures and identities, including fashion. The notion of local ‘dress’ being traditional as opposed to European ‘fashion’ being modern, is a persistent colonial heritage based on Eurocentric (fashion) historiography which has been frustrating me for many years.
Based on my research on Moroccan fashion history, I believe a number of reasons in particular contribute to this misconception. First of all, many public museums in formerly colonised countries were established under colonial rule and continue to testify of a periodical and circumstantial gaze proper to the colonial era. In most cases, priority has been given to ‘old’ and/or rural garments (early 20th century at the latest) because of the prejudice that these would be more traditional, more authentic, and therefore of greater historical value. Recent and/or urban (postcolonial) garments do not only testify of more rapid changes over time, but also often more recognisably witness of miscellaneous (external) influences. Consequently, they are not considered as (traditional or authentic) cultural heritage and therefore not collected and preserved, even though they testify of an important (post-colonial) historical period. Simultaneously, hardly any new acquisitions have been added, updating the collections with post-colonial garments and work by contemporary designers, perpetuating the idea that local fashion is ‘old and unchanging.’ Also, garments have been predominantly considered as physical objects, elevating materials and decorations over social and cultural meanings, prioritising ‘dress’ over ‘fashion.’ With a primary focus on single objects, displayed in an archaic way, most exhibitions are organized to emphasise aspects of dress rather than fashion. Moreover, garments are often organised and presented according to collective and regional characteristics, with no attention for individual identities, developments over time, external influences or significant innovations in response to socio-cultural, political and economic changes in society.
Secondly, the way ‘traditional’ dress has been defined, is often the result of both colonial and post-colonial nationalistic (identity) politics. Historians, archaeologists, ethnographers and even artists employed by the colonial authorities were in most cases the first to extensively document local sartorial practices and did so in a restrictive, static and orientalising way, as was proper to the time. In most cases, they ‘standardised’ cultural heritage based on a snapshot in time and as such, robbed it of its complex and dynamic history. A common preoccupation of the colonial era was to create inventories of indigenous culture to distil a diffuse and disordered reality into more rational categories, based on collective identities, organized in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion, region, tribe, etc.
After independence, many regions united in nation-states for the first time and were in need of a national identity. Ironically, these colonial writings enabled nationalist movements to identify a ‘traditional, ancient and ancestral’ cultural heritage, which not only permitted them to clearly differentiate from the oppressors, but also to justify newly gained political power. They selected specific garments to symbolise national identity while deliberately omitting others. Therefore, what is considered today as ‘traditional’ is the result, on the one hand, of the colonial ruler’s need to distil and organise a ‘diffuse and messy reality’ into streamlined categories, and on the other hand, of the nationalists’ urge to create symbols to represent a unifying national identity. The same prejudices introduced by the colonists on local societies and cultures as being traditional and ancestral to justify their modernity and superiority, were reproduced by nationalists to justify national identity and political structures as being traditional and ancestral.
Consequently, national identities based on ‘staged’ cultural heritages often play a significant role in contemporary fashion design identities in ‘young’ nations. A first generation of fashion designers in most cases emerged just after Independence (or during independence movements) and turned to this ‘standardised’ cultural heritage documented under colonial rule, to establish their design identities. They introduced textiles and decoration techniques that were previously never used on (urban and/or female) fashion before, but which today have become identified as ancestral and traditional. These textiles and techniques, which in most cases were used in household linens, religious objects, male and/or rural clothing of specific regions, were not only selected for their aesthetic value, but also because they were identified under colonial rule as unique and characteristic for a specific region/country. Simultaneously, many of these designers travelled to Europe, to study, work and/or live in the countries that formerly colonised them, and mixed these influences into their design practices. Through their travels to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, they introduced materials, decorations and designs, which are all considered as ‘traditional and ancestral’ today.
In more recent decades, fashion designers have been (re)defining and (re)inventing so-called traditional fashion (e.g. based on standardised cultural heritage) by challenging notions of (essentialist) national identities. As such, they have been frequently accused of being ‘too modern’, ‘too European’ or ‘not local enough.’ As Kenyan creative director Sunny Dolat formulated it so well in his book Not African Enough, contemporary African fashion designers who step outside the narrow confines of what the world—and other Africans—consider to be ‘African,’ are similarly accused. The focus on heritage, he explains, often meaning a snapshot of the past, has overshadowed the wider shifts into a globalised, more equal understanding of Africanness. These generations assume the power to describe and analyse their own worlds relative to their diverse points of view and it should not matter a design is from Africa just because it is made from wax print. Just as copying any garment in wax print became the singular textile representation of the African continent, leading to a dearth of actual design, many non-western designers have been (compulsorily) limiting themselves to a selective set of garments, materials and decoration techniques symbolising (essentialist) national identities, pushing the mixing and matching of colours, patterns, materials and silhouettes to the extreme in order to explore new volumes and silhouettes. This has been providing ammunition for sceptics of non-western fashion to argue that there is no ‘real’ innovation and conceptual design outside the West. Just as Sunny Dolat argues there is a need to dismantle the super-concept ‘African’ as the assembly of words, images, sounds, ideas, weaknesses, histories and failings associated with an entire continent, there is an urge to free many non-western fashion identities from essentialist definitions of national identity based on colonial ethnographic writings.
As long as (new generations of) fashion designers are not informed on their own (decolonized) fashion histories, they are handicapped in developing strong contemporary design identities, rooted in a historical continuity, and doomed to produce (poor) copies of western fashion. As long as they are educated either in European fashion academies or taught European fashion history in local fashion schools, the problem will continue to be perpetuated. Some new-generation fashion designers are even completely rejecting local (traditional) fashion all together, incapable to acknowledge it as fashion, testifying of dynamic, complex histories of ongoing changes, influences and innovations in society.
Therefore, to decolonialise (non-western) fashion (histories) to me, means to free it from the ‘white man’s gaze’ that continues to determine what fashion outside the dominant fashion cities should look like, from its colonial culture episteme that continues to define ‘traditional/ancient/authentic’ cultural heritages and from its cultural reductionism due to post-colonial (essentialist) national identity politics.