‘Decolonising Mentalities’ by Luz Neira García

In Brazil, as well as other Latin-American countries, fashion decolonising is not (yet) a broadly debated subject. Both the fashion industry and the academic community understand they have been, and continue to be, trained to imitate the cultural production of their colonisers. In fashion, however, decolonising has been interpreted as a kind of negation, confrontation or surpassing of foreign fashions in their aesthetical dimension but not as a process that could contribute to the acknowledgment that Latin America is part of the global fashion system.

This approach dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when a sense of national identity in fashion emerged in Latin America. In this period, local history and heritage were used to develop fashion identities that were believed to be an answer to centuries of European economic and cultural domination. This was especially the case for Chile, Argentina and Brazil, which are the most appropriate examples of this assertion once they achieved a certain level of maturity regarding (commercial) fashion. In these countries, fashion professions have been legitimised through professional and/or university studies and scientific research, whereby specialised events and the media are an important part of the fashion system and the apparel industry is economically and culturally appreciated.

One of the most relevant initiatives regarding Brazilianess in fashion, was the shows that Rhodia company (artificial and synthetic fibres) organised. The company commissioned Brazilian artists to create prints and looks with synthetic fabrics. This marketing campaign has the goal to convince Brazilian consumers to appreciate the new fibres, because in Brazil, at that time, the population was dressed only with cotton clothing.

In Chile, in the 1960s, an ‘autochthonous fashion’ was intended to promote a rupture with European bourgeois fashion heritage through the use of native aesthetical references and techniques, aimed to achieve a modernisation and popularisation of fashion. At the same time, Argentinians reintroduced references from remote areas of the country to establish a sophisticated national style. Fashion designers mixed arts and architecture with ancient native textiles, raw materials and pre-colonial references. Contrary to their neighbours, Brazilians confronted their ex-colonisers through the empowerment of local industries. Government and media highlighted the importance of industrialisation as well as national identity in the development of the nation. Brazilian artists were commissioned to develop national looks and fabrics for the industries, while the tropical fashion myth was being promoted through the media.

Marco Correa was the pioneer in Chile, regarding fashion and Latin American identity. His work is defined as “autochtonous” because his aesthetic interests were focused on pre-Columbian art.

These are just a few examples to demonstrate how, for Latin American countries, fashion independence was achieved through the creation of a fashion iconography and discourse that connected contemporary fashion to ancient origins. The erasing of any foreign influence was considered proof of national progress and the overcoming of economic and cultural dependence. Most of the countries on the continent share the same strategies to have their participation in global fashion history legitimized.

However, despite the use of local heritage and resources to reinforce so-called local fashions, it did not result in a significant acknowledgement and/or participation of Latin American fashions in the global fashion system. The place that fashion from Latin American “peripheries” occupies in global fashion events, media, theory and history, is limited and reflected through the scope of elements that take part in their main concepts. While both the discursive and aesthetic dimensions of Latin American (national) fashions are associated with pre-colonial pasts to mark their authenticity, hegemonic thinking about “difference” mainly confirms its inferiority.

So, today’s main aim for Latin-American fashion studies and practices should be ‘to decolonise prior decolonisation.’ While ‘authenticity based on cultural heritage’ for Latin-American fashions has been considered as a sign of cultural autonomy, this argument is often used within hegemonic European fashion discourse to confirm Europe’s superiority in global fashion. The debate, therefore, should not be focused on the material-iconographic dimension of fashion production or the work of Latin American designers, but the way Latin American cultural productions are being judged and validated.

If we are not talking about national costume and heritage, the geo-filiation of fashion can never be an appropriate criterion of judgement regarding competitiveness on the global fashion market. Therefore, decolonising implies an urgent revision of mentalities because as long as territoriality is used to evaluate fashion, non-Western countries suffer an absolute disadvantage.

I hope this reflexion can contribute to creating a new, more inclusive global fashion history and theory whereby Latin American fashions are acknowledged as part of global fashion. Any expectations regarding (stereotypical) material and iconographic differences are silent contributions to perpetuating prejudices regarding non-Western fashions. Decolonising, in this sense, is much more about reviewing the parameters of fashion criticism than about the persecution of identities based on place of origin. This statement corresponds – and also attends – only the European perspective.

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