By Toby Slade
RCDF Steering Committee Member
On 15-16 February 2019 the RCDF co-organized the seminar ReThinking Fashion Globalization in collaboration with the Transboundary Fashion Research Project at Bunka Gakuen University in Tokyo. As with the Morocco (2012) and Hong Kong (2014) conferences, it was a single room event with sixteen papers being presented over two days. A broad range of perspectives were presented, not just purely academic, but also pedagogical, and institutional, and from the front lines of fashion enterprise and design.
Theoretically a pervasive re-politicization of fashion was evident across wide range of papers, reflective of the times we live in. Resurgent nationalism, neo-imperialist agendas, anti-immigration movements, and the need for the sharply delineated identities that such evils necessitate dominate the discourse of geopolitics, and the nightly news, in ways unimaginable when this conference was founded just seven years ago. The modernist idea that the nation is the starting point of identity and of fashion creation has returned in force and postmodern theories of an end of history, and a fashion transcending nationality, now seem more and more premature.
Angela Jansen discussed tribalism as the end of globalization in the context of Morocco and a growing fixation for a clear-cut cultural identity. In Moroccan fashion ideas of a glorious mythic past are being used in the service of authoritarian interests and fashion has become one of the tools where colonial dynamics are being repeated in new forms of domination and repression. Katalin Medvedev looked at fashion in Budapest through its various political incarnations. Conservatism she argued, be it in the form oligarchic collectivism, quasi-market economics, or the current Russia-aligned authoritarianism, has been continually the enemy of fashion and creativity. Continuing a theme of fashion forging identities in authoritarian localities Hazel Clark and Alla Eizenberg looked at issues of designers and authenticity in Russia, in the work of Gosha Rubchinsky, and in China in the work of Ma Ke. Although on the path to freedom Deirdre Clemente examined Italian immigrants to the United States and their stories about clothing with all its attendant anxieties. It was an example which showed that the authority of fashion can be just as harsh when internalized, individually or in a community, than when it is imposed by an austere political order.
Abby Lillethun and Linda Welters, whose work at the London conference (2013) looked at the intersecting fashion systems of Muslim styles, and the identification of the very texts that first claimed fashion as a western invention which starts in 1350, respectively, this time together examined other western assumptions about the invention of coats and trousers. Using recent archeological evidence, they revealed a far more complicated map of creation and non-linear transmission than the canonic textbooks describe. Their work continues to highlight the very casual way in which the western writers of fashion history claimed forms of complex origin as their singular own. Yuniya Kawamura, who also in London had keynoted with a theory of non-western fashion through the delights and fun of Japanese subcultures, this time took on the much heavier issues of ethnic dress and Joanne Eicher’s famous 1993 paper on eurocentricism. Looking at her native New York, she argued for a reevaluation of the concept of ethnic dress as a way towards greater sustainability. Her work inevitably, and provocatively, brought out the ongoing problems of what the Research Collective has been working towards, a way of defining a truly inclusive and transnational study of fashion without reference to a monolithic other: the non-western, decolonial, or ethnic. Sometimes it seems a ‘canonical’ center may be most interesting for its elusiveness, most compelling as an enigma of authority. The fashion metropoles, from Persepolis to New York, were always appropriating and incorporating their outskirts and treated fashion like any other exploitable resource. One thing this seminar has emphasized, is that what is missing from the traditional study of fashion is a rich and paradoxical engagement with the pertinence of what lies in an oblique or alien relation to the forces of centering. Not to glorify margins and peripheries but to reach beyond and behind the invidious narratives of center and periphery and see a fuller, deeper picture.
A number of papers brought out themes in fashions and clothing that have a history far too complex for easy definition. In and of themselves, these examples call for discipline-wide reexamination of the material cultures that emerged from the other side of the colonial enterprise. Yoko Takagi and Saskia Thoelen discussed the contemporary migrations of the once quintessentially Japanese kimono and the various reasons for popularity in new contexts. Kyoko Koma examined kawaii, the Japanese cute, but in the context of France and Lithuania, showing the global paths of once regionally defined aesthetics. Sarah Cheang and Elizabeth Kramer took on the theme of liminal garments, examining Spanish/ Chinese shawls, and embroidered bomber jackets and their myriad paths, adoptions, and meanings. They called for a breaking of dichotomies and non-binary thinking when it comes to fashion. And demonstrated how this was absolutely necessary for any history of a jacket that could be Japanese, American, Vietnamese, nostalgic, elegiac, rebellious, and exotic all at the same time, and shawls which could hold a place in the popular imagination as simultaneously Chinese, Latin American, and Spanish “beyond the dreams of Castile”. The fashions they describe are like so many presented at this seminar and perhaps are a more accurate way of thinking about fashion as a whole; not ever having singular national origin, but being liminal, and having quantum states of identity; many things equally at the same time. Upon this theme too, Courtney Fu discussed the fashions of nyonyas, Han Chinese women who have adopted Nusantara customs, in early twentieth century Singapore. She discussed the multiple reform agendas of liminal and shifting identities in a complex mixed locality. This theme of liminality was a thread throughout many papers showing again that cultural production is always most productive where it is most ambivalent.
Osuanyi Quaiccoo Essel and Malika Kraamer discussed the fashion posters of Ghana, a self-sustaining fashion spectacle and industry which behaves with all the features of a sophisticated fashion system by any definition. It was reminiscent of Homi Bhabha’s idea of a vernacular cosmopolitanism as opposed to a globalized cosmopolitanism. It is a fashion culture which does not require the restoration of an original or essentialist cultural or group identity nor the approval of a global elite (except perhaps Beyoncé). Such an elite wants to celebrate plural cultures and peoples located at the periphery but only so long as they produce healthy profit margins within metropolitan societies, and they pay conspicuously less attention to the persistent inequality and immiseration produced by uneven development. It was an example which truly makes us rethink contemporary discourses of fashion globalization where the local, parochial, rooted, culturally specific, and demotic, may perfectly co-exist with the translocal, transnational, transcendent, elitist, enlightened, universalist and modernist.
Harriette Richards examined the melancholia of New Zealand fashion which, according to the fashion media discourse, sprang fully formed out of the antipodean void, but as Richards elaborated actually had a heritage of post-colonial cringe, and nostalgia for a European influenced past. It was a penitent example of the ruthless forgetting of modernity and how the mechanisms of colonialism, to erase a previous culture or position it as primitive next to the colonizer’s, continue in the problematically named postcolonial period. While rarely considered postcolonial societies, Australasia is a clear example where the displacement of the colonist’s legitimizing authority, led to a rethinking questions of identity, social agency, and national affiliation. Richards eloquently showed that New Zealand, despite wealth and development, is like so many postcolonial fashion communities; unsatisfied and anxious about who they are, or what their community can be in the larger flow of a transnational history.
Other perspectives were also pedagogical and institutional, taking the themes and concerns of our ongoing discourse of a wider non-western fashion into the lecture theatre, studio, and museum. Jenny Hughes discussed the use of non-western concepts in the classroom and a truly cross-cultural design syllabus. Jose Teunissen discussed the logics and criteria for a future luxury design. Daan van Dartel examined the history of Surinamese Kotomisi, the skirts themselves, but also the wearers, accessories and customs, begun in slavery and now a glorious expression of a postcolonial identity. It was another perfect example of a fashion with multiple identities, which problematizes, especially in the context of the museum, the institutional need to categorize and order garments and fashions, even as the fashions themselves strongly resist any easy categorization.
And in perhaps a highlight Chepkemboi J. Mang’ira outlined her project of fashion decolonialization through traditional jewelry in Kenya with a campaign to promote traditional heritage and return indigenous forms to the forefront of a dynamic fashion system. Navigating the treacherous waters of authenticity, national identity, and original creativity with style and grace, her work was so much of our academic theory made real and made beautiful.