Giving a Damn and Hyperopia: Decolonizing for Sustainability

By Sandra Niessen

The more effectively a fashion producer functions the more destructive it is. That is the nature of the beast. (Kate Fletcher)

On the 5th of June, 2019, I attended a community event at ArtEZ (a tertiary art and design education institution in Arnhem, The Netherlands). The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion was the first item on the agenda. Kate Fletcher, Research Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at University of the Arts London and an original founder of the Union, was there to explain the Union. She wanted to elicit the interests and concerns specific to Arnhem/The Netherlands. Laudably, the Union organizes such assemblies to keep in close touch with its members.

I encourage readers to look up the union website. ArtEZ stands firmly behind this initiative just as I do. It has the potential, as a global movement, to be the game changer that we so desperately need. Print out the Manifesto and hang it on walls and doors! (Foto: Thijs Adriaans)

Kate Fletcher said something during her introduction that remained on my mind throughout the afternoon: “It appears that it is easier for people to conceptualize the end of the world (as we know it) than a world that is not driven by capitalism.” Think about that! Very scary given that it behooves us to think of, and realize, alternatives to capitalism if we would like to postpone the demise of civilization.
The group split up into smaller discussion units to hash out a variety of fashion sustainability concerns and then report back. We did not discuss that scary paradox but the entire session was devoted to fashion re-visioning. Kate Fletcher’s words were in the back of my mind throughout.
By the end of the day, some wind had returned to my sails. A collective framework had emerged. We were all concerned about more-or-less the same issues: making fashion more fair; how to make fashion better meet our needs; making fashion more precious so that we don’t toss worn items away wantonly; recognizing the physical world in our clothes. Two red threads that ran through it all included: ‘caring’ and ‘togetherness’; these were among the Arnhem priorities that Kate would later share with the Union.
I brought them home with me, too. The power of caring and doing it collectively! Eureka! The wrench in the capitalist wheel! Collective caring demolishes the primary credo of maximizing wealth at all cost. It would be a game changer. Nature would not be raped and pillaged to satisfy vanity, greed and power; labours of love would prevail above worker exploitation; our clothing would not be made of oil and would biodegrade; and I daresay all wearers of such clothing would be happier.
How to achieve this utopian world, so exciting to consider?

Aye! There’s the rub!

We need examples. As I cogitate on Professor Fletcher’s visit, I am struck by how profoundly we need anthropological knowledge, awareness of how other societies have organized their apparel, familiarity with alternatives. How limited we are if we can’t think of a single one!
Vocabulary is no doubt part of our problem, as is fashion’s definition. The literature references the ‘fashion system’ as though it were singular — while in fact it has morphed endlessly since fashion began (whether that beginning is assigned to the 17th 18th or 19th century). It has trickled up and trickled down spread sideways, imposed itself and appropriated at will. As economics made visible, fashion adapts endlessly to change. To position Western fashion as a monumental entity relative to non-fashion is to promulgate two pieces of fake news at once. In fact, Western fashion is no monumental entity but varied, and if fashion recognizes all systems of dress, then non-fashion does not exist. Everywhere there is and always has been fashion, in every society and in every time period. The examples out there are endless. The notion of a Eurocentric fashion has constrained our vision.
Decolonizing fashion is of critical importance in this time of environmental crisis. It makes it possible to see different fashion systems. They are due acknowledgement and respect, room to survive. That is part of caring together. We need to learn from them.


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