Decolonizing Fashion at the Costume Society of America 2019 Annual Symposium

By Arti Sandhu

University of Cincinnati

Mid-April 2019, the RCDF organized two research presentation panels for the Costume Society of America’s 2019 annual symposium. The annual symposium’s theme was ‘Diffusion and Diversity in Dress,’ and while past years have included content that focuses on fashion and dress research beyond the West, this was a first for CSA—to have an entire conference devoted to the exploration of diversity and how it could be better implemented and explored in the fields of academia, curatorial practice, and dress research. So even though the two RCDF panels were not alone in exploring non-Western fashion and dress, the umbrella of “decolonizing fashion” allowed the panelists to focus their arguments and explore common themes or strategies through which the canon of fashion studies could be challenged and re-envisioned. The nine presentations in two back to back sessions represented diverse areas of fashion research, ranging from South Asian historic and contemporary fashion, African textiles and clothing innovation, stereotyping of non-Western dress systems through Western curatorial conventions, the history of critique of modern fashion along the lines of decolonization, to explorations into how fashion studies pedagogy itself can be decolonized. One of the key themes that emerged across the two panels was that of going beyond merely exposing Eurocentric biases to identifying the sources for these biases that have historically informed dress research and articulation of the fashion phenomenon.

Elke Gaugele’s paper on DECOLONIZING THE HISTORY OF MODERN FASHION CRITICISM was a reminder that the impetus for decolonizing fashion is not new. Her investigation of the bilingual pan-African magazine La Revue De Monde Noir (Review of the Black World) published in Paris in the 1930s explored an early example of decolonizing and anti-racist fashion criticism. However, while such criticism does indeed have a long history, Gaugele notes that it is finally getting the attention it deserves to overthrow much of the dominant rhetoric around fashion that for a century and a half painted a fairly static and stereotypical picture of non-Western dress cultures.

Rachel Silberstein’s paper “IMPERIAL CORAL”, “CH’ING TURQUOISE”, AND “TEMPLE JADE”: CHINESE DRESS EXHIBITIONS AND NEW YORK FASHIONS traced the role museum collecting of dress from countries outside Western Europe and Northern America played in contributing to this narrative. Her paper focused on the “Costumes from the Forbidden City,” a Chinese dress exhibition curated by Alan Priest held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March 1945. She examined the way this extremely popular exhibition’s portrayal of Chinese dress—as unchanging and unconcerned with commercialization, consumer demand and commerce, and hence with fashion—helped set the tone for how such dress came to be regarded in the West.

Osuanyi Quaicoo Essel’s paper titled DECOLONISING GHANA FASHION EDUCATION AND TRAINING HISTORY also called out the role social and ideological imperialism played in negating the value and relevance of pre-colonial education systems. Through tracing the art-historical accounts of fashion design and fashion education in Ghana from pre-colonial, colonial, postcolonial, to contemporary times, Essel found that the apprenticeship model of fashion design education and training developed by indigenous people in Ghana predates colonialists’ invasion, and had been handed down from generation to generation. For Essel, decolonizing fashion involves breaking the silence on the active presence and success of such indigenous models of fashion education in Ghana, that were independent of the introduction of the Western model of fashion education, the latter of which is now ubiquitous across the globe and often credited for the emergence of contemporary fashion design cultures.

This case for the active presence of design innovation within indigenous dress cultures was another key theme that connected many of the papers in the panel that debunked the notion that fashion or design innovation is a Western construct, or that the phenomenon of fashion was introduced only through exposure to the West and/or recent forces of globalization. 

Further highlighting how non-Western dress cultures have indeed developed and maintained thriving clothing cultures and trade where new innovations and adaptations have been natural for the evolution of dress styles and customs, Rebecca Fenton in her paper TRADITIONAL DRESS IN A GLOBAL COMMUNITY: MANDE FASHION THEORIES explored how dress acts as a connector and communication device for Mande people. Fenton’s research respondents spread across Mali, Senegal, and Paris described their culture as “open to the world and closed among themselves,” something that is also reflected in the design and evolution of their traditional dress that is simultaneously receptive to novel ideas, while also adhering or confirming to set cultural codes. She proposed the framework of aesthetic vs. obligatory as a way of understanding fashion change in traditional dress.

Similarly, Harriet Hughes’ research on Nigerian historical and contemporary fashion in her paper titled RE-IMAGINING THE CANON: CREATING A NIGERIAN FASHION HISTORY debunked the common misconnection around African dress being fixed and disconnected from wider global as well as local networks.

William Bamber’s paper on FROM OTTOMAN ISTANBULIN TO HYDERABADI SHERWANI examined the popularity of the 19th C Ottoman men’s coat (Istambulin) in South and South East Asia, and its impact on the Hyderbadi men’s coat called the Sherwani. Bamber noted that its success was mainly due to its ability to express an aesthetic and an identity which could claim to be civilized and cosmopolitan on its own, on non-Western terms. The evolution of the Sherwani is further evidence of the fact that not all clothing interventions and adaptations during Colonial times were influenced directly by the British or Western styles, external global forces were also at play, as was the case for centuries prior.

Bamber’s account of how clothing served as the material medium for navigating change and forging new identities as well as maintaining a sense of distinction through selective adherence of British aesthetic preferences as well as the subversion of the same is echoed in my own paper on FASHIONING WELL-BEING THROUGH ANTI-WESTERN FASHION, where I highlighted how such strategies are still at play in contemporary Indian fashion design. The deliberate creation of Anti-Western fashion, I note, offers Indian designers the opportunity to assert a sense of distinction as well as develop potential models for a sustainable fashion built around the holistic experience of well-being that draws from traditional craft culture and indigenous ways of life.

The third key theme that emerged centered around shifting the canon of fashion studies from the source through decolonizing fashion education itself. Sarah Cheang presented the outcomes of her collaboration with Shehnaz Suterwalla in teaching a course on global fashion. Their goal was to provide students with a toolkit for questioning the canon, alongside charging the students with the task of developing a collaborative manifesto for the course. Their discussion and outcomes also brought to light the challenges of developing such a course, merging de-coloniality and pedagogy, and bring concepts pertaining to deviance, resistance, and subversion into the fold, as well as activating storytelling as a way of explaining different world orders. 

Abby Lillethun‘s paper in collaboration with Linda Welters titled DECOLONIZING FASHION HISTORY EDUCATION called out the flawed and outmoded model for fashion history taught across US universities (and beyond) that selectively focuses on Western dress history, painting it in a favorable light and thereby perpetuating the myth of fashion being a Western invention. Lillethun and Welters provided some solutions for how fashion history curriculum could be reimagined, which included broadening the narrow list of texts commonly used in the teaching of such courses. 

The questions that followed the paper presentations challenged the presenters about the suitability of the tag of “decolonization”, while others initiated a discussion on how the professional field of fashion studies (academia, publishing, curation) could be broadened and diversified to take on the changes that needed to happen to shift the canon. My takeaway from this panel was that through swinging the discourse to the extreme end through the term and strategy of decolonization, and the discomfort or rupture this creates, an opportunity opens up for initiating the shifts mentioned above. Furthermore, it is also a more appropriate tool for critiquing contemporary fashion systems much more than the terms globalization or multiculturalism—both of which perpetuate old divides and imbalances by creating a false sense of equality. However, one must also remain critical of the term, especially as decolonization too has a long history of power imbalances embedded within it.

To wrap this up, by continuing to bring together diverse research projects centered on and around the decolonization of fashion, the RCDF makes it possible to explore the interconnections among fashion systems outside the dominant Western fashion captials, with the intention of collectively dismantling the stubborn Anglocentric or Eurocentric viewpoints that continue to hold strong in the study and design of fashion.

RCDF panelists at CSA

Elke Gaugele (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna)

Rachel Silberstein (University of Washington)

Osuanyi Quaicoo Essel’s (University of Education, Winneba)

Rebecca Fenton (Smithsonian Institution)

Harriet Hughes (University of Sussex)

William Bamber (University of Washington)

Arti Sandhu (University of Cincinnati)

Sarah Cheang, Ph.D. and Shehnaz Suterwalla (Royal College of Art, London)

Abby Lillethun (Montclair State University) and Linda Welters (University of Rhode Island)

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