Sandra Niessen in Residency at the Jan van Eyck Academy, part 5

By Sandra Niessen

When I started my residency at the Van Eyck, I devoted time to exploring the three-way junction of fashion, climate urgency and decoloniality. The three are rarely considered simultaneously even though they are powerfully and inextricably intertwined.

By and large, fashion reformers add up the environmental costs of fashion: the amount of poisonous inputs and water in cotton cultivation; the extent of forest destruction to produce rayon fibres; the staggering and still growing percentage of synthetic fibres in clothing; the toxins deployed in manufacturing processes and later entering our soil and water; the increasing CO2 emissions for transporting fashion during the production process and thereafter; the staggering waste when all that has been manufactured at such cost is thoughtlessly ‘tossed’ or shipped back to ‘other’ parts of the world where it destroys local industry and enters, as yet, the waste stream, including our soils, oceans and drink water.

Full-cost accounting; the institution of a circular economy; advice to wear pure and natural materials, while sparing ducks, rabbits and other fur bearers; exhortations to buy less; increasingly successful attempts at recycling (however minuscule the percentage of recycled fibres still is); strategies to recognize meaning in clothes and render them precious again — are some of the antidotes devised to ameliorate the problems.

The human tragedy is recognized in terms of deplorable wages and working conditions, the antidotes being improvements in both, as well as the elimination of child labour.

All this in the interests of a better and more responsible fashion industry. And the strategies will improve things, but not sufficiently. In the long run, they will fail unless a broader worldview is used.

The RCDF pleads to foreground the cultural costs of fashion. Fashion is the seductive handmaiden of capitalism, spreading Western cultural values as it globalizes: the exploitation of nature and people in its processes; the inculcation of Western social hierarchies in production relations; the encouragement of Western-style gender relations by the catwalk and advertising; the awakening of never-ending desires to underpin a consumer lifestyle; the realization of a generation gap between those who revere traditional values and those who pursue the modern. Indeed, fashion is the face of linear time and modernity and it destroys other cultural and clothing systems.

The RCDF also pleads to foreground the fundamental problem of the capitalist system, which splits the world into haves and have-nots, the West and the Rest, consumers and the exploited / marginalized. Capitalism relies on exploitation to facilitate, at any cost, expansion and profits.  And the fashion system is its flag-bearer. For more than a century fashion has been perceived and defined as a Western phenomenon. Is it any wonder, then, that the cultural violence inherent in the globalized ‘blue-jeans- and-T-shirts’ has been muffled by the neutral term ‘world dress’? Initially heralded as proof as an expanding democratization of fashion, fashion globalization was rarely seen as the carrier of capitalist systems and values. Cultural marginalization spurred by the fashion system has gone largely unrecognized. The ‘dying world’ photographed by Jimmy Nelson (and now on display in Maastricht) is described as ‘an inevitability’ because ‘modernity cannot be resisted’. Meanwhile, environmentalists are increasingly acknowledging that climate change solutions must respect the rights and systems of indigenous peoples.

On the 4th of November, we will explore how coloniality infuses the current, dominant fashion system and whether and how decoloniality can revise the foundations of the fashion system. RCDF seeks to alter the discourse of fashion reform to include the voices and narratives of those ignored and marginalized by the fashion system.

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