Decolonizing Fashion: Refashioning Objects in the Ethnographic Museum

A two-day interdisciplinary think-tank/critical and creative thinking workshop

On November 14 and 15, 2019, the RCDF held a stimulating workshop/think tank on Decolonizing Fashion: Refashioning Objects in the Ethnographic Museum, a topic timely because of the many ethnographic museums currently grappling with that challenge. The event was hosted by the National Museum of World Cultures (NMWC) in Leiden, The Netherlands.

Moving objects from one cultural frame of reference to another – for example from ethnography to fashion – challenges not only curators, museums and museum goers, but invites a close interrogation of both the structural limits and perceived affordances of the various disciplines at stake (anthropology, ethnography, history, fashion studies and practice, etc.). A range of projects have invited artists, curators and community members to re-mediate objects from ethnographic museum collections. These reframed, re-imagined and restaged objects (and related museum concepts and practices) have helped to position objects often termed ‘ethnographic’ within wider realms of art, design and world culture, in an additive process that potentially enlarges the canon of fashion. Yet, we propose a specifically focused opening up, or perhaps breaking apart, of concepts of fashion for twenty-first century scholarship, that makes clear the redundancy of any fashion canon in the first place.

Riley Kucheran

The workshop explored some of the motivations and effects of ‘re-scripting’ ethnographic objects of body adornment as ‘fashion’. On what terms are assignments to the category of ‘fashion’ made? What ideological alignments with Western/Euro-American modernity are at stake? We proposed that interdisciplinary moves not only introduce new tools for thinking about, and with, ethnographic objects (many of which remain distanced from concepts of modernity), but also afford opportunities for a rich critique of the persistent colonial frameworks of the Western fashion system. This will be the starting point for a new series of collaborative responses to issues of fashion, museum collections, race and racism that will unfold over the coming year.

Allison Malony, Carol Tulloch, Rolando Vazquez, Sarah Cheang and Kimberly Jenkins

The event brought together a panel of curators and fashion thinkers with a collective range of international contexts and experiences. They included:

1. Carol Tulloch, scholar, originator of the style/dress/fashion concept for thinking about how to talk about fashion, and curator of various black diasporic fashion exhibitions, Chelsea College, UAL, London.

2. Rolando Vazquez, co-facilitator of the decolonial summer school in Utrecht, active thinker/writer on decolonial aesthetics (aesthesis) and decolonizing knowledge, UCR Utrecht.

3. Peter Lee, author and guest curator, Asian Civilizations Museum and Peranakan Museum, Singapore.

4. Lesiba Mabitsela, Cape Town-based artist/designer who works African identities, fashion and anthropology, and looks to decolonize the suit and western pattern cutting systems through African concepts of masculinity and embodied experiences.

5. Riley Kucheran, Ryerson and York University,, Indigenous Advisor, member of Ryerson’s Truth & Reconciliation Strategic Working Committee and an active community member. His PhD research looks at the role of clothing in colonization and how Indigenous fashion design can act as a mobilizer of cultural and economic resurgence.

6. Angela Jansen, RCDF founder and chairperson, freelance fashion anthropologist and expert on Moroccan fashion cultures

7. Sarah Cheang, RCDF steering group, Senior Tutor Royal College of Art, expert on East Asian fashion cultures/race and fashion, leader of the transnational fashion research project ‘Fashion and Translation’

8. Sandra Niessen, RCDF steering group, freelance anthropologist, expert on Indonesian textiles and ethnographic museums

9. Erica de Greef, RCDF steering group, fashion theorist and curator, expert on South African fashion cultures

10. Kimberly Jenkins, fashion lecturer (Parsons and Ryerson Universities) and curator, expert on fashion and race, creator of The Fashion and Race Database

11. Daan van Dartel, fashion curator, NMWC

12. Wayne Modest, head of the Research Center of Material Culture at the NMWC and professor of Material Culture and Critical Heritage Studies in the faculty of humanities at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam (VU).

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