DECOLONIZING THE STUDY OF FASHION?

By Martina Barroeta Zalaquett

Over the last few days there has been a considerable amount of discussion regarding the importance of decolonizing the study of fashion. Still, the voices being raised, come mostly from non-peripheral countries. As a fashion researcher born, raised, and based in Chile, South America, I have some thoughts and concerns about this topic that I would like to share.

Image from the recent riots in Chile.

A sentiment that is commonly expressed by fashion scholars discussing the decolonization of the discipline, is how problematic the binaries “fashion/dress” and “fashion system of dressing/traditional systems of dressing” are. I agree. This binary was constructed from a eurocentric and white perspective, and two of the most negative effects of this, in my opinion, are that the singularities of forms, systems and practices of dressing considered as “not fashion” disappear under this category, or the category of “tradition”, depending on the case. This prevents us from understanding how they really work or grasping their real complexity. This fixed division fosters the wrong belief that both fashion and “tradition” are mutually exclusive. In answering the question “how do we overcome these binaries?” lies my first concern. 

One possible answer is to broaden the classic concept and history of fashion to make it applicable to forms, systems and practices of dressing that have historically been considered “other than fashion”. It must be recognized that designers, creatives and people in general, who are not from Europe or the United States, are perfectly capable of creating fashion on their own terms, and to many other effects. However, as much as I would love to see this second effect materialize, I think caution is needed regarding the first.

One of the things that has happened a lot throughout the history of Latin America is that, when scholars from the Global North focus their work on our countries, they tend to explain our experiences using their concepts, most of the time disregarding the very real, deep and legitimate differences between these realities. Most importantly, they tend to name or categorize our contexts, practices, experiences and institutions according to their will, sometimes even against the will of the people they are “studying”. An example of this is how European scholars studying the history of women in Latin America have categorized some indigenous women organizations as feminists even when these women have expressly stated that they do not want to be called this, because such concept is alien to them, and they want to recover the right to define themselves, for that right was stripped from them when colonization started. And so, my fear is that, when applying this new, broadened concept of fashion to forms, systems and practices of dressing, traditionally considered as “not fashion”, something similar might happen. Fashion is for everyone and can be created by anyone, yes, but some people might not want to be part of it. Many people in this continent, particularly in Chile, feel that fashion is alien to them, and that their perspective should be respected. In this sense, to use the term ‘fashion’ can be just as damaging (regarding colonizing vocabulary) as the term ‘dress’ or ‘tradition’.

Image from the recent riots in Chile.

The second way to overcome the aforementioned binaries is, I think, more culturally respectful and fitting for the purpose of decolonizing the study of fashion, or dress, or whatever we call it when we finish this process, if we finish it at all. This way consists of recognizing the existence, plurality, and singularity of each form of dress that is, legitimately and validly, different from fashion, especially if that differentiation responds to the will of its creators or wearers. For this to occur successfully it is fundamental to allow and support the production of knowledge about dress by the people who wear it or created it. This is nothing but a manifestation of a long time demand of Latin American and indigenous people who work for decolonization: their right to regain control over their own cultures, the right to produce knowledge about their cultures independently, according to their history and perspective, the right to not be studied, and lastly, the right to create their own methods. 

All this leads me to my second concern. Achieving what I propose in the former paragraph is almost impossible in countries such as mine. In Chile, the study of fashion is not a discipline that people are familiar with, not even the most educated people. I have trouble explaining it whenever I am asked “what do you do?”. It is impossible to access formal education on fashion theory here because undergraduate or graduate courses on the subject do not exist. If they did, surely our reading list would consist of books written by scholars from Europe or the United States, but at least we would have a space were we could start to produce our own knowledge about the way we dress. Currently, the only thing we can do is to move to New York, London, or Paris to enroll on a Master’s degree in fashion studies. Thus, we are obliged to learn English or French, and study the “classical” theories first. But even if that stood as a possibility for some, as a lower class student myself, the only way to access it would be getting a scholarship, something that is difficult to obtain considering the competing candidates would be from more privileged countries who are likely to have received a better education. The core-periphery structure caused by colonialism is highly evident here.

Image from the recent riots in Chile.

Along with people I share interests with, we have created a research and studying community for fashion studies here in Chile where we can talk about our experiences and share knowledge. The response has been excellent, but there is still a lot to be done. We are working hard to occupy academic spaces all over the world, but especially here, to show that constructing a fully Latin American fashion theory is not only possible, but also crucial.

By Martina Barroeta Zalaquett. Law student at University of Chile. Her field of specialty is international human rights law. She has focused her research on the access to adequate clothing as a human right. Additionally, she has conducted research on decolonial legal theory and its applications to Latin America. She has dedicated independently to fashion studies since 2015, and currently directs and edits Fashionerd.cl, a critical fashion studies platform in Spanish, which includes a podcast, a reading club and microblogging on the Instagram account fashionerd.cl.

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