Among my little collection of designer garments, to my own surprise, the one piece that I am most emotionally attached to is this patchwork ‘paperbag’ skirt I got on a research trip to Lyon – the city of silk in Europe – during my MA at the Royal College of Art. It patches together vintage Japanese kimono fabric in blue floral, Indian silk in a chocolate paisley, French linen and Scottish houndstooth tweed in mint green. The designer kindly gifted me a belt that is of vintage French ties sewn together to create an ‘obi’, a sash for traditional Japanese dress look. The trip took place after a term of taking a module on ‘Global Bodies and Transnational Fashion’ with Dr. Sarah Cheang and just beginning to research and write about transnational fashion. To have encountered this skirt in that particular time and space was meaningful. It not only embodies the idea of transnationality in the most literal sense through its materiality, it also serves as an unwavering witness of the temporal and spatial continuity – the multiple lives possible for textiles products.
One could easily fall into the perpetual argument saying this is a French designer appropriating the Kimono style, in both the use of old fabrics and its form, but that would be ignoring the precise complexity of the interconnectedness of fashion. Fashion, to me, is inseparable from urban modernity which dominates cities on a global scale; it is the dresses worn by those who lead an urban life that observes changes in seasons and aesthetics. The overly simplistic dichotomy of western and non-western systems only reinforces an obsolete understanding of the world and how people in this day and age dress.
The patching together of cultures is perhaps one of the most familiar identities of our generation. Many of my own friends, myself included, identify with more than one culture, either as third culture kids, part of a diaspora, expatriate workers, overseas students, or migrants. I see this garment as a celebration of such particular phenomenon, embracing the complex and usually difficult personal, family and political histories. Resistance and obliteration are often the modes of decolonising effort and we tend to forget, celebration, too, is a powerful tool. This skirt does just that – it disrupts in the form of celebration.
Its dimension of upcycling, as well as the resurgence of patchwork in recent trends reflecting values of sustainability and as a preferred look during lockdown could be another post altogether…
Janice Li is a London-based curator and researcher interested in design and fashion as agents of change, and their intersectional relations with environmental sustainability, social justice and decolonialisation. She is now Assistant Curator for V&A East at the Victoria & Albert Museum.