Decolonial Fashion Practice #1

By Shayna Stephanie Goncalves

The Research Collective for Decolonizing Fashion opened its first Conversations on Decoloniality and Fashion on Saturday, 6th February 2021. As a virtual space beyond institutional, disciplinary and geographical boundaries, the Conversations is a way to experiment with other ways of knowledge-production and sharing in regard to fashion –  through conversation, through the communal, and through a diversity of voices across age, race, gender, education, discipline and geography. Angela Jansen, Erica de Greef, and myself, Shayna Stephanie Goncalves, share the work of convening the talk. This blog post is the first of an ongoing series of writings that extend the conversations in written form.

The first part of the Conversations, in this case between Angela Jansen and Erica de Greef, was recorded and can be listened here (passcode: V17Zt0C?)

Angela and Erica opened the session by introducing their own positionalities of practicing and experiencing decoloniality. They both share positions as white females doing decolonial work within an academic canon (established by modernity), which upholds rhetorics of progress and success in and for a civilized world. Angela lives in Europe and Erica lives in South Africa.

To verbalize, narrate, and explain my own positionality, practice and experience of decoloniality requires an untangling of the cultural meanings imbued in the words, names, types and signifiers of identity that have been projected onto my body, mostly for the purpose of other people’s relatability to me and placement of me in a modernized world, more so than the words I use to experience and describe myself.

So, some of the words that currently signify – to others – my positionality include woman of colour, currently living in South Africa where my specific racial group is named Coloured. Based on my upbringing and my modern/colonial educational privilege, I constantly accumulate the social and cultural capital that places me in a middle-upper class segment.

In the talk, Angela acknowledges her side of the colonial difference, reminding herself that hers is not a position of being colonized, subjugated, or erased. Within its narrative of progression, modernity/coloniality brings with it an intellectual hierarchy valorising cerebral modalities so that realities like decoloniality, to use Erica’s words, can “land in a journal” as a theory, which has a hidden quality of concealing the reality of being on the side of the colonial difference that is colonized, subjugated, and erased.

To be colonized, subjugated and erased is an experience manifest in daily practices of people of colour in order to simultaneously straddle appreciation, respect and self-narration to become liberated, empowered, and visible. As a woman of colour who has worked in the world of contemporary fashion in design, curating, research, education, marketing, and business development, my subservience to modern/colonial eurocentric forms of fashioning my body and mind were advertised as the rightful passage toward being heard. I learned to write and speak English articulately and eloquently; dressed in (and am still in love with) the fetishes of contemporary fashion; and, for a time I learned to only straighten my afro hair, only have painted nails, keep a perfectly even-toned skin, have a negative-ten body fat percentage, still be seen dining-out and smell like Chanel No.5 perfectly, all the while constructing a commodity of myself based on an external value system that promised that my happiness was a ‘modern’ life.

For me, practicing decoloniality then is a constant process of re-learning and delinking from words that force my body and mind into a mould that conforms to these external terms of progress, modernity and success, such as: being professional, being modest, being humble, being sober/drunk/high, being thin, being nice, controlling my emotions, and not taking things personally in the workplace. These are words that require a double suppression from people of colour – to at once be the word, and to forget the things that make us colour-full in fulfilment of the word. To be professional is to speak English and to forget another vernacular language. To not take things personally at work is such that when a white male colleague makes an office-wide announcement that ‘Black Lives Matter is irrelevant’ we need to respect the rules of not discussing race and politics in the workplace and hence assimilate into eurocentric norms that silence all other voices for whom the statement feels like an attack on our very personhood.

Delinking from modernity/coloniality for me means having the courage to speak about my practice of solitude and meditation as a legitimate process of unlearning and re-learning, and of creating knowledge. During the stillness I ask myself such questions as: What hairstyle do I want? Why am I wearing sunscreen (beyond maintaining a lighter colour)? What are the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet (beyond pursuing thinness)? Why do I feel like eating this? What is this work serving? Who is benefitting from this work? Is anyone harmed/abused/exploited/erased/silenced by this work? How do I really feel like responding in this situation (being an angry black woman is ok. Being kind is ok)? What is the person you are engaging with really saying?

Listen.

Have the courage to listen.

When it is my turn to speak, have the courage to speak the truth especially when that truth will shatter the comfortable world order of those who benefit from my silence.

My practices derive from a combination of Eastern, Southern and Western spiritual and religious teachings. They help me realize my awareness of universal equality and so my positionality, like Angela and Erica, forces me to use the skills, privileges, failures and awakenings I have had as tools to serve where there is pain, discrimination, inequality, and mental and personal captivity.

I am learning to do the inner-self-work so I may be in the world and do the labour-work fashioned with the courage to use words and language that more accurately narrate my experience, words otherwise marginalized and dismissed as soft, feminine or relegated to spiritual metaphysics. The modern/colonial definition of success I occupied allowed me the means to claim a seat at modernity/coloniality’s table and the subsequent double consciousness manifested my radical activism. The words then I would use to state my positionality include activist, human, learner, spiritual-being, truth-seeker, truth-teller, vegan, womanist.

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