Orientalism and The ‘East’

‘You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes.’ – Diana Vreeland, former Editor in Chief of Vogue.

While it can be understood that fashion has been a symbol of resistance in history, shifting with social movements (such as the uniform of the Black Panthers, or the purple white and green colours of the Suffragettes) we cannot ignore how fashion is built upon the exploitation of the environment, people and cultures. This essay begins with Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism and the colonial image of the ‘East’ as the ‘Other’(violent, inferior and fanatic). Orientalism reflects the Western-intention to dominate, restructure and acquire authority over the East. 

Therefore, fashion can be viewed as a political tool utilised throughout colonial, and post-colonial history to set Western ideas of the ‘East’ as the norm to gain power, often in an intersection with class. The imperialistic practices of the extraction and exploitation of people and resources for financial gain are still present today. As Celine Semaas stated, ‘Colonialism is not a thing of the past, it’s a current economic reality. Time may have passed but the systems remain the same’. This colonial system is what perpetuates unethical and unsustainable fashion practices. Decolonising fashion means to completely dismantle an industry built upon the victims of capitalism. It is not an act that can be ticked off and completed, rather an ongoing process which requires the decolonisation of fashion history, fashion marketing, fashion education and more. Colonial oppression will not remain, with each generation creating new ideas of decolonial liberation and it is not the coloniser who will dismantle these systems.

Femininity and Women of Colour 

The fashion industry was created to design, manufacture and sell clothes. Now, it has adapted to become a space for women to express their femininity and sexuality, but is still run by men. For women of colour, such as Halima Aden, who left the industry due to feeling as though she was compromising her faith on shoots, the industry can be a difficult place to navigate. The lack of Muslim women stylists meant her Hijab was not always honoured or supported correctly.

Fashion has always been exclusively for white women. From the 1920s where ethnic masquerading was commonly marketed, to Jessica Daves as Editor-in-Chief of Vogue in the 1950s. The illusion that racism in fashion has decreased because the diversity of models on runways has increased is an assumption. The industry is deeply in racism, it goes beyond models into the editors, creative directors and designers. Anna Wintour’s Vogue shifted the industry by setting a standard that ‘favored white, Eurocentric notions of beauty’ and ‘welcomed a certain type of employee – someone who is thin and white, typically from a wealthy family and educated at elite schools’. Not only this but by putting celebrities on magazine covers, fashion became about power dynamics. 

For women of colour in fashion, our representation is scarce. As a young Brown girl, Yasmeen Ghauri is the model who changed my perception of everything. She was the first Brown model I had seen on the runway who was strong, sexy and sophisticated. Ghauri broke down many barriers, achieved so many firsts, so that we can now have more South Asian models on runways, such as Neelam Gill. When talking about representation in fashion it is important to note that there is no such thing as modern fashion. All fashion today is modern, so to claim an ethnocentric idea that European fashion is more developed than Eastern fashion is orientalist. 

Capitalism and Exploitation 

Fashion comes from the land. In the 19th century, the mass production of clothes began, and by the 20th century, the fashion industry was established. Garment workers are 80% women of colour and their rights are ignored within fast fashion production lines. The voices of these women have been weaponised as many are left without pay, even during the closure of factories during the pandemic. The colonial powers playing are sinister as they perpetuate modern-day colonialism. South Asia was torn apart for its raw materials and labour at the time of the British Raj and is still suffering at the hands of Western powers today. The institutional oppression of Black and Brown bodies to provide semi-disposable items to the West is just as apparent with major manufacturers using the same trade routes as they did at the height of European colonial exploitation, the silk roads. The fashion industry, and its complex supply chain, reveals a colonial past. All of this affects women the most. It is women to whom these clothes are catered, yet women are abused to make these garments, and in some cases such as Burberry only for the clothes to be burned after a show. 

Deconstructing environmental sustainability and eco-colonialism is a key part to decolonising fashion and understanding indigenous practices which honour the planet, not destroy it. After Western consumers are finished with a garment, it is dumped back to the East as waste. Countries like Thailand and Bangladesh are amongst the most polluted and receive international criticism for this. The concept of ‘waste’ itself is the product of socioeconomic structures where clothing has become a commodified item to use for a short period, then thrown away. Many indigenous communities were living sustainably before corporations created this neoliberal ideology. Even so, sustainable fashion has favoured Western aesthetics, under the illusion of ‘transparency’. Sustainability is not a lifestyle you can buy into, as many brands offer environmentally-friendly pieces at a high cost, but rather the movement to completely dismantle capitalism and big companies who emit these fossil fuels. The fashion industry is built in a way which allows brands to benefit from overproduction, human rights violations and environmental destruction they cause. Women make up the foundations of the industry, and it is by listening to women, and by supporting women of colour we will see core changes in this industry.

Imaan Asim (@starryimi) is a writer, critic and creative dismantling narratives of fashion, education and race through articles, essays and poetry. She grew up living between the Middle East and England and is currently on a gap year before university. You can view her work here.


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