Decolonial Fashion Practice #2

By Shayna Stephanie Goncalves

On Saturday, 6th March 2021 Angela Jansen, Erica de Greef and myself welcomed Walter Mignolo into the second Conversations on Decoloniality and Fashion. The selected reading for this conversation was the “Introduction” to On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis co-edited by Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh. The recording of the first part of this Conversation can be listened here (Passcode: pLD%vf%5).

In the month leading up to the 6th March, Erica, Angela and I engaged in many discussions about the “Introduction” and the four additional suggested texts Walter shared. In the midst of these conversations we became quite entangled in navigating the convolutions of decolonial study, decolonial practice and [de-]coloniality as it is happening to the three of us in our individual personal lives. Of course, when we take on the role of convening Conversations on Decoloniality and Fashion, our opening up to feeling and experiencing coloniality is  welcomed, to a large extent, consciously. I find it though discombobulating, uncomfortable and yet awakening to feel and then see coloniality when it happens unexpectedly.

Even our own ‘modern’ structural contract to abide by time, for instance, became distorted and elongated in conversation with Walter. Of course, a universal agreement to framing seconds, minutes, and hours is essential for maintaining a disposition of respect and consideration for a conversation with a large group of people awakened for decoloniality and fashion discourse discussions in multiple time zones. But listening to Walter paused time and brought forward feeling and embodiment. While listening to him I felt myself constantly oscillate between a meditative state of fully embodied presence and switching into the responsibility of time watching which felt like it plummeted me back into the physical world.

I have been grappling quite uncomfortably with a fashion practice of decoloniality in our physical world lately and what follows for the remainder of this read is a walk-through some of my uncomfortable and inconclusive thoughts. The only certainty and conclusion that I may offer you at this point is to not expect a final destination or any sense of clarity by the end of this text. Each thought expects only to be greeted and fully immersed in before moving toward the next one so that by the end of this text, maybe these thoughts will meet yours and if you’re a bit uncomfortable, know that I still am too, but we have to at some point find alignment between being in the physical world and being guided by our experiences, feelings and personal and collective meditations.

I am wary of the term decoloniality, with it’s comparative degrees decolonize and decolonizing, becoming quite quickly subsumed by academic discourse, Contemporary Fashion and pop culture. Leaning into my scepticism I asked Walter about the “praxis of living and…the idea of theory-and-as-praxis and praxis-and-as-theory” (Walsh and Mignolo 2018) element of doing decoloniality in Contemporary Fashion. In my question I offered examples of brands I thought of as currently working within a decoloniality framework such as Butan (image above) and Thesis Lifestyle and I also suggested that perhaps in order to bring decoloniality into a wider mass audience’s experience, we ought to welcome some of the aspects of Contemporary Fashion.

In “Sensing Otherwise: A Story of an Exhibition,” one of Walter’s additional suggested readings, he observes of the exhibiting artist that

“she is liberating her sensibility from the prison house of Western art history and sensibility. She has to go through the technical aspects of Western art, but that is all, she doesn’t have to obey the expected regulations. And as a matter of fact, she doesn’t” (Mignolo 2013).

It was with this aid that I was trying to unpack our capacity to go through “the technical aspects of” Contemporary Fashion without obeying the regulations, but with a sensibility guided by individual, local, pluriversal experiences of fashioning.  Within the broader definition of fashioning, I also consider fashion businesses that are conscious about dehumanizing business practices inherited by coloniality/modernity, and who are instead, activating practices that delink from coloniality.

Walter narrated a thorough response with thoughtfulness, context and detail that brought to our Zoom conversation the first experience of swirling into decoloniality wonderland. One of the lines that moved me the most, answered this complexity of doing decoloniality. He shared,

You cannot understand decoloniality if you don’t sense it, if you don’t feel it.

So think about where coloniality is touching you. Where do you feel coloniality? And then where you see coloniality all around.

…so coloniality is not over, it’s all over. If coloniality is all over then decoloniality is all over.

Walter is asking us if we could start with feeling first.

I realize my underlying fear that decoloniality as a way of being may be forgotten should it only exist as a study and should it not be adopted as a way of life and subsequent living order by all. In the early episodes of Project Runway Heidi Klum’s iconic line was “…in fashion, the one day you’re in and the next you’re out.” So while decolonize, decolonizing, and decoloniality are now trending there is the risk that decoloniality soon too will be out and we will go back to ‘normal’ — which is to say that we will go back to coloniality/modernity which has been promoted and enforced as ‘normal’ by a small minority, for the rest of the world to accept.

I watch how quickly we revert to our comfortable ‘norms’. Even in the current pandemic, our global year-long lockdowns, for a time, disrupted our conception of what was considered  normal in business, in schooling, in travel, and so much more. In South Africa, we experienced curfews and alcohol bans, including the shutdown of  bars. This  reduced the ease of going out, socialising and meeting at bars. The general restrictions also limited our physical contact with people, eradicating our supposed need to ‘dress up’. Some of our old habits, though, became superimposed into new environments, so we found speakeasies, restaurants that served alcohol in tea-pots, or we got very dressed up for our Instagram selfies and Tik Tok posts. Old habits die hard, or they shift and fit into new perimeters.

I am struggling with trying to find the means to explain that to undo toxic normals upheld by coloniality/modernity we need to integrate new forms, values, ideals, and habits  into the normal.

Walter in his answer also said “in order to erode that narrative, you have to dupe other narrative”

Still working within the technical aspects of Contemporary Fashion, such as in running a fashion business or publishing a campaign, yet without conforming to the regulations, contemporary fashion becomes a descriptive term to delineate what designers, businesses, or brands are doing when not subscribing to the modernity thinking that has historically prescribed how we need to fit into the Contemporary Fashion  ‘canon’.

As examples, Butan and Thesis Lifestyle both honor the current and historical cultural experiences and traditions of South African people,  many of whose voices and stories have been oppressed, suppressed, marginalized, unrepresented, wiped out, shamed, abused, and -yet still- appropriated. The brands  both show love and appreciation for Black people. The brands both revere everyday life in South African townships. Their clothing tiers, marketing campaigns, audience engagement campaigns, and creative direction stem from both organic and spontaneous experiences, close observations, and ongoing learning from South African townships, as well as a continuous curiosity about South African, African and African Diaspora histories.

Angela noted in  our conversation that:

“Within modernity thinking, we lost that ability to think within the relational because of a structural mindset where everything needs to be defined and limited and fit into a structure

[that] there is not just one way to do and conceive decoloniality.

…Sometimes I get this feeling that we are looking for some sort of definition of decoloniality or what it is is but the way you formulate it is that there is different local histories that have different embodied conceptions and practices of decoloniality and that [are] very related to your positionality as to where you stand and from where you speak and how you [are] positioned in relation to the decolonial difference”

From Angela’s point, I had to then, unexpectedly, admit my own structural mindset. Unexpected because I tended to consider my mindset as radical and existing within terrains of pluriversality and aiming for social equity. But, I had to ask myself why I am so committed to requiring a solution to doing decoloniality.

To a large extent even trying to use words that fit into a framework of activism to explain my positionality and be surprised by my own modernity mindset has the potential to become limiting and confining. For, to go beyond a limitation, I firstly need to acknowledge its presence.

I am learning to notice when I do not yet fully understand my own discomfort. Sometimes it happens that the discomfort is a grief, grieving the loss of an outcome potentially becoming unfulfilled -like wanting universal decoloniality for all.

But, decoloniality is not universal. Like in Buddhism we are taught to appreciate that the only constant is change, in decoloniality the only shared experience is to appreciate that all our experiences are different, relational, and dependant on positionality. So, for now, it is difficult to imagine what a decolonial world could be.

There is only opening to a new world. Whatever it may be. Welcoming, appreciating, holding space for numerous perspectives and trusting that one thought/conversation/reading/ conscious business/protest at a time, decoloniality will shape their own forms.

Reference List:

Butan (@butan_official). 2020. “ALL NEW Mountain Panther jersey that’s a nod to the Basotho heritage is here. Comes in a blue & navy coulourway with striking yellow lines.

Available now EXCLUSIVELY from our online store, link in bio.” Instagram Photo, November 2, 2020.

Mignolo, Walter. 2013. “Sensing Otherwise: A Story of an Exhibition.” Ibraaz: Contemporary Visual Culture in North Africa and the Middle East, September 30th, 2013.

Mignolo, Walter D., and Catherine E. Walsh. 2018. “Introduction.” In On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis, 1-14. Durham: Duke University Press.


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