Decolonial Fashion Practice #3

By Erica de Greef

For the third Conversation on Decoloniality and Fashion online session on 3rd April 2021, co-convenors Angela Jansen, Shayna Goncalves and I were joined by author Sandra Niessen in a conversation that centred on her recent, radically challenging and provocative article ‘Fashion, its Sacrifice Zone, and Sustainability’ that was published in a special issue of Fashion Theory: Fashion and Decoloniality. The recording of the conversation can be accessed here (passcode: @s&e4ud@).

That ‘sacrifice zones’ were imagined, named and then acted upon informed the radical starting point for Sandra. How do acts such as these, that defy all empathy and logic, acts that are emptied of humanity, come to be, and continue, knowingly selecting the sacrifice of some earth, some culture, some people for the betterment of others? A quick Wikipedia search reaffirms this troubling ambiguity – with a self-reflexive questioning in its entry, we are even coerced into asking, “whether or not the creation of such zones in the first place is immoral or unethical, or that their negative effects and consequences outweigh the benefits and positive results, is still up for debate”.

How did this atrocity happen? What does fashion have to do with this? And, then where do we begin to address this violence? For those closer to the prime meridian in this zoom-facilitated community, we find ourselves engaging with these difficult questions and global challenges well into a Saturday night; for those in the Americas it is a midday meet-up; and, for those in the far Eastern hemisphere it is a very early Sunday morning session. Collectively, we listened to Sandra’s conceptual unravelling of the grand fashion narratives to understand both the precarity of these zones of sacrifice or ‘hot spots’ as they are also known, and the complicity of fashion in perpetuating these erasures, silencing practices and cultural sacrifices.

Remembering is a radical ACT. Remembering as a radical ACT.

In the same week that this Conversation on Decoloniality and Fashion took place, a cultural activist was instructed to leave a ‘shopping mall’ in the land of his own birth, for wearing cultural dress. The reasoning presented by the mall manager – equally a man from this same land, but of another lineage – was that the cultural activist was ‘inappropriately’ fashioned; that – in other words – the mall demands all its shoppers to be dressed in Western (i.e. colonial) fashion. Unless, of course, it is Heritage Day and such ‘traditional’ fashions are welcomed. What kind of violence is this?

In many settler colonies, local dress practices and aesthetics were forbidden – in spaces of worship, in the then-colonised towns, in courts of law, and in our shared urban environments. Remaining in the same country as the cultural activist above, one of the most famous long-standing political prisoners in the world, equally navigated and sartorially negotiated his professional and political presence through selected fashion statements. At his mid-century court trail, the accused, in accordance with his own cultural practice, bodily (and boldly) refused the dress code of the oppressor, while at the same time rejecting the court’s orders as colonial and thus not valid in his law. 

That coloniality continues to manifest through fashion in South African shopping malls and media, in classrooms and courtrooms is not unique to this one place in Africa. This erasure and cultural forgetting manifests as the swish and swag of modernity – dressed in Chanel, Dior or Levis and Nike, or served as cheap fast fashion tees and tracksuits – continues to disavow, erase and effect the ongoing elimination of other dress-codes, other sensibilities, other languages, other histories, other laws, in an ever-widening spiral of destruction. 

What is it that Sandra’s call brings into the room as we are tasked with ‘remembering’? Not history – that project that so carefully narrated, collected and constituted a limited and brutally, singular script or knowledge of the past. No, instead, we are each invited individually – each of us differently, distinctly, uniquely – to remember. And in that remembering, we are reminded of both our positionality in this world, and our relationality to our present and the ways in which we have travelled here, from our individual, and shared, overlapping and entangled pasts.

While I am completing this reflective post, yet another project of recuperative and regenerative remembering is launched: of dreams of freedom and other worlds that might have been possible, that haunt our present, suggesting other possible futures. The Archive of Forgetfulness – funded by the Goethe Insitute – holds together acts of remembering: of collecting and gathering stories often untold, beginning with an interest in the entangled histories of how we live our lives. With contributions from the bodily and spoken, to the written and performed, this collective project invites the making of new, and decolonial ways of knowing (and sharing) the world.

But what of fashion? How do the ideas and ideals of fashion continue to create erasures and forgetting? In the session, Sandra presented a set of interrelated conceptual erasures that touch on difficult, and often problematic entanglements, that are deeply embedded in our buying and wearing of clothes. A ‘collective forgetting’ of the labour that is so cheaply costed into each season’s new collections has been called out by campaigns, such as Who made my Clothes? that begin to re-humanise the fashion industry. There are the displaced people whose brutally interrupted lives we witnessed in the dramatic impact of the pandemic on factory closures across the globe. There are countless cultural self-erasures, which means that one language is now dying every fortnight. How do we even begin to address not only the mechanisms of erasure, but the terms of erasure, and even the items that impose erasures? The ripples of these erasures are widespread and the sacrifices of nature and cultures continue.  

Listening is a radical ACT.  Listening as a radical ACT. 

And here, Sandra calls for empathy that is fed by listening. Listening as a task of giving back a place in the present. Listening to those in the sacrifice zone, so that we may begin to (re)imagine what was erased, forgotten, placed outside of the textbook, beyond the curriculum, at the margins of the fashion system.

In an interview with Zoe Dankert, Rolando Vazquez describes this as, “decolonial listening. For me, it is a principle of decolonial critique”. In other words, decolonial listening can help us receive and relate to realities and ways of thinking that do not belong to our current frameworks of intelligibility. We will share this interview, and other readings too, ahead of our next (and fourth) online session on 1st May 2021 at 8-9:30pm GMT, when Rolando Vazquez and Walter Mignolo will join us in conversation as we reflect on their influential text, Decolonial AestheSis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings.

To question then, how listening can help us move towards different relations to the earth and to each other, Rolando responds, “When species are extinct or when languages are extinct, you are confronted with the loss of paths into the future, that is, the loss of those trajectories that have been cut down. This is a silencing that is sometimes impossible to undo. That violence, especially in this extreme of extermination, produces a silence that makes it for us impossible to relate back to what precedes us and to bring it into the present so as to produce alternative futures. This is one of the ethical challenges of the decolonial and also where the limit of what we can do is located. When confronted with all those regions that have been silenced, the task of listening becomes the task of giving back a place in the present, of hosting and emplacing what has been eradicated” (Vazquez, 2021:151-152). And, as Sandra called for, empathy that is fed by listening.

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