Decolonial Fashion Practice #5

By Toby Slade

For the Conversation on Decoloniality and Fashion online session on 5th June 2021, I joined co-convenors Angela Jansen, Shayna Goncalves and Erica de Greef in a conversation that centred on my article Decolonizing Luxury Fashion in Japan. The recording of the conversation can be accessed here (Passcode: o5FJ7@5Q).

The history of Japan since at least 1600 has been one where the primary governing mechanics were the resistance, political and cultural, to various forms of colonization. The impetus of the 214-year isolation period was based around resisting Christian missionaries, firearms, and most importantly the divide-and-conquer strategies of various European powers. Japan’s forced reopening by America’s Black Ships from 1853 was classic, colonial, gunboat diplomacy. The adoption of suiting and bustle dresses from the 1860s were a deliberate attempt to be recognized as equals using clothing. Japan’s own colonial ambitions in China, Korean, and South-East Asia culminating in war, nuclear defeat and occupation by the United States are all interpretable via the colonial realpolitik of colonize-or-be-colonized. Even the protectionist measures by the late twentieth century fashion industry and the enduring power of department stores speak to the continued preoccupation with a desire to resist foreign culture dominance. Although now amongst the wealthiest nations on earth, Japan is a country whose history has been shaped, and continues to be shaped. by the logics of colonialism.

“No Limit” L.M. Glackens, 1909.

One of the most important things to see from the Japanese example is that culture is not a zero-sum game. Japan has been able to negotiate a cultural position that both embraced foreign clothing and preserved its own vibrant and dynamic sartorial legacy. From our conversations this seemed to be a point reaffirmed in other examples too; delinking from a horizon of expectations that positions Western forms of clothing as dynamic and the future, and indigenous forms of clothing as static, traditional and the past, is not the only way to imagine a socially just form of fashion. There was not delinking so much as acknowledging the equality within the entanglement of both forms of clothing rather than one erasing the other. 

Part of what I wanted to show in my Fashion Theory article was that an internalized colonial logic, in the form of a cultural cringe, that French luxury fashion must be superior to Japanese, was being reexamined, as part of a questioning of the logics of endless economic growth and a consumerism of excess of late twentieth century bubble-period Japan. But the result was not a binary choice; Japanese or foreign clothes. It was recognition that a Japanese identity is now simply both. And this is part of a larger point: that culture is not nodal. There are not two points of Japanese and West; discrete, distinct, and unchanged by each other. These are places that have been totally remade by their encounters with the other. There is not Japan and Europe as culturally two separate things, because their cultural histories are too entangled to ever delink.  There would be no modern European art without the influence of Japan on Van Gogh, Monet, Victor Horta, etc., and there would be no modern Japan without Europe and America.

Part of the fundamental question, as we sit in the only partially collapsed structures of Marxism, is how we define modernity. Mignolo and Vázquez, following Dussel, wish to designate 1492, as the start of modernity when colonial enterprises and the exploitation of foreign cultures by European empires, and epistemic power of Europe’s self-defined centrality began. But while certainly one a key facet, colonialism is not the only face of globalization. And fashion is not the child purely of colonial-fed capitalism.

Originally, and this is the debt cultural theory owes to fashion, Modernity was Baudelaire’s description of the fleeting ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis (admittedly his metropolis was undeniably enriched by the exploitation of the French Empire). But, he was defining a feeling within a new set of social and technological conditions, not an economic model that in his case had created it.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Looking as if she is enjoying a stroll – an upper-class Wife of the Meiji era, 1888.

What the Japanese examples forces us to confront is that there was a culture with a metropolis of over a million people where the desire for novelty, contemporaneity, and fashion developed without a colonial project behind it. And a fashion industry came into being with sophisticated print media, demand for novelty, sexualized advertising of clothing, product placement in popular culture, trends and fashion spoken about as such, an increase in the utility of money for personal reinvention that spawned a work ethic, and huge devotion of resources to self-styling.

I think there is a general desire for a corrective philosophy of fashion based on social justice around which people wish to build their scholarship and their activism. There is a generalized desire to stop the way the fashion industry engages in the wholesale exploitation of cultures, exploitation of labor, and exploitation of the environment. We want to theorize an epistemology on which to rest a new justification of fashion open to plurality and cultural alternatives. And to do this we are looking to indigenous fashion systems as examples outside of colonial capitalism. Japan, in the Edo period, and in fashion today, provides such a model.


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