Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Tale of Two Fashions and How can we close the Gap?

In 1984 the late governor Mario Cuomo borrowed the title of Charles Dickens's 'Tale of Two Cities'  to call attention to the deep rift in New York between the Haves and the Have Nots
Yesterday, his son, the CNN host, Chris Cuomo, dusted off his father's words to remind Americans that there are two Americas. This was in the wake of the video-documented murder of the handcuffed, black man, George Floyd, through the actions of police officers in Minneapolis. It was an impassioned speech to remind the Haves that America cannot be a peaceful and happy place until that gap between the Two Realities is closed. 

Racism is the gap: the alienation of the Have Nots by the Haves. The myriad processes of alienation/discrimination occur at all levels of society, locally, nationally and internationally, many of which are such a 'normal' part of daily life that they become invisible to the Haves who are often not aware of perpetuating them.

The Western fashion system is one of these 'normals'. Perpetuating it is as easy as purchasing clothes produced by the exploitative production system.

It is the business of the RCDF to make the racism in fashion visible, to raise awareness, to enable change for the better. The first step is creating awareness that fashion's definition and function was created to highlight and celebrate the difference between the Haves and the Have Nots locally, nationally and internationally. 

Those who had the power to define fashion divided the world into 'those with fashion' and 'those without fashion'. The former were white people of means in Europe and North America. The latter were peasants, tribals, the poor, people of colour.  They didn't have fashion, they just wore clothes. Fashion became something to aspire to, to show off capability and 'advancement'. Today those 'fashion have nots' are the same ones who make the clothes for the 'fashion haves'. And today they are suffering because the production system has been shut down by measures taken against Covid-19.

I heard today that those who lost their jobs in the textile factories in Pekalongan, in Central Java, have not been able to find new work. They face hunger. I hear the same is happening in India.  I invite our readers who have first-hand knowledge of one or more of these workers to share their stories. Please tell us what is happening to these people (mostly women) who produced our clothes. Their life of dependence is perilous. Will they find a way out of this life-threatening mess? What are the options they are choosing? What will be the new order in the post-covid world? How can we strategize to close the fashion gap?


Friday, May 15, 2020

Connecting the Dots - or Why I eschew the term 'Garment Workers'


Garment workers. Supply chain transparency. Living wage. Decent working conditions....

Just a few words is all it takes to conjure the image of the multi-billion dollar business of clothing production as well as attempts to address the egregious problems it has created.

I am increasingly having trouble with the notion of 'garment workers' -- even when I am given access to a snapshot of "Who Made My Clothes". These are people constructed in our image. Their existence has been collapsed with their work. Their being is bound up with our needs because they produce what we wear. Full stop.

And that is what I don't like. I don't want their lives bound to what I wear. I want their lives bound to what they wear and their own culture -- not our obese fashion system.

This is important. As 'garment workers' that is all that they are. They have no other life. The focus on 'garment workers' is on their payment and working conditions. That is all. Our thoughts about them stop at: 'At least our clothing system is providing them with an income'. It is a feel-good place to stall our minds. But imagine if their income dries up? And of course Covid-19 is yielding that spectre. What happens to them then? We hate to think...we see them leaving their jobs in droves, but the news doesn't show where they are going, what they hope and what they can expect, what will happen to their families and their villages....

How did it come about that they produce for us in the first place? Does that employment offer them what they seek? Does that matter to us? Or is it only our lives, as consumers, that are supposed to be satisfying? Do we accept, without question, a world in which 'everybody else' is chained to producing for our boundless needs and feel satisfied if they earn a 'living wage' and have 'decent' working conditions?

No, I still do not know who made my clothes, even if I have her picture and a short bio.



Mrs. Sitio tells me about her life's choices (Photos by MJA Nashir)
 I did know someone in North Sumatra who left her independent weaving occupation to go to the city to look for a labour job. She spent her last, borrowed cent to get herself and her family to the city. She was married to a farmer from the Sitio lineage, and had three young children. She lived in a desolate, isolated village and her true longing, she told me, was to make the most beautiful textiles in her own textile tradition. But the market had fallen out of her textile tradition. Everybody was wearing Western clothes. At first those clothes were a way to 'get ahead' in the world: find jobs, climb social and political ladders, fit in the church. Eventually, though, there was no more choice. All around her, everybody was poor. Nobody could afford the finest of their own clothing tradition anymore, and nobody felt comfortable dressing in the style of the ancestors. Mrs. Sitio wove faster and faster and earned less and less. She wove for a neighbouring tradition because there the market hadn't yet collapsed. But it was eroding. Then Mrs. Sitio cracked, and she knew she had to find another source of income. I wonder if Mrs. Sitio is now making my clothes? Making your clothes? And what has happened to her with COVID-19? She won't have been able to return to North Sumatra; the journey is too expensive. And would there be a roof and enough food for her in the village if and when she returned?

The last time I went to visit her, all I found was her weaving equipment lying in the corner of a shed that had flooded. It had begun to rot. The family regarded it as an heirloom passed down from generation to generation. But they did not know what to do with it now. None of them knew how to weave. They didn't understand their own tradition. They admired Mrs. Sitio's amazing skill -- but they didn't want to walk in her shoes. She was a culture hero, perpetuating their heritage -- and she paid the price by living in poverty. They understood why she would want to strike out and look for a better life elsewhere.

Did she find it? What were her prospects? She was so brave -- so desperate -- to take that blind leap to another Indonesian island and city, all beyond her realm of experiences.

She would have looked for work as an 'unskilled labourer'. She would have demoted and humbled herself. But she wasn't unskilled. As a backstrap loom weaver, her skills were very highly honed. Most people do not know how difficult it is to weave a thing of beauty on a backstrap loom. It takes years to learn, years to become inducted into the special language of the craft, to develop the physical skills and design capacities. Moreover, she spoke at least two languages fluently and the smatterings of probably two more. She was active in the rural and ritual community, which she was destined to leave behind. She would say goodbye to a great portion of her spiritual/intellectual life. She would have to operate in her second or third language. She would not be able to cave in to feelings of alienation or depression because she had a family to care for. She was tough and she was humble. She was desperate. Rebellion was not an option. When she left her home and the clean air of her rural community for the anomy of the polluted city, she had reached the end of her options. Don't tell me of the 'agency' of the poor.

Granting her the living wage would limit the insult added to the injury, but the injury would remain. I have sketched her choice at the personal level. There is also a cultural level. With her move, her society lost another weaver; their numbers are dwindling fast. Another craft is dying out, and with it another clothing tradition. Her children will not grow up in their ritual community and will lose touch with their language, religion, family and region of origin. Their culture will suffer for this, too. Grandparents will not be able to share with their grandchildren; stories, recipes, old ways, knowledge of nature and culture will not get passed down.

These are the unseen costs of our expanding clothing consumption. Yet our focus is narrowly on the 'living wage'. We do not want to acknowledge the racism implicit in this focus.

How is Mrs. Sitio doing during the corona virus? We don't hear much about Indonesian labourers in the garment industry during these difficult times, but tens of thousands must be facing harder than their usual hard times. In 2014, the ILO estimated that "garment manufacturing employs at least 40 million workers in Asia alone and more than 60 million workers worldwide, 80% of which are women. If we consider that many more people are employed to weave fabrics, spin yarns, dye, print, embellish, embroider, grow and pick cotton, shear sheep for wool, pack and ship products, sort and recycle disused textiles, then the industry likely employs hundreds of millions across the value chain."  


This morning I listened to a podcast with Ashoke Chatterjee, former director of India's NID (National Institute of Design). It was 44 degrees in Ahmedabad, but he counted himself lucky. The unlucky ones were walking away from the now silent factories in Delhi, children in tow, towards an uncertain future. "Today their blistered feet, suffering and death on our roadways tell us exactly what they think of the uncaring cities to which they had journeyed in the hope of survival."

Craft could have buoyed up the returning workers, Ashoke Chatterjee was saying, if craft production had been recognized as vital. But for too long this has not been the case.
"As we look back, we can see the neglect of rural India .... Artisans were being discounted because rural India was being discounted. With it came an acceptance of migration into urban slums as an indicator of ”‘progress” for the millions—artisans among them...."

When the pandemic struck, the importance of wellbeing was suddenly placed front and centre -- and the contrast to dominant ideologies was confrontational: "It is becoming clear that our real problem is the dominating pattern of “development” that has taken over our country—a pattern that mistakes statistics and infrastructure as “development” rather than the wellbeing of the vast majority of our people or of the environment that shelters them...." said Mr. Chatterjee.

Significantly, Mr. Chatterjee also pointed out that the word 'craft' did not occur in Indian languages. In Mrs. Sitio's case, her 'craft' was production of what had formerly been indigenous clothing. The word 'craft' situates indigenous production relative to industrial clothing production as inferior and less consequential. Of course the word 'craft' is not found in cultures where there has been no industrial production!

The garment industry is implicated here. The more it expands, the more indigenous clothing production and use declines. It undercuts local 'clothing production-demoted-to-craft' in numerous ways: speed of production, price, advertising, the caché of modernity, and finally the dumping of Western cast-offs on indigenous markets. In North Sumatra, 'craft' producers now only make 'token' clothing items for ritual, and their economic contribution can be negated. People like Mrs. Sitio flock to the city in search of a better income and their cultures take a further hit.

Green activists strategize how to make the clothing industry sustainable. They focus on sustainable materials, efficient processes, living wage, and decent working conditions. Undeniably important, all of it. But this limited focus fails to address the systemic, historical circumstances that finally push the likes of Mrs. Sitio to leave their homes and join the 'de-skilled' labourers in the city. And the resultant decline in cultural vibrancy and diversity.

That is why I am disenchanted with the epithet, 'garment workers'. If, instead of being satellites to 'our' Western industrial complex, they were recognized as human beings with distinct cultures and clothing traditions of their own, it would have mattered in the first place that they were being stripped of both their humanity and their culture to become 'garment workers'. And it would have mattered that they have no place to turn when a pandemic strikes. Their fate would figure in discussions of sustainability when they are closed out of the factories and hit the road.

Ashoke Chatterjee put it well, "Progress is really about looking after each other and looking after the planet, which shelters us. ...."

There needs to be acknowledgement of the inverse relationship between indigenous dress and the global fashion industry. The Western fashion industry is a colonial system. It has promoted itself with the aid of politics, education, religion and economics as 'superior' to what has been branded as inferior, backward and often even immoral: indigenous clothing systems. Only when the clothing systems of the world are all recognized as equally valid and treated with respect and as having the right to exist 'on their own terms', is it possible for the Western system to be sustainable; one that does not treat all Others as potential satellites for exploitation.

Maybe most other dress systems were once sustainable and in that sense vastly superior to the Western system of dress.

No bailouts, please, for the fashion industry, until respect for other clothing systems is inscribed in its operations. That will expose some rotten pillars holding up the old normal. And in Indonesia? May the government support systems that will allow Mrs. Sitio's village to thrive. Then she can go home.

Additional Reading:

Bain, Mark, 'Coronavirus threatens the livelihoods of garment workers around the world'. In Quartz. March 20, 2020.

Kumar, Krishna. The Village is still relevant. The Hindu, April 2020.



Thursday, October 31, 2019

Finding (de)coloniality

We are in the midst of the countdown. 4 November will soon be upon us. Erica de Greef has arrived from South Africa and has hit the ground running: meeting people in preparation for the conversations on 4 November and already sharing her research and experiences with the other residents in the Van Eyck.

Yesterday in the Van Eyck restaurant, we had a kind of revolving-door set of serial meetings. Elisa van Joolen became one of our lunch companions and I was thankful because it will be my job to co-ordinate the conversation around her artwork and I wanted to talk with her about it. Her work, entitled 'Portal', was first made and displayed by State of Fashion in Arnhem's 'Searching for the New Luxury' exhibition two summers ago. It has lived on vigorously in various iterations since then, and we are delighted to be able to share it again at the Van Eyck where the artist is now in residence.

The work offers a window onto the complex relationships that people have with their own clothing. Elisa has been able to tailor the artwork to reflect the different kinds of people who participate to produce the work, whether children or senior citizens. Each participant removes a piece of clothing of their choice and draws its outline on a large piece of white paper-like material. He or she then responds to questions about the item, questions related to price, origins and personal affinity to the piece. Pieces with comparable themes are then connected by lines of a particular colour. The result is a colour-coded pictorial display of a group's relationships to their clothing.

Given the theme of 4 November, I wondered out loud whether this 'Portal' could display (de)coloniality? What it reveals specifically is how we, in the West, relate to clothing. Can it reveal how we don't relate to clothing? Can we see absences in this portal? Don't we just find precisely our own mentalities reflected back to us? One of the characteristics of both colonialism and capitalism is the convenient 'forgetting' of Other peoples: ones who are removed from their land by extraction activities; ones whose clothing traditions disappear because they cannot compete in the global economic climate; ones whose producers of exquisite indigenous pieces are deskilled by working stupid, repetitive jobs in factories.  In the words of G.T. Reyes, these people are made invisible. How could such a Portal bring out what is unknown and almost never thought about? Can it be made a theme of comparison and thus earn its own set of colourful connective lines? 

Femke de Vries, thoughtful designer and analyst of clothing and instructor at ArtEZ, was also present at our lunch table. "Decoloniality is also about self-awareness," she pointed out. "It is a process. It is about finding meaning. In this Portal has enormous impact. It encourages people to think about their relationship to clothing." 

I had to think of the evening before, when Erica de Greef presented unusual, artistic fashion films from South Africa. Femke's insights on that occasion also gave pause. "When you sketch the context to these films, it allows me to see them in a new light, " she explained to Erica and the other viewers. "I don't know anything about this South African context. When you provide background explanations, I am thrown back on myself, and I perceive that I must unlearn my 'usual' responses and newly learn according to the new information. This is humbling and it makes me careful. It is another culture and deserves respect." 

I had been re-reading G.T. Reyes that morning, and what Femke de Vries said then also brought his words to mind:
"Coloniality does not only operate systemically; it also functions at the personal level. Engagement in praxis must then also be intimate and mindful, starting with the self. It questions the construction of one’ s entire being: Why am I how I am? Why do I think what I think? Why do I do what I do?
At minimum, such questioning is uncomfortable, but discomfort can be temporary. What is of
importance in this process of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is developing the
tools to be radically mindful in the moment of experiencing discomfort. Radical mindfulness
moves beyond traditional purposes of mindfulness that intend for individuals to become more aware of their inner experience and how they interact with the world around them. Radical
mindfulness particularly assists peoples impacted by coloniality to navigate the compounding and
cumulative ways that systems of oppression impact mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical
health. Actively working through discomfort in critical and humanizing ways opens up  transformative possibilities. Without doing so, people remain unaware or complicit in the colonial
project and therefore reproduce it. Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable requires
visibilizing and critically examining of the underlying sociohistorical reasons that cause the discomfort in the first place."

I looked at Femke and thanked her. "What you have just experienced this evening, while watching Erica de Greef's films, and what you have expressed, is precisely what we hope to achieve on 4 November. This must be one of the most fundamental goals of our event; it has the power to be transformative into the future." 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Lists of Resources for Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster

On November 4, in Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, we explore the important juncture of fashion, climate urgency and decoloniality. Many participants on 4 November have asked for references to help them prepare for the day. Below you will find a few resources available on line for ease of access. This list is by neither definitive nor complete. Striking is that there appear to be no resources (as yet) specifically addressing the juncture that we will be addressing on the 4th. 

Please suggest useful resources and I will add them to the list.

On Decoloniality
Wikipedia provides useful background resources. Use the search terms: 
·       'Decoloniality',  'Decoloniality of power', 'Indigenous decolonization'

The theme of decoloniality comes up increasingly frequently in educational resources:

Reyes, G.T.  2019. 'Pedagogy of and Towards Decoloniality'. In Encyclopedia of Teacher Education.
https://www.academia.edu/39769603/A_Pedagogy_of_and_Towards_Decoloniality

Weems, Lisa.  2016. Decolonial Education at Its Intersections. Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory. Singapore.
https://www.academia.edu/32129406/Decolonial_Education_at_Its_Intersections?email_work_card=title

Works by Anibal Quijano and Walter Mignolo may be considered core readings. Both are prolific and seminal writers:

Quijano, Anibal. Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America.
https://www.ecosia.org/search/?q=quijano-coloniality-of-power.pdf&addon=safari&addonversion=4.1.0.28

Pheng Cheah. 2006. The Limits of Thinking in Decolonial Strategies.
https://www.ecosia.org/search/?q=The+Limits+of+Thinking+in+Decolonial+Strategies+Pheng+Cheah&addon=safari&addonversion=4.1.0.28

Mignolo, W. D., & Walsh, C. E. 2018. On decoloniality: Concept, Analytics, Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press. Duke University Press allows readers to download the introductory segments of the book:
https://www.dukeupress.edu/Assets/PubMaterials/978-0-8223-7109-0_601.pdf

Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vazquez (2013), ‘Decolonial AestheSis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings,’ Social Text Online, retrieved on 21-11-2018 from https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/decolonial-aesthesis-colonial-woundsdecolonial-healings/ 

Some brief additional references related to system change:

Climate Change or System Change
https://www.localfutures.org/wp-content/uploads/Climate-Change-or-System-Change-1.pdf?link_id=5&can_id=69e802ecbe480358a25ce097c3660a5e&source=email-to-fight-climate-change-we-need-system-change&email_referrer=email_623591&email_subject=to-fight-climate-change-we-need-system-change

Carrasco-Miro, Gisela. 2017. EcoSlmies of care: a proposal for decolonizing 'sustainable development'. From the European South 2: 89-108.
https://www.ris.uu.nl/ws/files/38189703/EcoSImies_of_care_a_proposal_for_decolon_Gisela_Carrasco_Miro.pdf

Fletcher, Kate and Tham, Matilda. 2019. Earth Logic: Fashion Action Research Plan


Fashioning Fashion

The RCDF programme on 4 November at the Van Eyck in Maastricht will include, among a variety of other things, the continuous showing of a series of short films. We are not aware of any films that specifically link all three of fashion, coloniality and climate change, only combinations of two. (If any readers have suggestions of films that shed light on the entire triad, we would be very happy to receive them!) The films will hence be something to watch critically and with which to dialogue.

I was inspired to include a short film about indigenous fashion in Bolivia in the RCDF film line-up ("Fashioning respect for Bolivia's indigenous with traditional clothing" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRi6VInW-Zw).  It documents an interesting fashion phenomenon. We all know fashion's predilection to appropriate design ideas from any and every ethnic source while at the same time denying that ethnic dress systems could possibly be considered fashion. This film about indigenous Aymara fashion draws attention to that paradox. It is a film that combines two of our themes: fashion and coloniality. Nevertheless the climate change theme is lurking just below the surface.

After the indigenous Evo Morales became the President of Bolivia, new social and political latitudes were experienced by the indigenous populations.  Tired of being relegated to the position of the Other Without Fashion, indigenous designer Glenda Yanez, made the decision to present the indigenous clothing of the Aymara people as high fashion, displaying it on the catwalk and marketing it as a fashionable 'look'.

This is an interesting experiment with the fashion category and highly ambiguous. It reveals a desire of the indigenous people to stand up and have their own look be recognized. The dress system is something that otherwise would not be found on the catwalk as it is considered 'outside' fashion. Putting it on the catwalk posits the claim that an indigenous clothing fashion can be considered fashion. It refuses to be left out.

Nevertheless, there is an irony here that is endemic to the fashion complex. While the fashionalizing of Aymara clothing is painted as positive by the film's narrator (turning the dress of "second-class citizens" into "high fashion") it could also be argued that the consequences may not be all positive. Even though the clothing design is indigenous, 'standing up and being counted' is framed in the Western fashion idiom and performed according to rules exogenous to the Bolivian indigenous people. Fashionalizing indigenous dress does not just demand recognition for the indigenous clothing, but simultaneously transforms it. 'Fashion' carries complex baggage of hierarchical relations: gendered, generational, racial, labour-related and financial. How has this Bolivian experiment played out? What has been its effect on the people? What are the relations between the designer, Glenda Yanez, the models, and the indigenous people whose clothing was fashionalized? How has the attendant income been distributed? How broadly accepted was the designer's decision to put the clothing on the catwalk? How did the fashion decision influence pride, production, contexts of wearing and sales? "With their new-found spending power, the Cholitas are now importing tailor-made textiles from China," says the narrator of the film as though this was part of the rosy picture. From the looks of it, those textiles appear to be synthetic; they are shipped halfway around the world; and Chinese labour appears to have taken on the work of Aymara women. Lurking links with climate change?

I would like to see a follow-up film, exploring the effects of this experiment in greater depth. In addition to changes in social and individual relations propelled by the fashionalization of the clothing, how do the various partners in this new trend measure success? Is that measure commonly held? 

The decision taken in Bolivia is not historically unique. Indeed, fashion is a strategy that has been chosen over and over and over again to achieve recognition. Usually this involves an adoption of Western clothing styles. Think of Mahatma Gandhi in his early years, wearing British clothes. Colonial powers everywhere altered indigenous clothing to bring colonized people more closely to the fold of 'civilized' (without ever truly admitting them). King Chulalongkorn of Siam chose to 'modernize' his country to escape the fate of being colonized by an external power and, like Gandhi, he was brilliant at adapting his dress on occasions when he needed to present himself as modern (to the Western eye) and sophisticated. There are enough examples of indigenous clothing styles in Africa and Asia being fashionalized for status. Everywhere in the world Those Without Fashion have navigated the definitions and biases of fashion to be recognized as being modern and admirable. This is how the fashion system has 'globalized'.

Given the drastic effect that the Western fashion system has had, and continues to have, on the physical environment, the colonial desire to be acknowledged as fashionable is a contestable good. The West is currently struggling to reduce waste, slow down production and find meaning in clothes, to get out of the fashion rat-race. Should we call it de-fashionalizing? Do we in the West need to take our lessons from the Bolivian dress system -- before it was fashionalized? Has the trend to fashionalization made indigenous Bolivian dress a scarcer and more precious good? Even this picture is complicated by the centuries of change in Aymara clothing as a result of colonial conquest.

The World Needs Thoughtful Critical Voices


It has been a steep learning curve of a new type here at the Jan van Eyck. Coming from an academic background where peer judgement and control are the expected norm, structures are defined, the rules of the game have been deeply inculcated and the logic is linear, the Jan van Eyck enables a novel kind of freedom. You feel it the minute you walk through the door.

It is an institution that facilitates the creative works of artists. Here learning is experimental and experiential; peer contact is about manifold sharing, processes of learning are diverse, thinking is strikingly associative. Judgement, control and linearity are unexciting. Sleeves are rolled up; it is not about 'knowledge creation' per se, but knowledge digestion, self and social discovery in light of

The world needs thoughtful, critical voices and facilitating them is the obligation of civilization .... and the RCDF! That is our challenge as we seek to deliver our programme to reveal the link between fashion, climate and coloniality here at the Jan van Eyck. We are academics and a large portion of our audience is of the creative ilk.  Our programme needs to speak to all.

Unsuspecting at the outset, we have dived in at the deep end and art students have been our guides. We are endlessly grateful to them for introducing us to a different thought world and thereby helping us prepare for 4 November. Our plan was to involve fashion students in the programme. To foster their involvement, Angela Jansen and I were to visit their classes to share some of our learning about fashion and decoloniality (read: top-down, lecture-style). However, we found ourselves in what amounted, for us, to an environment in which we had to learn to facilitate different kinds of learning and processes. Hands-off, not programmatic or formulaic, creating room for 'it' to happen and then standing back, accepting and celebrating 'it' with all of the unexpected, and the differences and the flow -- a far cry from the structures in the classroom with which we were familiar.


Yesterday, Wednesday evening, the Van Eyck had its traditional weekly gathering to listen to an artist in the residence and then sit down to a communal meal made by the residents. By chance, the man who took the empty chair next to me at the long table was the President of the Board of the Jan van Eyck and former President of Maastricht University. A kind and accessible man, we enthusiastically shared our thoughts about the wondrous creation called the Van Eyck Academy. We had obtained our PhDs from the same faculty in Leiden and we shared an outsider's 'academic view'. We both had a kind of awe for the different way of thinking/being/acting that prevails here. His pride in the Academy was almost palpable. In my turn, I felt proud of him for standing up to be a passionate ambassador/protector of the Academy. He was delighted that fashion as an experimental, critical and thoughtful art, has been welcomed into the fold of the Van Eyck. 

The RCDF challenges itself to put on a programme on 4 November that will be meaningful to its communities, that offers space for experiential learning and reflection, for moving ahead to deal with the climate crisis in our respective ways. For the past half century, and due to a certain coloniality of thought built into the capitalist system, arts and social programs have been 'dispensable' during every economic crisis in the Western world. Our current deep, existential crisis requires systemic change and all hands on deck. There is an important role for the Van Eyck Academy. And the RCDF is excited to be part of that exploration.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

What about the People (and their clothing systems)?

Here at the Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht (The Netherlands) all roads are pointing to 4 November when our Research Collective for Decolonizing Fashion will host its day-long event,  Conversations to Redress a Fashion Disaster.

My first task, as a resident of the Academy, is to situate the ideas of the RCDF in the discourse on fashion and sustainability. We need to be clear about the link between decolonization, fashion and climate change. Within the present, dominant discourse, this link is not obvious.  

I looked up frameworks constructed by some prominent organizations to ameliorate fashion problems.  One was provided by the 'Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action' a UN initiative to facilitate the fashion industry meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement. Not surprisingly the emphasis is placed on: 
·      low-carbon solutions and eliminating coal, 
·      reducing climate emissions from operations 
·      more efficient resource use  

Another framework was constructed by Fashion for Good. This initiative was co-founded by William McDonough, famous for having conceived (together with Michael Braungart) the notion of 'cradle-to-cradle', the core concept of the circular economy. He advocates "... an aspirational framework we can all use to work towards a world in which we do not simply take, make, waste, but rather take, make, renew, restore." This framework involves five 'goods':
·      Good Materials - safe, healthy and designed for reuse and recycling
·      Good Economy - growing, circular, shared and benefiting everyone
·      Good Energy - renewable and clean
·      Good Water - clean and available to all
·      Good Lives - living and working conditions that are just, safe and dignified

From these and other action plans, the familiar image of centre and periphery emerges. The centre is 'the fashion industry'; the periphery feeds it by supplying the raw materials and labour during production operations. The goal appears to be business as usual, radical only in encouraging more skilful treatment of material and ethical treatment of labour.

Other activist fashion groups echo the two examples that I have presented here; the discourse appears to have gelled around a focus on materials and energy use and labour ethics. 

Once again, the people and their culture are left out. I was relieved to hear Naomi Klein, in a recent talk about climate, disparaging goals and strategies that were to enable "change without having to change at all", "looking for a fix that is going to leave the status quo pretty much unchanged". 
"Now, as these so-called solutions are advanced .... the people ... seem to disappear .... This chronic forgetfulness about 'inconvenient other people' is the thread that unites so many fateful climate policies of recent years." (12.54) 

Her talk was about climate mitigation technologies but her insight applies to fashion. In the entire history of fashion studies, fashion theorists have rigorously and consistently denied that 'other' people have their own fashion systems. It is logical and consistent, therefore, that in this time of deep crisis, the clothing systems of the labourers producing the Western fashions continue to be denied or forgotten.  Similarly the clothing systems of indigenous peoples whose lands, forests and cultural systems are being destroyed are never mentioned. Why would there be attention, in a time of crisis, for something the existence of which has never been acknowledged by the industry? With sales estimated at $1.34 trillion in 2018, it would not in their bullying, maximizing interest.

Some organizations set up to ameliorate the 'fashion problem' have gone a little further in their focus. Fashion Revolution, for example, acknowledges culture in point 4 of its Manifesto.  
"Fashion respects culture and heritage. It fosters, celebrates and rewards skills and craftsmanship. It recognises creativity as its strongest asset. Fashion never appropriates without giving due credit or steals without permission. Fashion honours the artisan."
While there is mention of culture, heritage and appropriation, the focus is nevertheless still the needs of the Western fashion system. Point 4 fails to go so far as to consider the existence of, let alone support for, alternative clothing/fashion systems.

This is the narcissistic focus that the RCDF is trying to disrupt by shifting the floodlight to the periphery. This morning, I was inspired to write a list of Do's and Don'ts to bring attention to the cracks in the framework of even the most sincere attempts to redress the deleterious effects of 'the fashion system' on the environment.


Do's and Don'ts for 
Greenwashing your Clothing Purchases


Do buy clothing that is made responsibly by workers who receive a fair wage, work no more than 48 hours a week, are not children, have negotiating rights, and are allowed to form a union. 
            Don't enquire further about what has compelled them to take up a factory job -- whether they are migrants, widows, or forced off their land, whether they have small children at home, or are forced to bring them to the factory. Don't even think that they may be, or once were, designers in their own right and have their own clothing system that they would rather be attending to if market forces were less oriented to the centre. Do tow the line and convince yourself that a job in 'the' fashion industry is a boon because 'at least they have an income'. 


Do buy clothing that involves low transportation costs because emissions from transportation, both by sea and air, are contributing alarmingly and increasingly to global warming.
            Don't even think about buying local. The price will be too high. Don't think about local craft systems that are unsupported and disappearing because labour 'is so much cheaper' off-shore.     Don't think about alternative clothing systems that may be disappearing on this planet so that production for 'the Western fashion system' may thrive. 


Do try to purchase clothing with pure and natural fibres as this will reduce the use of fibres made from hydrocarbons and facilitate recycling.
            Don't ask yourself who is growing the cotton/linen/hemp/silk/wool, where it is coming from and how its production fits into and influences their lives. Does it enhance or is it deleterious? In the first place you will have a hard time finding the answers; in the second place, it may take your focus away from "the look" and your humanity might mean that you reject a beautiful item of clothing just because you care about the well-being of other people.
            Don't bother your head about ecosystems that might have been transformed or destroyed to fit into the 'supply chain' of Western fashion.