Thursday, October 24, 2019

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"  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.

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