Sunday, May 16, 2021

More Webinars

 Here are two additional webinars that I have given on the topic of sacrifice zones, related  to my article, "Fashion, its Sacrifice Zone and Sustainability"


Decolonizing Fast-Fashion: A Living Wage and Good Working Conditions for Women of the Global South


Sponsoring Organization: Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the UN

24 March

You’ll find my contribution here:  0:52:53 – 1:08:00


Extinction Rebellion: Fashion Act Now 

Fashion and Degrowth – Exploring the link between decolonisation and sustainability, May 11

You can find more about Fashion Act Now on their informative web page

Sunday, April 18, 2021

More on the Sacrifice Zones of Fashion

 On 3 April 2021 I had honour of being invited to answer a question about sacrifice zones of fashion in a ‘Conversations’ webinar series hosted in 2021 by the Research Collective for Decolonising Fashion. The event was built around my publication, 'Fashion, its Sacrifice Zone, and Sustainability' published in Fashion Theory Vol 24, no. 6. 

The below is a recording of the event and a transcript of my answer. 


Passcode: @s&e4ud@ 


Hello, good day, and thank you, Erica and Angela, for this amazing opportunity to speak with colleagues all around the world. I feel very honoured to have my work included in this important series for re-visioning fashion through a decolonial lens. 

Thank you for your insightful question, Erica. 

·      A year and a half ago, we were all still thinking within the customary framework of fashion sustainability: materials used, energy used, and labour used and we hadn’t yet expanded that framework to include social justice. Your question asks me to dig down deep into myself to understand how this article emerged. For me it is not just a question of saying ‘this, this and this have been sacrificed’ -- although I could do that. But I think that it is important to also talk about the process. It wasn’t just writing up simple empirical observation. Empirical observation occurs within a conceptual framework and that is why I think it is necessary to talk, today, about the process of discovery of what is being sacrificed. 

·      I invite everybody to think with me. I know that my process is unique but it is also common. We are learning together; we are exploring how decolonial theory works for us; we are all practitioners trying to build a better world together. We need a diversity of voices and not a dogma. For me right now, contributing to the construction of a more sustainable world is front and centre in my thinking.

  • Why writing this article, and articulating the sacrifice zones, was so challenging for me, had to do with what decolonial theorists call ‘erasure’. In a nutshell, I was attempting to go into conceptual territory that is usually erased from our thinking. Erasure is a conceptual trick that we play on ourselves to allow a status quo to persist. Conceptual blinkers, entrenched habits of thought, vested interest in a standard conceptual framework: it is hard to break free of all of that.
  •   Professor Rolando Vazquez has pointed to ‘remembering’ as an antidote to ‘erasure’. When we have pushed something out of our minds, ‘remembering’ is a radical act, a facilitator of change. It dredges up other ways of thinking and being, other processes and systems, other epistemologies. 

Indigeneity. My article was, in a sense, a proclamation of the value of the indigenous. In our previous meetings, we have talked about modernity incorporating a kind of temporality that demands forgetting. It places the past into a category of irrelevance. The past lies behind us, unable to be recovered.  Modernity asks us to think of the indigenous as bound to disappear because it is a holdover from the past. The engine of unilinear time is assumed to be inevitable and unstoppable. By recognizing the importance of the indigenous, my article is challenging the amnesia that is built into modernity. It is especially radical in the context of fashion, because fashion is all about depicting modernity. Can our concept of fashion survive the recognition of the indigenous? I personally do not see how. In my article, I even go a step further and say that sustainability will depend, in part, on learning fromindigenous systems of sustainable clothing. Of course, this is heresy in the customary framework of fashion, and it felt daring and risky to write it, especially for the leading Journal, Fashion Theory.

 Two Normals - I sensed, while I was writing the piece, that I was connecting dots that are usually not connected. I felt a familiar sort of schizophrenia when I was writing: there is the usual way of perceiving the world, that is familiar in my day-to-day life here in the Global North, familiar, too, through accepted Fashion theory, and then there was my perception that resulted from my experience in Indonesia, that I didn’t really have a language framework to describe, nor even much hope that people here in the Global North will understand. The ‘normalcy’ of here in The Netherlands is so different from the ‘normalcy’ there. For a long time I have felt that the two are like two halves of a whole, and for me to understand the world, I have to go back and forth, and try to come to terms with these two different normals. They are contrasting but complementary realities. I am sure that what I am sensing is the upshot of that economic fact that our wealth in the Global North has much to do with exploitation of the Global South, something that we in the Global North are seldom aware of, except maybe theoretically. When I am in Indonesia, I experience how it plays out in day-to-day life for the people, in their thoughts and feelings, challenges and life choices and perceptions of the world that are prevalent there. I live there in an exceedingly poor village.

·      Economic Apartheid – In the google drive, I provided a link to a podcast interview with Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist, who talked about what he called ‘economic apartheid’ in the world. The amnesia of modernity is related to keeping the fact of this apartheid hidden. That is the boundary that decolonial theorists know as the colonial difference.  In previous writings I have referred to dualism in fashion: that fashion carves out an us and them, those with and those without fashion. In my article I was trying to pull this boundary into view.  

·      Showing what is being sacrificed, is showing what is being conceptually erased.  At the time of writing, it felt like an appeal to my readership to please recognize this boundary because it causes so much pain and waste at a thousand levels. I proposed that fashion cannot be sustainable unless there is fairness. Sustainability cannot co-exist with destruction.  

·      And let’s face it: the two halves are both engaged in the same struggle for sustainability on this planet! In this, we are ONE! Not two sides of a complementary whole! That binary pertains only to the current global economic system.

So that was a lengthy backdrop. Now on to the question: What is being Sacrificed?

Sacrifice Zone –I want to begin by looking at the expression ‘sacrifice zone’. 

Wikipedia tells us that the term Sacrifice Zone was coined to refer to ‘regions’ of the world that may be dispensed with – initially it was a reference to regions that would undergo permanent destruction due to atomic fallout or chemical poisoning. Permissible destruction in the interests of industry, economy and power. 

o   The concept and phenomenon of ‘Sacrifice Zone’ should give everybody pause. The term makes thinkable and even normalizes what is utterly scandalous. That somebody, or some group, has the ego and assumes the power to eradicate and destroy a part of life on earth for the sake of short-term financial gain in their own interest? Think about it. This is preposterous. Totally unconscionable. Absolutely ridiculous when you think about it. Incredible in the literal sense of the word. I would argue that this concept of ‘sacrifice zone’ is an expression of the kind of conceptual erasures that decolonial theorists discuss.  

o   What are the erasures in Sacrifice Zones? By focusing exclusively on waste ‘regions’, the term ‘sacrifice zone’ leaves out 1) the biological diversity in that region, 2) the people living there, and 3) their culture(s). All are conceptually erased and fully negated to the extent that they are totally expendable. Off the screen.  I think of the Cree people who once lived on the Alberta tar sands, the most famous sacrifice zone on earth. When they resisted the total annihilation of their land, air, water, their source of food, their history, their culture, the Canadian government deemed their resistance illegal. And still does. Even in this time of climate emergency. 

  • This is the conceptual erasure of people and culture in a sacrifice zone. It is ‘collateral damage’, to use another war term, ignored and deemed irrelevant compared to the ‘greater good’ of profits and power. 

 How does Fashion intersect with Sacrifice Zones? Almost all of our food, houses, cars, energy, mobile phones and computers, you name it, are currently produced by benefiting from sacrifice zones. Rolando Vazquez refers to the challenge of living an ethical life. Purchasing a simple chocolate bar for our own pleasure, brings harm to somebody someplace else. 

 A. Fast Fashion benefits from Sacrifice Zones:

1.     Materials: They are produced in sacrifice zones. 

·      Industrial agriculture, e.g. production of cotton through agri-business – think of how the cotton plantations in the USA made use of slave labour and expelled indigenous populations from the land; how cotton production in India expanded during the colonial era, destroying the local economy. Note that in the ‘customary framework’ of fashion sustainability, there is mention of the amount of water, the pesticides and herbicides  used to produce cotton, etc. but nothing about the implication for peoples and cultures who once inhabited the land, or are brought in to do the work. Conceptual erasure.

·      production of synthetic fibres made of fossil fuels – 7 billion barrels now needed to produce synthetic fibres – with enormous expansion planned for the future. 

2. Labour: The Fast Fashion industry makes use of ‘displaced peoples’ for cheap labour.

  •  In 2014, there were 60 million people working in the garment industry, most of them women in the Global South. I don’t know what percentage constitutes ‘displaced persons’, but it can only be extremely high. We need to ask, what has gone on in their lives that they are they willing to submit themselves to the slavery of garment manufacturing? 
  • The ranks of displaced peoples is swelling rapidly: climate change, war, sacrifice zones, land degradation in general. All of these are pushing people off their lands and the ranks of jobless in cities are swelling. See the global report on internal displacement.
  • The customary framework for examining ‘fashion labour’ focuses on wages and working conditions.  But there is a much larger systemic whole that needs to come into view. I  argue that restricting the focus to pay and working conditions, is also a form of conceptual erasure.  
  • And the fast fashion industry is no benefactor, generously giving workers an income, which is how we often like to see it. In fact, it is taking advantage of the destruction of the local and of indigenous lives to produce cheap clothes.

B. Fast fashion is thus complicit in the use, expansion and condoning of sacrifice zones, and this is part and parcel of systemic capitalist exploitation. It benefits hugely from sacrifice zones, and their conceptual erasure.

  • The campaign by Fashion Revolution, “Who Made My Clothes tries, in good faith, to give a face to garment workers, but it falls vastly short of really telling anything about garment workers because the campaign is operating within the system of conceptual erasures characteristic of consumers in the Global North and our current thinking about fast fashion. ‘Garment workers’ are narrowed down to  elements in an economic system, stripped of their other human features. 

Last, but not least, 

C.  Fast Fashion Industry creates sacrifice zones. This has been fully overlooked, until now, by fashion sustainability activists and theorists.

I am hereby making the argument that the concept of ‘sacrifice zones’ is perceived far too narrowly. Furthermore, the sustainability framework has to broaden to include not just biodiversity but also humans and cultural diversity. The conceptual erasures within the sustainability framework, are related to the erasures built into customary fashion theory.

 I don’t have time to get into all of the mechanics of how fast fashion results in the destruction of culture.  But very briefly, throughout my anthropological fieldwork in Indonesia, I have witnessed the decline of indigenous cultures and their clothing systems. When young women leave their villages to go to work in factories, they leave behind their family, language, way of life, culture, rituals, customs, and clothing traditions. When you perceive the complexity of the making of clothing in their own culture, e.g.  weaving work, it quickly becomes clear that age-old, extremely sophisticated, culturally embedded skills are being lost to do mind-numbing, unfulfilling work. As individuals, as ‘garment workers’, they become de-skilledTheir cultural talents and skills are wasted. They are preyed upon in factory settings by male bosses and management in general; poor pay and working conditions are symptomatic of that. Their humanity is being dispensed with; they are being wasted and destroyed. I would argue that these labourers are also a sacrifice zone.

 Their cultures are also being drained.  The loss of ethnic diversity is a global crisis as well, but it is not receiving the attention that the environmental crisis receives. This is  another facet of conceptual erasure. Cultural loss includes the disappearance of:

  • epistemologies, ways of thinking and understanding the world 
  • including indigenous and local clothing systems including designs, techniques, styles – intangible cultural heritage. 
  • Including local knowledge about the physical environment
  • It involves the destruction of identity and simultaneously erodes social and political stability. The loss of culture creates social time bombs.
  • Think of the calls by cultural activists, that languages and cultures are disappearing. 

Wikipedia tells us that of the 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, it is predicted that 90% will be extinct in the next 30 years. 

The process of that kind of death is what I have been witnessing in my own little corner in Indonesia. And Fast fashion is complicit in this. Until now fashion theorists have failed to connect those dots. That, I argue, is conceptual erasure. 

Fashion is like the forest industry. We chop down forests to make toothpicks and toilet paper, destroying them to make money. So we end up with lots of money and increasingly little of value.

With fast fashion we make articles of clothing with no value, and in the process we destroy traditions and cultures in the world, including clothing traditions. 

We have erased this awareness, conceptually, in the Global North. And the Fashion system functions in such a way that the owners of the cultures being destroyed eventually believe that their culture has no value. Because it is not valued by ‘modern’ society. And so they flee or disregard their own culture as if it was inferior. But this is another huge discussion, so I will stop here.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

The Light emitted by Urban Medley

 We are all searching for a better future for our planet and we know it is in our hands. There are activists chopping at the chair legs of big corporations. There are idealists striking out on their own. There are inventors trying out new ideas. They include logistical experts, scientists, school teachers, even some politicians. There are many of dots of light in the universe and I believe that when they finally coalesce a flood of light will shine onto a better path. 

One brave innovator is Shayonti Chatterji. She is making her contribution through her business acumen. She reached out to me because she thought there was synchronicity in our respective visions with respect to fashion and indigenous peoples. I have looked up her advertising on LinkedIn and her heartfelt messages promoting Urban Medley, “a curated platform for sustainable fashion”, which she initiated and founded. 


Urban Medley creates products specially for you, so that you can make sustainable fashion a part of your urban life. You stand out and give back. 
It is about sharing a style statement which proudly reflects tradition intercepted with modernity. It’s colorful, boundless, energetic and involves a lot of experimentation. Not bound by age, gender, race, colour and not even size, we choose accessories as our main focus point. We give you the opportunity to create your own style.


This is the face she shows to her consumers on her selling platform. Behind the storefront is her interface with the makers of her beautiful scarves and wraps back home in India. Her path is not an easy one to create or walk. She has a foot in two worlds and she is straddling the great divide as fairly as she can, using her entrepreneurship and her personal experience of both worlds. She has placed her limited resources in service of her ideals, so deep is her commitment. She is doing it for the makers, for the planet and for the future. And it will succeed if buyers are thoughtful, committed and enchanted – so she is educating them, too.


I’m feeling a bit emotional from the sincerity and integrity shown by Shayonti Chatterji; it is rather moving. It is so easy to become jaded when you hear someone on the TV express a desire for government not to become sidetracked by ‘green measures’ and you know what a hard, steep climb we have ahead of us before we achieve a regenerative economy. While writing this blog I have decided to purchase some gifts from Urban Medley’s on-line shop for friends and family. There is no better way to support my own ideals. Her initiative represents an important step on the path to achieving a world that sustains cultural and biological diversity.


Nevertheless, even Shayonti Chatterji’s best practices* cannot (yet) be sustainable to the extent of being regenerative. They constitute a buffer against the erosive power of big capital and big business in indigenous communities. They do keep artisans in their villages instead of being forced to throw their fate into the melee of big cities. They do foster pride and health. They do ensure that indigenous technical prowess, language, culture, heritage and connection with the land will continue. And where her best practices still can’t mitigate all the harm built into doing business (e.g. Chatterji has no recourse but to use current available modes of transport to get the products to the external market) she compensates for CO2 emissions by contributing to the development of an Indian forest


One day we will go knocking at her door to learn about her best practices: what worked and what did not? What is the next step? That proverbial path can only be made by walking on it, and few are brave enough to take that first step. Shayonti Chatterji is courageous and sincere. I wish her and Urban Medley every success. When those brave lights in the universe coalesce, hers will be among them and we will be grateful because they show us the way.

 Postscript 10 April

I have just received my order in the mail and I am blown away by the high quality of these gorgeous items. They are 'keepers for a lifetime'. Highly recommended. Exquisite to own and to give as gifts. 

* Shayonti Chatterji’s strategies:

1.     Work with designers who work with artisans so that they can obtain the income needed to have healthy families and live in dignity.

2.     Work with organic materials, including silk and cotton, using minimum water and no pesticides.

3.     Work ethically: fair pay, decent working conditions, support for artisans

4.     Remember that packaging also has to be earth friendly

5.     Offset CO2 emissions from transportation by contributing to Tree Nation.




Tuesday, April 06, 2021

A Double Gestation!

 Lasma br. Sitanggang, Ny. Damanik, Mak Sandi, has been busy with a great transition in her life. She has married and now she has two children. It has been a busy time for her and so she needed to place the matter of weaving on the back burner while she turned her attention to her role in her culture. Her son Sandi was born within a year after her marriage, so the changes that she went through were significant. 

About a year ago I learned that she was pregnant with a second son. And shortly afterwards, out of the blue, she sent me video clips of herself weaving a bulang. I just about fell off my chair! I hadn’t known that she had once again turned her focus to weaving! Being a perfectionist, she had been shy to divulge the news.


So she was having a double gestation! She was very anxious to get the cloth done first because she knew that after the birth there would be little time for weaving. It was slow going because her belly was swelling and because she was doing it entirely herself, although with her Mother’s expert guidance. “It is about counting and counting and counting,” she told me laughing. She had known that the bulang was complex numerically, but hadn’t realized quite the full extent of how extremely and meticulously arithmetic it was. “If you don’t get the count during warping right,” she said, “nothing after that works properly.” Each stage of weaving determines the success of the next stage, because each part of the cloth builds on the previous part. She is like her mother in being very careful and attentive to detail. I believe it shows in the cloth. I remember her father telling me that not everybody can weave a bulang. You have to have focus and precision and determination and patience. 


After the birth of her second son, I didn’t know whether to dare to ask her whether she had finished her bulang, but finally I did so with great trepidation. I knew that it would be hard on her if she hadn’t met her goal, and also how difficult it would be at a later stage for her to pick up where she had left off. To my surprise, pleasure and great relief, she didn’t hesitate for a moment and immediately sent me this video of her finished oeuvre. I was so proud of her the tears rolled down my cheeks.


Mak Sandi is critical of her work. I see skill and focus, while she sees every tiny error. Nevertheless, she is also ambitious. She wants to weave another and make it even better. What a steadfast and determined young woman. Congratulations, Mak Sandi. This is a major accomplishment. I think about how proud her late father would have been. He passed away during the gestation period and didn’t get to see either finished product. He had been the one to encourage his wife and his daughters to weave so that they would be proud keepers of their culture. 

Friday, March 05, 2021

Denier: A conversation with Sandra Niessen

Shonagh Marshall contacted me recently to ask me to do an interview with her. A New York based curator and writer for books and fashion publications, she was once, and for many years, the curator at Somerset House in London. She has also taught the history and theory of fashion photography and is currently honing her focus to fashion sustainability, already well into her second year of interviews with people to explore the topic and boost the conversation -- and the movement. She posts her interviews, contextualized and transcribed, on her web page, which she calls "Denier, A series of conversations about fashion's relationship to people, the planet and profit". I am honoured that my ideas have become the focus of her most recent conversation, posted yesterday (4 March 2020), entitled, simply, Denier: A conversation with Sandra Niessen.   

Today she had more news for me: "Our conversation will be included in the Fashion Act Now -- which I am a part of -- booth at Conscious Fashion Campaign Discover the SDGs Now event." Note that 'Fashion Act Now' is an exciting development to push sustainability in fashion:

"We want to drive a transformation of fashion from an industry and culture that  exploits our planet's resources, to one that regenerates the natural world and supports the wellbeing of all people.​"

And the 'Conscious Fashion Campaign Discover the SDGs Now' event is a superb context for that 'Fashion Act Now' initiative from Extinction Rebellion. 

"The Conscious Fashion Campaign, in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Partnerships, creates high-visibility fashion event partnerships to accelerate global industry engagement to advance the Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The campaign educates and mobilizes the fashion sector to action solutions for social, economic, and environmental change."

I am excited by Shonagh's energy and initiatives. The need for change is urgent. We can only accomplish it together. I am thrilled by the 'relay' that seems to be taking place, starting with my article for Fashion Theory, and subsequently my talk on the topic for State of Fashion. May this relay continue apace and have effect! 

In the back of my mind, always, is the weavers in Indonesia and their families who are suffering so terribly from poverty and a market that discriminates against them. I had to recognize the demoralizing limits of my capacity, as an anthropologist, to make the kind of significant change in North Sumatra that would assist them structurally. Their plight, and that of indigenous textile makers around the world, taught me that this can only happen at a global level. For them and for the well being of the planet as we know it and have learned to love it, we continue our struggle for a decolonial fashion that recognizes ethics and diversity. 

End the sacrifice zones!

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

“Do you feel you are the right one to tell their story?”

During the Whataboutery in which I participated with State of Fashion, two related questions were submitted that queried and indirectly contested my stance and activities as an anthropologist. I openly state my admiration for indigenous textiles that I have studied and my dismay at what I perceive to be the replacement of them with something far inferior. This occurs usually, if not always, due to the pinch of poverty and the need to earn money in combination with the desire to be considered admirable and not ‘left behind’ by the times. I had time to ponder these questions, and the following was my response. It is far from complete because the challenge to the role and field of anthropology goes much deeper, but it is a start.



to right fashion’s wrong


Thank you for these questions [to paraphrase them: about my presumably self-assumed role as a mouthpiece for the other]. They reside close to the very heart of the Whataboutery. There are so many possible levels on which to respond, from my activities and ethics as an anthropologist, to the role of anthropology in a decolonial world. However, I would like to respond in a way that clarifies further my ambitions in participating in the Whataboutery. The questions broach the issues of self-determination and self-representation, which were central to the Whataboutery. 


What I hoped to do with the Long Read [Niessen 2020b) was to expose the obscured relationship between the system of industrial fashion and the clothing systems of people who have been positioned as being ‘without fashion’. The considerable ramifications of this conceptual distinction have bolstered the sense of superiority of those ‘with fashion’ and intervened in an overwhelming way with the cultures and clothing systems of those ‘without’. Moreover, the distinction has restricted the latitude of self-determination and self-representation on both sides of the dichotomy. By drawing attention to the impacts of the colonial definition of fashion I have tried to facilitate awareness and thereby the ambition to foster greater latitude for fairness between North and South through the medium of fashion. For me, the ultimate goal is to eliminate fashion’s sacrifice zones, a large, lofty and challenging goal that will take much discussion and hard work. I hope that the Whataboutery represents a beginning of that work.


It is worth reflecting on why ‘we’ in the North, and especially fashion scholars, have for so long been blind to the ramifications of our ethnocentric definition of fashion. This has extended to not even questioning nor testing the validity of this category called ‘fashion’. We have assumed its existence a priori. This realization drives home how subtle, deep and pernicious Eurocentrism and white supremacy can be, and how it can be inherited unseen and unquestioned. Not only has the category of fashion gone largely unquestioned (collectively, historically, from one generation to the next, and even within the hallowed halls of academe) but we have assumed, accepted, expected, and insisted upon its position of superiority above all other systems of clothing in the world. This is how, as makers and consumers of industrial fashion, we have become blind to our own complicity in the decline and destruction of the clothing systems (and cultural values) of other peoples. Their position was simply determined by those within the fashion realm, as falling outside that realm. This constituted a profound removal of agency and avenues of self-determination, not just on the side of non-fashion, but seemingly ironically also on the side of fashion. 


This point brings us to the question asking me if it isn’t ‘up to communities to decide if they want to “buy in” to the Western system’, given that culture is a living, changing thing that cannot be “preserved in a jar or a museum”. Given how hard it has been to scrape the scales from our own eyes (the ‘we’ being the ones positioned as ‘having fashion’), it should be possible to perceive how  the lives of ‘other’ people might similarly be guided by inherited frames of thought. I have learned that the inflated ego on the fashion-side of the dichotomy has its complement on the non-fashion side. Throughout my 40 years of visiting Indonesia to explore the indigenous weaving arts of the Batak people, I have become increasingly aware of this. Since the onset of the colonial era, church, state, education, media, and the global economy have all served to inculcate in the people the colonial perception of themselves as being ‘without’ fashion.  They see themselves as having, therefore, an inferior culture, an inferior clothing system, of being uncivilised and needing to be developed and modernised. It was at this juncture that I asked, during the discussion, “What [given this insight] is the role of the anthropologist here?” At issue was not my right to tell people what to do and to represent them paternalistically. No, it was about this larger complementary conceptual system and the need to acknowledge ownership of it, to deal ethically with how we are complicit in perpetuating that damaging system. 


In my research into weaving techniques, textile meaning, and clothing change through time, this has never been a focus of my anthropological research. And yet, my years of going back and forth to Indonesia have impressed upon me the indomitable magnitude of the machinery of modernity. We have all seen cartoons of a forest being fed into the mouth of a grinder that spews out toilet paper at the other end, a metaphor for how our economy and lifestyles transform something of eternal value into an ephemeral commodity. I perceive that there is an analogy to be drawn here with the workings of industrial fashion. My Long Read was an attempt to point out that industrial fashion has become a system transforming vibrant, meaningful, locally sustainable indigenous fashion systems into disposable fashion devoid of meaning. My goal was to make the unseen and obscured connection between the two dots of industrial fashion and indigenous clothing systems visible. I called attention to how the conceptual system within which we live and operate has shaped what we see and do not see. It has focused our lenses ethnocentrically on the fashion side, to the exclusion of the non-fashion side, and left out what is going on between the two. Ultimately, though, my point is that on both sides of the fashion divide, most of us are blind to the overarching conceptual system and its destructiveness.


I own up to wanting to expand the latitude of self-determination on both sides of the divide.  I wrote the Long Read as an activist who is deeply engaged in doing what I can to facilitate the changes needed for a future not-as-usual, but one that can engender sustainability and well-being. I chose, as an activist, to participate in the admirable and influential State of Fashion because of this desire to facilitate change. This was also my motivation for writing the Long Read. This is my recourse as an anthropologist. I am under no illusions about how little power I have to influence choices taken by villagers regardless of how I go about it. What is indomitably at operation, influencing choices is, among other things, the more than trillion-dollar engine of fashion and its way of operating throughout the world, influencing political, economic, cultural and lifestyle choices. My power to make real change in a village is less than that of a flea to guide an elephant. The significant ethical issue for this Whataboutery is not how I conduct my fieldwork, but the cultural and social ramifications of the industrial fashion system. In the workings of this system, you are as complicit as I. And the role, then, of an anthropologist? My writings and the Whataboutery are my answer to that question.  Whether here or in Indonesia, I approach the issue of fashion and clothing systems in the same way: by discussing the implications of the  dichotomised picture of fashion. That is my recourse. I can’t accomplish anything alone. What will transpire we will have done together.


As to the question that was posed about how I try to facilitate agency, I hope that it is becoming clear that, for me, facilitating agency was my ultimate goal for the Whataboutery. The Whataboutery presented a much coveted opportunity for me to share my insight that radical change will involve a revision of the conceptual yoke that has shaped the operations of industrial fashion and polarised the world of dress. Anything less than this kind of radical revision will entail ‘playing the game’ within the terms set by the current fashion system. In the end -- even if the violence is somewhat ameliorated --'playing the game' will only serve to reinforce and expand the reach of industrial fashion and its conceptual baggage. This will, in turn, most likely engender further dependence on that system. The same goes for making sustainable and even regenerative fashion. If these efforts take only the biophysical world and ecological footprint into account they will ultimately fail to be sustainable. The many layers of fashion’s violence towards people and their cultures must also be addressed and redressed, and this will require both sides of the fashion divide coming to grips with the bigger picture. A very tall order. 


Just as the rejection of industrial fashion in the North has implications for garment workers in the South, I perceive that discussions on the two sides of fashion’s apparent polarity are complementary and mutually referential. Both continue to be informed by fashion’s colonial definition. I have proposed that respectful sharing of perspectives and intentions can lay an important foundation for a decolonial future. It makes sense that any steps towards the future will involve both sides.


I hope that this answers the question about whether I perceive myself as ‘the right person to tell their story’. I am not aware of having either the ambition or the capacity to tell ‘their story’ – a story which, it should be said, will not be singular when we choose to hear it. This Whataboutery offered me a stage to tell my story. I shared insights emerging from my experience of both the fashion and the non-fashion worlds. I felt the need  to share my insight into the deep injustices and violence of the fashion dichotomy, to point to the destruction that it has caused for those putatively without fashion. I look forward to working on the possibility for the ‘fashion’ side to register that destruction and facilitate repair, to allow diversity to flourish once again. This is another way to say that I am grateful for the questions posed as they have given me this new opportunity to explain my position, which is, I hope more clear this time. 




Holthaus, Eric. 2020.  "The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming," Harper Collins.


Meyer, Aditi, 2020. ‘intervention 02: origins - an introduction’



Niessen, Sandra. 2020a. Fashion, its Sacrifice Zone, and Sustainability, Fashion Theory, 24:6,859-877, DOI: 10.1080/1362704X.2020.1800984


Niessen, Sandra, 2020b. ‘Regenerative Fashion, there can be no other.’ Longread, State of Fashion Whataboutery # 2.


Niessen, Sandra, 2020c. ‘State of Fashion Whataboutery Series, ‘This is an Intervention’ 01’


Niessen, Sandra, 2020d. ‘State of Fashion Whataboutery Series, “This is an Intervention”’


Whataboutery #1 2020 REWATCH


About State of Fashion


Vazquez, Rolando, 2020. Vistas of Modernity – decolonial aesthesis and the end of the contemporary. Mondriaan Fund Essay 014. Amsterdam: Mondriaan Fund. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Participation in State of Fashion: Redress!

This has been very exciting. Last Wednesday evening, 28 October, my recent publication on Fashion was the focus of a 'Whataboutery' organized by State of Fashion in The Netherlands . Here is that writing in English and in Dutch. There is free access to it on their website.

The writing is critical but also constructive. I point out that fashion is damaging to indigenous clothing traditions and the reason is rooted in the colonial understanding of fashion, viz. the West has it and the Rest does not. This explains why non-Western dress systems have simply been erased from the fashion map -- except to appropriate designs and exploit indigenous makers.

The article was informed by my last ten years trying to encourage the Batak weaving tradition. Those years taught me why my goal was so difficult -- if possible at all -- to achieve. I had hoped to make a difference in North Sumatra, but I am now wondering whether having been featured in the State of Fashion may have accomplished more than all my struggles in the field. Time will tell.

No matter, it has been an exciting time and I am grateful for the professional and expert guidance from State of Fashion staff and the thoughtful participation of my fellow speakers on the evening itself: Rolando Vazquez, a leading decolonial thinker; Clare Farrell from Extinction Rebellion; and Monica Moisin of Cultural Intellectual Property & Fashion Law.

In my article, I urge fashion to 'redress'. This goal was inspired by the insights of LEAP in Canada (allied with the efforts of Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis) and their emphasis on 'repair'. I was also inspired by 'regenerative agriculture' and  're-wilding'. In all of these the emphasis is on cleaning up our mess. With the concept of 'redress' in fashion, I would like fashion not just to reduce its ecological footprint, but repair the damage to ecology and cultural systems that it has wrought especially during the last half century. 

We played a clip from MJA Nashir's film to open the evening because it set the scene so well. It illustrates what is dying out. The weaver in this clip, Op Fino, died earlier this month. She was the last weaver in her village. Nashir emphasized the sound of her yarn winder so that it could function as a warning siren. Yet another tradition is dying out. Remedies will have to come quickly and be effective.