Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Violence by Definition

Designer and decolonial thinker, Pierre-Antoine Vettorello, together with his team, has made a Zine called 'The Yarn' devoted to decolonial dialogue on violence in the fashion school. I responded to their call with the following piece on the classic definition of fashion. The Zine was launched in December 2023.

Niessen, S. Violence by Definition. The Yarn [Zine] Issue 1. Antwerp, Belgium. 2023

Image by Adrian Vieriu-11625609 Creative Commons
 I have increasing difficulty with the definition of Fashion that has held course for so long: ‘rapid style change’. It is the essential part of a longer definition that was whittled down further every time another component of it proved false.  Finally only ‘style change through time’ remained and it seemed to sufficiently capture the essence of what was needed. In 1904 Georg Simmel wrote, “Fashion does not exist in tribal and classless societies.” This was the caveat, usually unwritten, that undergirded ‘style change through time’. The definition supported a West-Rest dichotomous hierarchy.

I never attended a school of Fashion. I am an anthropologist but ended up teaching in a Department of Clothing and Textiles in Canada where a significant proportion of the students aimed for a career in Fashion. I was writing a book then, one of the earliest non-Western histories of dress (Batak Cloth and Clothing: A dynamic Indonesian Tradition, 1993). The ‘style change through time’ definition was in the textbook that I was teaching from at the same time. Needless to say, I felt rather uncomfortable. Cultural relativity is the central pillar of modern anthropology. I liked to compare dress systems in terms of their respective, unique dynamics. It was confusing to me to be in a field that drew an arbitrary line between West and the Rest. Within a university, no less! I perceived a 19th century bias, with no bother having been spent to scrutinize it and no intent on verifying it. It drove a fundamental wedge between me and my colleagues.


At the turn of the millennium the fashion world was slowly coming to agree that styles in India and Japan also seemed to exhibit ‘change through time’ and could perhaps be accepted into the Fashion fold. That didn’t make me feel much better. I wondered who the gate-keepers were and why these conclusions were being accepted without any self-reflexive analysis of the fence around Fashion’s fold.


‘Style change through time’. Innocent enough: a parade of lovelies. It was the gatekeeping that was exclusionary and unjust. It was the implicit power hierarchy, the dominance.  How and when was the definition applied?  On the face of things easy enough to fix: just acknowledge the universality of style change through time. But no, the definition was the flag on a colonial ship. There was that caveat untried but treated as true: “Fashion does not exist in tribal and classless societies.”  The conceptual violence had consequences.


As the Fashion industry expanded exponentially, we badly needed a conceptual revolution to curb it but instead ‘sustainability’ was being seen through the same materials-only lens that was ground for the definition of Fashion. Again the focus was on the styles: the fibres, and the industrial processes and energy used to make them. And then there was the after-thought: there should be better pay for slave labour. Here wasn’t just the materials-only lens, but the familiar in-built hierarchy. The implicit racism in the definition of fashion had never been fully and thoroughly debunked. How could industrial Fashion ever be sustainable when slave labour enables it and it expands through the exploitation of their traditions? I began to perceive the definition of ‘style change through time’ as both pernicious and insidious. I came to understand it as an invitation to put one’s head in the sand, to willfully close one’s eyes to protect the status quo. A definition so seemingly innocent, so apparently a-political, so focused on the lovely. How could one possibly rebel against bows and ribbons? As innocuous as pablum.


I learned to see the violence as not just against the peoples who had been pushed out of the Fashion boat -- except insofar as they were forced into slavery to make Fashion items for their oppressors and give up their own traditions. I perceived willful negation and erasure of the existence of non-Fashion and their makers and wearers. Racism can be as subtle as it is pervasive. ‘Style change through time’.


I think of my students. Some swallowed the definition of ‘style change through time’ whole, to regurgitate it on exams, and others who had come to Canada to try to make it in the global Fashion arena were quiet. What did the definition cost them? What did it reinforce? What latitude did they have to address the feelings that it called up?


As more time passes I am experiencing the hottest summer in the history of humankind. Global emergency is teaching me to see Fashion violence through a broader lens, violence in which we are all complicit. We struggle to understand why we have arrived at such a terrible zenith of Fashion over-production, over-consumption, use of toxins and build-up of waste. Now the definition ‘style change through time’ reveals the full extent of its capacity to blinker. It fixes attention on a parade of designs while Fashion is really what is happening behind the scenes. Cultures of dress everywhere in the world, including the West, are the victims of industrial Fashion predation. We, the consumers and users, are rendered complicit in the destruction of the biosphere. We have become the extension of our body coverings co-opted by industry and economics. We have become ensnared in the innocence of our own definition, sacrificed by our own game. We have joined all that has been exploited by industrial Fashion.


The scales loosen from our eyes gradually, but a way out of the trap is hard to find. Caught as hamsters in a wheel, we learn to see Fashion as a process in which we victimize and are victimized by complicity. How to stop that wheel?


I propose we start with a new definition: 


Fashion is ecologies of dress and bodily adornment through which we express our relationships with our environments.


It is a universal definition that avoids the dualism of Fashion haves and have-nots, ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’, exploiters and exploited. It offers a level playing field: we are all in this together. It emphasizes process, the materials of fashion being but a visual epiphenomenon. Most of all, it emphasizes connections and interactions in all of their complexity (ecologies). Environments are plural and multi-dimensional. 

May this definition liberate and transform understandings, offer a pluriverse of ways out. 

It turns out that we are the gatekeepers. Let us get up on the bridge and run the colonial ship aground.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Our Common . Market: Some Background

 I presented this text during the webinar, 'Expanding the Frontiers of Commoning,' 16 November 2023, with the Schumacher Center for a New Economics


I would like to tell you about OurCommon.Market, a collection and platform of fashion commons being developed by the activist group, Fashion Act Now, or FAN, headquartered in London, England. 

You are probably already scratching your head. Fashion commons? Now, if you are thinking, “Isn’t Fashion all about showing off, and supporting, hierarchies of status and power?” you would be right. ‘Fashion commons’ appears to be a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron. I hope I will be able to alleviate some of this cognitive dissonance during the next 10 minutes.

At FAN we work on dismantling the Fashion system. But first, a bit about working within FAN. Participating in this activist group I have been excited to experience how a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. What I want to share today is very much the fruit of FAN discussions and working together; it is impossible to pinpoint the boundaries between the thinking of our individual members and that of the whole group. Many of the ideas that I will be sharing are the result of ‘group discussions’; our ideas are constructed and held in common. As we agitate for what we call ‘de-Fashion’ (i.e. degrowth, sustainability and radical fairness in clothing systems) we try very hard to learn and practice what it means to be a knowledge commons. None of us is an expert in commoning. We are learning while doing. 

The place for me to start to explain Our Common Market is with the distinction that underlies all of our thinking in FAN, namely, the difference between what we call big and little-f Fashion. If ‘Fashion Commons’ was an oxymoron for you, that is because you have big-F Fashion in mind. Not surprisingly! Most people only know big-F Fashion because it has been the dominant system of clothing production and consumption on the planet since long before all of us were born. 

Recently people have been raising their voices to decry Fast Fashion as 'Fossil Fuel Fashion' pointing out that this highly damaging form of Fashion is enabled by fossil fuels --not just for production but also for synthetic fibres. We at FAN agree, but we go much further. We point out that ALL of Industrial Fashion is Fossil Fuel Fashion. Since its inception in the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th Century the entire trajectory has been enabled by fossil fuels, starting with coal-powered steam engines. The use of those fossil fuels has increased exponentially and Fast Fashion is only the latest stage in the trajectory.

While fossil fuels have been the true engine of industrial Fashion, Fashion theorists attributed the uniqueness of the clothing system in the West, instead, to a higher stage of cultural evolution, to a more sophisticated civilization, to racial superiority. In short, the sheer power of fossil fuels went straight to our heads and puffed up the ego of the West. The term ‘Fashion’ was co-opted for the clothing of rich sophisticates who could afford rapidly changing styles, while the rest of the world ‘merely’ had clothing rooted in tradition and slow to change. 

So there you have it, the dark side of Fashion lurking behind every catwalk and Fashion magazine: the vertical binary: the Industrial forms versus the non-Industrial forms. That simple. And thus Fashion has been celebrated while all other clothing forms, including peasant, tribal, and foreign, have been erased, ignored, undermined, plundered, and considered unimportant and bound to disappear.

I think you can see where this is going: On the one hand: the unseen, erased, carbon-sequestering, local, small-f fashion expressions  and on the other: the  growth-based, destructive, Industrial Fossil Fueled Fashion that has ballooned out to dominate the clothing scene worldwide, with FAN's interest in 'fashion commons' relating to small-f fashion expressions.

Of course the thinking of most of us has been dominated by Industrial big-F Fashion, informed by: what the shops are filled with, catwalks, fashion magazines, the styles of the rich and famous, and on and on. Small-f fashion doesn’t even appear as a blip on the screen, except maybe when dubbed ‘handicraft’. This blinkered view of big-f Fashion also dominates the framework of sustainability in Fashion, which is entirely oriented to reforming the Industry! We, at FAN, place little hope in the industry becoming ‘sustainable’, because it is growth-based and fossil-fuel based and, by definition, rooted in the unfairness of erasing small-f fashion expressions.

Long, thoughtful, soul-searching discussions amongst FAN members have led us to a fork in the road. Would we choose the Extinction Rebellion kinds of strategies of visible and audible protest against the Fashion industry, or would we choose the path of building and supporting alternatives to big-f Fashion? With the wise counsel of David Bollier in our ears, and the clear-sightedness of Sara Arnold, our co-ordinator, we chose for building and encouraging alternatives: in other words, to showcase small-f fashion. And this makes us unique as activists for a better fashion world. There are many other groups brilliantly critiquing the Fashion Industry. Make no mistake, the Fashion industry MUST BE dismantled for the well being of people and planet. But here’s the thing: when Big-F Fashion comes down, little-f fashion has to be there. Ready. Resilient. Regenerative. Small and Beautiful; Free, Fair and Alive.

Hence: OurCommon.Market, the interactive platform that we are building to connect, encourage and support small-f fashion expressions. This includes a whole array of community groups that repair, share and repurpose their clothes, farm to fashion initiatives like Fibershed (now in many countries, not just the States where it started), The Linen Project in The Netherlands, groups reviving or maintaining their clothing heritage, such as communities in the Ukraine that have produced and decorated clothing from homegrown flax and wool for generations, and so on and so on. Zoe Gilbertson, one of our FAN members, is researching bio-regional bast fibre knowledge, and is plugged into its revival in the UK. Another member, Ariel Fabbro, has constructed the website, Cobbled Goods, to profile sustainable shoes made with respect for nature.

We have constructed ground rules -- we call them the ‘Common Code’ -- for participation in Ourcommon.Market so that the communities that we on-board are not big-f Fashion wannabees waiting for their chance to ‘scale up’, but function, rather, as commons, in which the common good and fairness, not profit and growth, are central. 

We hope to offer a forum that will eventually generate a significant groundswell. Will Our Common Market result in some kind of solidarity? Will the communities learn from each other and support each other? Can we collectively become a commons of commons, or a kind of what David Bollier called "a vibrant Republic of Commoners"? That’s what we hope and aim for. 

Our path will be made by walking on it. We have to trust to the group dynamics that will take place. We know that many challenges lie ahead. They will need to be solved iteratively, within and through our communities, through trial and error, and through deep discussion: differences of language and culture; differences of vision and strategy, will need to be bridged.

Inside and outside Europe there are countless groups struggling to keep their clothing traditions alive. We want to serve, not just as an alternative to big-f Fashion, but also as an antidote, by providing a space where small-f fashion communities can find each other, support each other, shine, feel pride, revive and flourish. In short, to re-emerge from two hundred years of erasure. 

The loss of these systems is not something to shrug off, and feel that they are doomed by modernity. It is absolutely crucial that they be supported:

1.    First, they provide alternative understandings of how fashion can operate for the good of communities -- and this is desperately being sought now by Fashion reformists in the Northern nations.

2.    Second, they are part of the process of becoming sustainable in the North. The process of being sacrificed by the continual expansion of big-f Fashion needs to be reversed. Small-f fashion needs to be granted the space to survive.

3.    Third, we hear so much about the loss of natural diversity and the 6th Great Extinction. But cultural survival is a problem equally profound. That is also part of the polycrisis. Wade Davis made a prediction 15 years ago that, 

“Within a generation or two … we may be witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy.” 

My time is up, but suffice it to say that I have found profound, even mind-blowing, meaning invested in indigenous Indonesian clothing systems maintained by indigenous cultural commons. Indigenous systems of dress, not just their appearance, but also how they are made and used, are imbued with what Schumacher referred to as ‘psychological structures’ and, in turn, are profoundly linked to cultural survival. I’d like to end, now, with a quote by Schumacher.

“The life, work, and happiness of all societies depend on certain 'psychological structures' which are infinitely precious and highly vulnerable. Social cohesion, co-operation, mutual respect and above all self-respect, courage in the face of adversity, and the ability to bear hardship - all this and much else disintegrates and disappears when these 'psychological structures' are gravely damaged. A  [person] is destroyed by the inner conviction of uselessness. No amount of economic growth can compensate for such losses.”

Sunday, November 12, 2023

The ATBM Disaster is apparently about to strike Silalahi

 I remember the first time I saw Batak weavers at work in North Sumatra. The year was 1978. I was mesmerized watching the weft being threaded between the warp. I was privy to an act of creation; it felt like magic to see a cloth slowly come into existence from the skillful manipulation of a few yarns and sticks. 


It took me many years, decades even, to understand what I was seeing: the most efficient system of production that can be imagined. Batak weavers make ulos, ritual cloth of their culture. What they make may be understood as a kind of meeting point  of so many facets of their lives. It all comes together in a satisfying, sophisticated, unique, visual and material way in their ulos.

  • While weaving the weavers are also looking after their household chores. They are teaching their daughters how to weave, and how to fit weaving into their daily lives. Between throws of weft, they cooking, clean, and look after the children. 
  • They work in the dry season when they are free from duties in the fields. Weaving fits an annual schedule.
  • Because they use local materials, they have to learn about trees and plants and their properties. They know which ones can serve as weaving equipment, yarns and dyes. Their bond with nature is profound and reciprocal. 
  • The physical environment inspires almost all of the patterning that Batak weavers have invented. 
  • The weavers weave together; they help each other through weaverly challenges by sharing ideas, skills, materials, insights, and successes, deepening their kinship and neighbourly bonds as they work. They share laughter and tears, stories and inspiration. 
  • They also share and grow the specific language related to their technical skills and their unique equipment. 
  • Their fruits of their looms were once indispensable for every aspect of their lives: for warmth and comfort, to announce social station and cultural identity, and social and ritual roles. 
  • Imbued with spiritual powers, the cloths, and the way they were made, involved the maker, and later the wearer, in the spiritual complex that permeates every part of their lives. 
Totality was inscribed in every ulos: a woman’s personal, social, cultural and spiritual life, her heritage, her know-how and her skill. Ulos production was cultural reproduction of the most essential and efficient kind. The strategies of production honoured all of the elements in all of the weaver’s various environments. The cloths embodied respect, knowledge, caring and heritage. 


The world of pre-colonial Batak weavers exemplifies how commons work. ‘Commons’ are shared resources managed ‘in common’ by people. I learned to see the woven cloth as a kind of confluence of commons: overlapping and intersecting cultural commons. And I see reciprocity as a primary feature of cultural commons. Those who dip into it and take from it are the ones who also build, grow and store it. For example, the language used by Batak weavers is an knowledge commons; collectively they use it and at the same time build and maintain it through use. Weaving techniques and design are commons in which know-how, knowledge and memory are held and shared, used and added to. The physical environment that is used and maintained by the weavers is another and the ritual sphere yet another relative to which the weavings give and derive meaning. All of these commons are represented and inextricably woven together in a Batak ulos, a kind of total expression of Batak social, intellectual and spiritual life.  


In 1978 I was also witnessing weaving commons being eroded by enclosures. Enclosures are external forces that appropriate what is held in common, taking it out of the hands of the rightful stewards. The history of Batak weaving, since the Industrial Revolution and colonialism, may be framed as a succession of enclosures by outside forces. It is a familiar story the world over. 


For the Batak enclosures began with imported yarns and dyes in the 19th Century. Weavers took both happily because the mechanized imports reduced their workloads. Nevertheless, that ease came at a greater cost than the money they paid for it. The imports generated relations of dependence on the market and also reduced the weavers’ reciprocal ties with the physical world: the trees, plants, insects, earth and water involved in making the yarns and dyes. Within a few generations the knowledge of making yarn and dyes was lost because this kind of knowledge is stewarded during hands-on doing. The imported yarns and dyes were just the beginning of the take-over by external markets. Cheap Western-style clothing eventually supplanted the traditional handloomed Batak clothing. Inevitably, many weavers retired their looms. The inroads that the external markets were making were also expressed in faster transportation networks. Heeding the dictates of the new markets, the weavers had to develop regional specializations to compete. Divisions of labour emerged. Weavers had to specialize in their knowledge of design and technique. In short, the market was forcing them to de-skill. It was no longer their village communities and local markets that were shaping their craft. Rather, distant market forces began to dictate what weavers wove. Government and industry brought in semi-mechanical looms with the rationale that these so-called ‘modern’ looms would allow weavers to produce faster and ostensibly earn more. The market focus was shifting weaving  away from cultural reproduction and towards speed of production and financial earnings. Working at the new looms was another part of the process of de-skilling and the loss of women’s space in their culture. Unused, the specialized vocabulary related to the ancient Batak technical heritage was not needed in the new looms. The entire conceptual system surrounding the making of a cloth shifted. The weavers no longer needed their special medium of communication that supported the unicity of their craft. The uniqueness of their craft was also giving way to standardized production. The new looms pulled them out of their homes and into hierarchical workshop settings where they occupied the lowest rungs as wage-earning labourers doing mindless, repetitive work according to the dictates of those higher up the ladder. Fashion ‘designers’ also had a role to play in this demotion of the social position of the weavers. Appropriating Batak designs to adapt them to fashion, the designers employed the weavers as mere labour. And as if that were not enough, do-gooders are now moving in with computer-generated designs. Once again, the rationale is that the new designs will ‘aid’ the weavers. At one time the unique Batak designs emerged from the village weaver commons. No one weaver was a designer, but the weavers collectively created unique designs by sharing and trying out ideas together. The unique Batak designs are expressions of a cultural commons. Today there is almost nothing left of that crucible. The weavers’ strongest ties are now with the market, and earning money has eclipsed the cultural facets of weaving almost entirely. All culturally unique facets of Batak weaving have slipped like sand through the fingers and been supplanted with the external market economy. The weavers themselves frequently complain that, while they know how to weave, they do not know how to weave their own traditions.


This is a familiar story. All of the time-saving and labour-saving strategies introduced have been a kind of net pulling the weavers into capitalist spheres of production. The art that once expressed the local environment now expresses  dependence on fossil fuels (for yarns, dyes, loom parts, marketing and new technologies). The confluence and congregation of commons symbolized by ancient Batak cloths no longer exists in the modern cloths. They now exemplify  how modernity can enclose indigenous commons. The work of weavers is no longer that dense and efficient reproduction of their culture.  It has been flattened and simplified into running after money, an aim propelled by joblessness and the need for cash.


Every Batak region, large and small, once had its own weaver commons: unique designs, unique features of loom and technique, unique kinship and political characteristics, rituals, beliefs and language. The variety of features made the Batak region around Lake Toba dynamic and interesting. But they have been almost entirely eroded by the broad brushstrokes of modernity that reduce it to one indistinct whole dominated by the quest for money and standardized looms.


Remnants of the rich, ancient tradition are left. In Silalahi, a bay at the Northern end of Lake Toba, and a village culturally allied with the neighbouring villages of Paropo and Tongging, weaving is distinctive with unusual techniques and ulos designs that appear to be unique in the world. While the erosive process of enclosures has been at work in this region, some of the ancient technical features of ulos are still intact. This has largely to do with the fact that the traditional looms used in this region have not (yet) been replaced by upright, semi-mechanical looms.  This is very special. The weavers of Silalahi need to be cherished, protected and encouraged. There are not many left, and most of them are elderly. 


I visited Silalahi again earlier this year (2023), I wanted to take a closer look at how the weavers use three heddle sticks in a single set of heddles. It is terribly complex technique, and terribly difficult to do -- so much more difficult than the mindless weaving that occurs on the upright semi-mechanical looms. The technique has never been documented or recorded. I had the great honour to be able to sit beside the loom of one of the very best weavers, a woman devoted to the Silalahi tradition, Sinta br. Sagala, Ny. Sidabariba, Op. Dita. Her son, Marvin Sidabariba, is equally devoted to maintaining his cultural heritage. Without many means and resources besides his heart, dedication and knowledge, he does all that he can to encourage the weavers in his village.


Recently Marvin told me that there is a government plan to bring semi-mechanical looms into Silalahi. A plan to be mourned. It fills me with deep sadness. It will mean the end of the unusual weaving techniques and resultant ulos designs, which make the Silalahi tradition unique in the world. Once again the looms are being introduced with the best of intentions: 'to increase weaver income’. But they will erode and gradually eliminate the remainder of what is unique in the Silalahi weaving tradition, which is still found in technique and design. Is there nobody in the government who understands how special the ancient knowledge and traditions are, and who can encourage these traditional elements? Why are the Silalahi weavers being pushed to work within a foreign weaving tradition? (The looms are of Western origin.) The weavers themselves are naïve and have few concerns about the impact of these foreign looms. They know how difficult and complex their techniques are, and they are correct in thinking that these techniques cannot be performed on simple, semi-mechanical looms. What they do not know, however, is that the owners of those semi-mechanical looms have no intention of replicating the unique techniques of Silalahi. In fact, they have neither knowledge nor concern about what is unique and ancient. They only want to make the designs easily and cheaply for sale and use them in fashion. Their looms will churn out cheaper products. The buyers, who also know nothing about the unique Silalahi tradition, will make their purchases based on cloth appearance and price. This has already happened throughout the Batak region. All in the seductive name of modernity.


And so something unique and beautiful in the world will slip away, unnoticed except by the handful of elderly weavers who are left and knowledgeable idealists like Marvin Sidabariba. The message to these weavers will be that the world does not care about their skill and art. 


I stand with Marvin.



Tuesday, September 19, 2023



Friends, do you see de-Fashion as reduction

frustration, disappointment, no satisfaction

‘tightening a belt’ that already feels too tight?

For a feel good future, it just doesn’t seem right.


I beg of you to change your lens

to see beyond enticing brands

to the industry failing to meet your demands

hurting us all, then turning a blind eye

seducing, brainwashing, only to deny

hiding behind a succession of styles

contributing to waste for miles ….and miles

sacrificing us all when we buy in

to seasons, sales and ‘professional’ design

to hate our bodies, lose touch with our community

with our sheep and our flax and our creative capacity

offered freely by nature; erased with impunity.


The top of the curve is our lowest point.


Humanity flattened by the consumer role,

dress of the other eroded, to say naught of our soul.

The awful potential of the exponential.

For a fistful of money, dominance and control

civilizations implode and climates boil

trapped by debt millions sweat and toil.

Industrial Fashion: you are toxic

to all that walks swims flies and thinks.

Carbon sinks are of no avail

if your coloniality will prevail.

Fashion mirror in our dress

reflecting sadly who we have come to be

though kindliness is what we want to see:

regeneration, reparation, sustainability

a healthy world, not our current distress.


The top of the curve is our lowest point.


Dear friends, we are gathered here to de-Fashion

education and the entire system, to reweave

healing in our clothes, community in every stitch

repairing the tears of sacrifice, mending, re-using

microfibres of hope in our heart relearning

the art of universal fashion: to refuse exploitation


When we fail to give the other room we prepare our own doom.

Here, dear friends, in Berlin

we embrace all as family

and only thus reclaim our humanity.


The top of the curve is our lowest point

whence we embark on de-Fashion.

Let us here, now, be the point of inflection

marking the start of the Great Resuscitation.

(recited at the De-Fashioning Education Conference, Berlin 15 September)

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Fashion: Be Careful What You Celebrate! Status and Othering in Fossil Fuels and Fashion (with an appended 'Table of Industrial Fashion Myths')

 At the end of this short blog I present a ‘Table of Industrial Fashion Myths’, a work-in-progress. I preface it here briefly with some preliminary thoughts about possible links between these myths and fossil fuels. (Also published on the Fashion Act Now website: https://www.fashionactnow.org/post/fashion-be-careful-what-you-celebrate-status-and-othering-in-fossil-fuels-and-fashion)


For decades I have looked at coloniality, othering, and the hubris of the West/Northern Nations, as a ‘wrong turn’ in philosophical terms. If the error of our ways could only be demonstrated, has been my thinking, then all could be set aright! Hence the adoption of strategies of jumping into the pen, teaching, appealing to the innate goodness in people, their ratio. Nothing can change the world like ideas.


Recently, however, the idea of ‘energy-blindness’ as explained by Nate Hagens (see his podcasts on Youtube) has altered my own thinking on the topic. It is obvious that fossil fuels enable industry, including the Fashion industry, nothing new there. What is new, that Hagens has sparked in my thinking, is the significance of the fact that Western Industrial fashion is a function of the discovery and use of Fossil Fuels. I don't mean this in a deterministic sense, but clearly  the course of Western fashion history has been shaped to some extent  by the use of fossil fuels, and is inextricably intertwined with access to fossil fuels. In that case, Western fashion history needs to be examined through the lens of fossil fuel enablement. This insight may have ramifications so profound as to require a re-write of Fashion history; in the traditional focus on design history, the significance of roles and types of fuel in Fashion have been underexposed if not completely ignored. 


Key to this insight is that for more than a century, the distinction of ‘rapid style change’ has been attributed to Western superiority, not fossil fuels. Furthermore, when ‘rapid style change’ was regarded as definitive for Fashion, by deduction Fashion had to be exclusively Western. The Eureka moment here is the possibility that not only Western Fashion, but also the Western Fashion ego, is indirectly a product of fossil fuel access. This ego appears to have undergone a kind of collective rush when exposed to the exceptional power of fossil fuels and I propose that this rush was expressed in delusions of superiority and mythologies of othering. Indeed, a wrong conceptual turn, but there was a hydrocarbon foundation underlying it. While acknowledging that this proposition still needs to be researched and verified, I would still like to go one step further by pointing out that the Fashion ego appears to be part of a larger fossil fuel thought  complex.


During this crisis era of global heating, researchers and writers are scrambling to come to grips  with society’s addiction to fossil fuels. Andreas Malm’s historical research has revealed that steam power (from coal combustion) out-competed water power in the early decades of the 19th Century because coal could be privately owned and stored where and when it suited the needs of the owner (industrialist). Water power could only be generated in proximity to flowing water and access to it demanded negotiations with others having access to that same source, as well as reliance on the right weather conditions. In short, according to Malm, steam power offered greater latitude to exploit labour (Leather 2017), and thus the stage was set. It did not take long before fossil fuels were requisite to compete successfully in industry and deploy the labour coming into the city. In addition, fossil fuel offered more independent autonomy to industrialists and thus became the lifeblood of high social status -- which it has remained until this day. (I write just as the decision of a single individual, Elon Musk, to thwart a Ukrainian drone attack on the Krim has come to light, illustrating my use of the word ‘autonomy’ in regard to high social station, i.e. isolation from social controls.)


The characterization of Fashion’s uniqueness relative to all other fashion forms in the world is strikingly parallel. It was a vertical binary setting off, but also separating, the West from the Rest. Those ‘with’ fashion placed themselves on a pedestal, a status position, that also isolated them from the Rest.  


Kendra (2021) has reviewed white supremacy in the oil industry as evident in labour relations, racial segregation and racial violence, and concluded that it “is so much the norm that it is easier to point to the exception." Malm’s research went on (in White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism 2021) to document the link between fossil fuels and the defense of white privilege, Donald Trump being a good example of a supremacist who did all in his power to remove limits to fossil fuel discovery and use. In their review of the government of climate change, Diego Andreucci and Christos Zografos (2021) noted that othering is a technical tool used by the government of climate change in strategies of ‘mitigation’ (extraction of minerals for alternative energy systems), ‘climate migration’, and ‘vulnerability’ (a filter through which to assign where social ‘improvements’ are needed). All of these strategies extend capitalist relations of racism and colonialism. They discerned that “othering helps to preserve existing relations of racial, patriarchal and class domination in the face of climate-induced social upheavals”, concluding that “[O]thering is not only a feature of fossil fuelled development, but a way of functioning of capitalist governmentality more broadly…” 


Notably, the accepted sustainability discourse in Fashion has stubbornly failed to address the issue of othering embedded in the existence of sacrifice zones, labour exploitation and industrial growth.


I am not aware of fashion having been brought into discussions about relations of race and coloniality in the fossil fuel industry, but there appear to be reasons for doing so, given that Fashion is arguably the most potent tool to facilitate and normalize othering. Fashion has its origin and raison d’être in the intent and practice of othering (Niessen 2003). It not only makes othering possible and palatable by normalizing it, but exalts it by showcasing it in association with mythologies of superiority and the goodness of consumption. Fashion’s continual physical expansion works hand in glove with fossil fuel expansion. There appears to be a relationship of complementarity between the two. While fossil fuels have clearly played a powerful role in industrial Fashion history, Fashion appears to have played a complementary role in the social history of fossil fuel relations and consumption. In the needed re-write of Fashion history attention must be paid not only to what Fashion is, but what it does. Furthermore, in the task of ‘getting Fashion off fossil fuels’ it becomes clear that entirely new fashion thought systems will need to be constructed. Taking the plastic out of our clothing and switching to other power sources will not be sufficient to change what Fashion does in the manner of fossil fuel Fashion.


I cite Andreucci’s and Zografos’s conclusion that “[A]ny genuinely radical, comprehensive and meaningful response to the climate crisis must attack the root causes of the ongoing, uneven and combined socioecological catastrophe” (2022) in the event that in the job of unpacking and exposing the partnership of fossil fuels and Fashion any additional encouragement is required.


A comprehensive account of how the political and historical links between Fashion and fossil fuels have been expressed in Fashion mythologies and othering is significantly beyond the scope of this exploratory blog. A graduate student may want to take on this important work! The ‘Table of Industrial Fashion Myths’ below is a draft list of the ways in which hubris has functioned in Fashion. It has long been averred that fashion is the handmaiden of capitalism, but its enmeshment in perpetuating the fossil fuel economy not yet. Readers are invited to comment on and contribute to this foray. 


Table of Industrial Fashion Myths


Centrisms of Superiority 


of othering and superiority

Fashion Mythologies

of othering and superiority









Fashion depicts individual superiority


Fashion depicts individuality



white supremacy








linear time




cultural erasure


belief in Western technology 


cultural sacrifice zones are condoned


Fashion is a zenith of cultural ‘evolution’ 


Fashion depicts social/cultural relevance


Fashion is rapid change of styles


“A least it gives them jobs” (re: Fashion labour)


Indigenous designs and techniques are freely available for use by industrial fashion


 Industrial Fashion can perpetuate the clothing systems/technologies/designs of the other


‘globalization of Fashion’


‘universal dress’


confidence that technology will solve the sustainability problem


‘we’ are dependent on the Fashion industry for beautiful clothing


human exceptionalism


ecological sacrifice is condoned



human ingenuity will solve all problems


most conceptions of ‘sustainability’ 





Selected References


Diego Andreucci, Christos Zografos, Between improvement and sacrifice: Othering and the (bio)political ecology of climate change, Political Geography, Volume 92, 2022, 102512,

ISSN 0962-6298, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2021.102512.


Hagens, Nate. The Great Simplification. Podcast series on Youtube. Ongoing since 2022.


Kendra, Pierre-Louis. Understanding the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Legacy of White SupremacyWho What WhyApril 2021. 



Leather, Amy. “Why capitalism is addicted to fossil fuels”. International Socialism: A quarterly review of socialist theory. Nr. 153. 2017



Malm, Andreas. White Skin, Black Fuel : On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. Verso. 202

Malm, Andreas. Fossil Capital: the Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. Verso. 2016.


Niessen, Sandra “Afterword:  Reorienting Fashion Theory”  In Niessen, S.A., A. Leshkowich, and C. Jones (eds.)  Re-orienting Fashion:  The Globalization of Asian Dress.  Oxford:  Berg Publishers.  pp. 243-266. 2003.


Thursday, May 11, 2023

Time Made Time Spent

 (for Harna and Lasma)


Home again after a long journey, I multitask. There are the things that need to be picked up from 5 months ago, and there is the residue from the journey. It doesn’t take long before everything criss-crosses into the chaotic jumble that is my current now. I iron a blouse while doing a wash, breaking off to examine the provisions in the kitchen and write a quick message to a friend; I note that it is time to put away my winter clothes; then I remember to pay a bill… In the meantime, I daydream about Ompu si Sihol, my weaving teacher in 1980. I recall her sitting on her haunches, stick in hand, guarding her piglet so that it can eat without interruption. This was part of her daily routine. Her day was always calm and clear. I remember admiring her amazing work habits: methodical, orderly, deliberate, calm. I did not expect such excellent time management in a poor Batak village but I am embarrassed now to admit it because Batak weavings should have taught me that they were made with careful discipline. When Ompu si Sihol wove, her work was methodical, orderly, deliberate, calm. I break off my rushed criss-crossed chaos to sit down and write.


Ompu si Sihol didn’t multitask. She set herself a goal and she worked on it until it was done. Never rushed. The goal that she set for herself was manageable and filled her day; she did it expertly, not fast and not slow. Step by step. She kept in mind the preparations for the next day in the process. Time was in her hands. Time was the process of weaving her cloth: winding the warp today, setting up the loom tomorrow…  Occasionally a neighbour would come by to chew the fat while Ompu si Sihol continued her work, methodically and unwavering. Only feeding her pig and taking a bath in the stream when the sun was high, would pull her away, but those interludes, too, were part of her day’s rhythm. I often think of that when I am multitasking, in a rush to meet deadlines, forgetting the pot on the stove. And I admire Ompu si Sihol all over again. But having recently learned more about the technical side of Batak weaving, I know that there was so much more to Ompu si Sihol’s way of working.


I recognized that deliberate, clear orderliness that I learned from Ompu si Sihol when, more than 30 years later, I observed Ompu Elza, br. Sinaga, weave her bulang. I saw that the steps in the process of making a hiou (the name for a cloth in her culture) structured her days. The parts of her cloth framed the steps in weaving it. The facilitating techniques were her medium, and in her hands that medium also synchronized with the cloth’s design.


I recall how she reacted viscerally, even after 15 years, when she remembered what it was like to try to meet the demands of the sagging market, to try to earn a few cents. It turned her into a slave because she needed every cent she could get to try to meet the needs of her family. She worked non-stop, pressured to weave ever faster. She hated every second of that demoralizing bondage. Ompu Elza likes to work with utmost care, checking, double checking, establishing her best self in her cloth.


During my years in the Batak area of North Sumatra, I have rarely observed that methodical manner of working but I assume that it was once the norm. Today, most weavers work quickly. Speed of execution is their priority. They cut corners, take liberties to meet market strictures, even taking pride in their capacity to zip through a cloth. Speed and flexibility is where they see their expertise: “I just try to make money,“ they say. “I weave whatever the market asks. Do I like weaving?” My question puzzles them. “I am just trying to earn some money, that’s all.” And they sandwich the weaving between other demands on their time. What gets half done now will be worked on again later. Late nights if necessary. A double weft fills a cloth faster than a single weft. Dispense with ikat in this erstwhile ikat tradition and shift to supplementary weft because it is faster; there are fewer steps involved. Don’t bother to repair a broken warp yarn like Ompu Sihol did fastidiously; no point repairing errors. ‘Seolaholah’ (‘quick and dirty’) is good enough. Weaving in this way has everything to do with the rhythm of the market. The market discourages rigour and quality. Consumers don’t know quality anymore anyway, so it is a waste of time. The market teaches weavers that their work has no value. Their products are disposable tokens. Only speed has value because only money has value. 


These speed-weavers work in a ‘modern’ time frame. They probably have neither knowledge nor recollection of the cloth frame that Ompu si Sihol lived within. How could they? The income of weavers has been drastically low for generations and they have had to adapt to maximize their earnings. Even those painful economic circumstances declined further as the (semi-) mechanical loom gained in popularity. Such a loom weaves cloth faster and drives prices down. Backstrap loom weavers now have to compete with (semi-)mechanical speed for even just a tiny corner of the market. If these women had an alternative, they would not be weaving at all; they would prefer something less demoralizing. They have not had the luxury to think about time nor the perfection of their skills, nor their creative capacities and the capacities built into their ancient weaving tradition.


I think back on my anthropological training and my fascination with temporal frameworks. I learned that the circular Batak warp represents never-ending cyclical time, the cycle of all life.  I saw the warp In my mind’s eye as a circle mapped onto a concept, like a letter in the alphabet representing a sound. I imagined the fully woven but uncut cloth being circulated in the hands to depict the perpetuity of life, something the Batak apparently used to do. 


Ompu Elza weaving a Bulang
But there is that other dimension already mentioned above; that  Ompu Elza wove to a rhythm consistent with the structure of her cloth-in-the-making, allowing the design and techniques of her cloth to structure her days: one day to weave half of the red part, the next day for the other half, pausing for lunch only when a segment had been completed and so on…. Cloth design was simultaneously weaving time.  In her loom she made time while she spent time. Time was not just an abstract ‘out there’. It was experiential; it was her guide and the framework of her self-discipline. It shaped her days. When Ompu Elza wove her bulang, she lived the process -- and I think that was the case with Ompu si Sihol as well. Ompu Elza’s longing to work in synchrony with her cloth, supported by the sufficiency of pay that I gave her for her work, provided her with the room that she needed to be able to co-exist with her cloth.


This is the room that weavers, who are plugged desperately into the market for their daily needs, all the while competing with semi-mechanical looms, do not have.


A Batak weaver inherits her repertory from the ancestors, all the way back to the first ancestor who came down from the upper world. She must accurately recapitulate the weaverly steps first performed by her ancestors to make a cloth fit to be named (na margoar) and thereby eligible for social ritual, to enable the wearer to come in contact with the spirit world, to entreat that world to be benign. The temporal process of weaving is a sacred trust just as the design of the cloth. And so each generation of weavers is also like a cycle of uncut cloth rotated in the hands; each with the onus to pass on her divinely inherited skills to a successor, the next link in the chain. 


Let weaving time take its rightful place in acknowledged lifecycles of the Batak: the cycles of the sun and moon, the winds and rains, the rice, the links of which the patrilineage is made, the birth, maturity and death of all creatures. The exclusive purview of women, weaving time is women’s time when she is free from enslavement to the market and has the space to embody the process of creating time.

The weaverly ways of Ompu si Sihol and Ompu Elza open what feels like a magical  window onto a conceptual world that has faded into the past. When I set out on my first fieldwork expedition in 1979, I wanted to find remnants of the pre-colonial Batak conceptual system. I remember pondering the elusive matter of conceptual change. We live ineluctably within our conceptual frameworks; is it even possible to recall or re-experience a conceptual system after it has transformed? Are we not mono-conceptual? We cannot live in two conceptual frameworks at one time, or flip-flop between them. Are there any words or ways to describe or elicit another one? Watching Ompu si Sihol and Ompu Elza weave, I feel that I am privy to something rare and precious, something to be treasured like a final drop of healing medicine. Theirs is a conceptual invention outside modernity, outside capitalism. In the West this is what we seek as a way out of the damaging way we go about having clothing. Theirs is an alternative to the globalized fashion system, which is none other than a driver of production, consumption and waste. Yet this precious alternative is slipping away before our eyes -- unrecognized, un-treasured, unnoticed -- as elderly weavers die and others concede defeat and lay down their looms a very last time.