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. https://www.stateoffashion.org/en/intervention/intervention-1-introspection/long-read-titel/


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.