Thursday, September 23, 2021

My career in a nutshell: an autobiographical piece focusing on the myths of fashion


5-minute Presentation to

a Seminar on Justice and Design

University of Southern Denmark

23 September 2021

with Dr. Kat Sark


To review my career, I will focus on the theme of fashion’s myths

1.      The experience of ‘bumping into myths’ is something that I think we all share. Going to university we gain knowledge that changes our thinking. That is why we go to university. 

·      One of the most powerful moments during my undergrad in anthropology occurred when we were taught the definition of ‘ethnocentrism’ and learned that knowledge, and what seems self-evident and logical, may not be consistent with the facts. Culture is defined by what is passed down generation after generation. Myths are guardians of the status quo. Confrontation with the idea that the truths that I grew up with could, in fact, be myths was hard – but also exciting. Barriers in my thinking crumbled and I saw options for new directions.

·      I believe that we are living in a time when we must explode myths if we are to construct a sustainable future. We cannot continue with the status quo; there must be radical cultural change to bring us within the carrying capacity of our planet.

·      In retrospect, exploding myths has been a prime motivation for all of my publications on fashion. 

2.     As an anthropologist I do fieldwork among the Batak people of North Sumatra in Indonesia. Immersion in another culture has taught me to see my own culture through new eyes.

3.     I learned that colonialism split the world in two. From a substratum of diverse cultures, we collectively became:

·      Either the colonizer or the colonized; 

·      Either the Global North or the Global South; 

·      Either the developed or the primitive/uncivilized/un(der)developed/developing – all pejoratives used at different times

We are all either Us or Them. 

During fieldwork I, from the Global North, came in close contact with ‘them’, in the Global South and even started, to a certain extent, to identify with ‘them’. I learned that we had much in common but that history had forced us into positions of difference, even opposition.

·      I also learned, gradually, that the “Us – Them” dichotomy was operating powerfully in fashion studies. For example, it was once standard fare in fashion studies that style change through time was what distinguished fashion from other forms of clothing expression.  

·      In my N. Sumatran village, I had a EUREKA moment when I saw a creative weaver search for design inspiration from foreign textiles that she found on the markekt, and then invent new designs. Hey! Here was style change through time in an indigenous weaving tradition! Change was even a hallmark of that tradition! We had style change through time in common in our respective clothing traditions!

     In this way I learned that fashion studies have not always been objective; and the understanding of non-fashion has been based on biased preconceptions and not research. 

·      In 1993 I published Batak Cloth and Clothing, A Dynamic Indonesian Tradition, a history of dress of the Batak peoples. Through this book, I was saying that dress history is not exclusive to the West. Fashion History should be histories of dress: plural and diverse, one for each culture of the world.

·      In ‘Reorienting Fashion Theory’ my 2004 publication, I explored the pervasiveness of the us vs. them binary in fashion and fashion studies. Why would we want to perpetuate this myth of difference? Why is it so stubborn? I perceived that it has much to do with power and bolstering the sense of Western superiority.

                                           i.     Note how the designation ‘fashion’ implies that there is non-fashion, but at the same time conceptually ‘erases’ the relevance of the clothing systems of other peoples. This supports our sense of Western superiority – we ‘erase’ the evidence to the contrary. Think about that; it is a pernicious form of racism.

·      Racism in the fashion system goes much, much, much deeper than whether or not people with dark skin are represented in board rooms and on runways. It is bound up in the very definition of fashion. The essential divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is the fundamental myth on which all other myths are built. 

·      In my most recent publication: ‘Regenerative Fashion: There can be no Other’ I revisited the mythical dichotomy of West vs non-West in fashion because I perceived that this colonial-era dualism is even informing how we approach ‘sustainability’. We have been accepting the status quo, looking at material issues, and leaving out the matter of social justice, which, to my mind, should be absolutely central

·      I am so pleased that this seminar is highlighting this theme of social justice in design and offer my compliments to the instructors! 

·      It boils down to this:  

Where there is respect for other living beings, we will tread gently on the earth.

It is very simple, really: where we dehumanize and exploit, we will harm other beings and the planet. Hence I believe that respect is key. That means relinquishing dualistic thinking and learning to communicate across the reified divide.


My message to students today: It may be confusing and disorienting to bump up against societal and conceptual myths, but it is crucial to recognize them and to move forward on new understandings. 

4.     Hence my question inviting you to share the kinds of fashion myths or social myths that you have run up against. I believe that the uncomfortable discovery of these myths is an engine of both change and empowerment: 

·      The anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, once pointed out that “…no civilization has in it any element which in the last analysis is not the contribution of an individual.” Society – and the fashion industry -- run on the momentum of beliefs and norms. During the course of your study and life experience, have you ever been confronted with a conceptual ‘myth’ being perpetuated by the fashion industry? What is a good reaction to that discovery? In the end, we are not ‘trained employees’ and cogs in economic and social wheels; collectively we are the wheel, an insight that is empowering because it gives licence. 

 5.  That is why I am now a member of Fashion Act Now, and have chosen to become an activist at this stage in my career.





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