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.