how can fashion be decolonised?
Fashion is peppered with colonial remnants and narratives. How can its history and current culture be rethought?
Photography Sebastian Kim. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
On the 22nd of September, San Francisco’s de Young Museum of Fine Art will unveil its latest large-scale fashion exhibition, Contemporary Muslim Fashions. From turbans to burqas, from the Nike Hijab to an Oscar de la Renta caftan special collection, it maps out diasporic and local religious wear. In doing so it also treads a thin line, tapping into the current growth of the modest wear market, as well as the west’s enduring fascination with Arabic cultures.
Max Hollein, the museum’s director, says that “there are those who believe that there is no fashion at all among Muslim women, but the opposite is true, with modern, vibrant and extraordinary fashion scenes, particularly in many Muslim-majority countries.” And while he may be right, Muslim fashion still suffers from much discrimination and dangerous assumptions in many countries in the west. In France and Belgium the veil is not allowed in public. Numerous other countries have partial bans in place.
Regardless of Max and the museum’s intentions, we have to ask if this an honourable attempt at much needed diversification of fashion narratives, or another example of the west mistakenly imposing its own narrative on the “Other”?
In his seminal text Orientalism Edward Saïd describes Europe and North America’s obsession with the east as fundamentally imperialist: “From the beginning of western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work… we will give you your history, we will write it for you, we will re-order the past.”
His work is one of the bases for post-colonial theory today. It critically looks at science, history and art to understand how colonisation has imposed its power by dictating its own norms and values around subjective notions -- heroism, gender interaction. How can this framework be applied to fashion, preconceptions of chic, beauty, provocation, escapism that dominate the industry to this day?
"From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself." Edward Saïd
Historically, the eestern fashion industry descends from a European, aristocratic culture and its heteronormative, dominant views of social progress. Consequently, it followed evolutions such as sexual liberation and modernity from a very white, Christian point of view. Its citations of other continents were often a process of exotification and fetishisation rather than fluid, horizontal multiculturalism. “Fashion has always provided a commentary on the rest of the world -- or how it was fantasised, as most designers hadn’t been to the countries referenced,” says Alice Litscher, a professor at Paris’ Institut Français de la Mode. “Fashion is a political tool to set a norm, suggesting that the west elevates, civilises, ennobles and enhances the rest of the world -- the continuation and justification of a long colonial mentality.”
As early at the 17th century we started seeing visions of faraway countries as trends in fashion: les Chinoiseries in the royal European courts popularised anything vaguely “Asian”. The same can be said of Turquerie and Indiennerie – visual elements and stylisations imported from the Ottoman Empire and India. Today, one look at fashion history reveals a long tradition of ill-fitting, approximate citations and appropriations that say more about how the west wanted to see itself than about the cultures they were appropriated from. Jeanne Lanvin’s kimonos; Elsa Schiaparelli’s fascination for “the exotic body” and of course Paul Poiret’s harem pants and turbans. Often these new shapes introduced new ‘fashionable’ norms. “Harem pants were a subtle way of bringing trousers into women’s wardrobes, kimonos an excuse to question the corset” Alice Litscher says, “but these often failed to take the people cited into account.”
"In more general terms, fashion – both right now, and by reevaluating its history – needs to be rethought and deconstructed. We need to decolonise the fashion imagination."
This continued throughout the 20th century. Yves Saint Laurent’s frequent trips to Morocco led him to design Sahariennes, loose, pocketed, sand-coloured outfits imagined for trips in the Sahara; John Galliano recreated Geisha makeup on models, and Jean Paul Gaultier presented an African Collection in 2005 that Vogue described at the time as “having more to do with rumba than Rwanda”. The examples are countless. A seemingly never-ending stream of cultural “inspirations”, from the Native American headdresses used by Victoria’s Secret, to the recurring blackface in fashion magazines, or Mango’s “slave earrings”.
But we are, slowly but steadily, becoming increasingly aware of cultural appropriation, and unwilling to stand for it, and fashion houses targeting a worldwide youth are following suit. In more general terms, fashion -- both right now, and by reevaluating its history -- needs to be rethought and deconstructed. We need to decolonise the fashion imagination.
The theorist Walter Mignolo has written extensively on what he “decolonial aesthetics” and recommends thinking critically of the borders between, say, high art and low art, the academic and the decorative. The same can be done with fashion, believes Mélody Thomas, a Paris-based fashion and culture writer and co-founder of inclusive newsletter What’s Good. “A classic example of western domination on fashion is that “foreign” clothes are considered “costume”, or at best “clothing”. It only becomes “fashion” once it has been re-appropriated and validated by a white gaze”, she said quoting, amongst other things, Kylie Jenner’s cornrows being labelled as an “edgy new look” by some. "When citing anything, one must keep in mind if the people referenced are given the means to speak back and decide of their own representation, can participate in the process; one must always quote one’s sources, otherwise it’s not design… it’s pillaging.”
Another decolonial fashion project is Mille, an avant-garde online magazine aimed at Arab youth. Co-directed by Tunis-based Sofia Guellaty, a former editor at Style.com Arabia, and Samira Larouci, a London-based writer of Moroccan descent. It aims to provide an Arab outlook on fashion, beauty and underground culture. “Arabs see that they are being aggressively and opportunistically targeted by western luxury brands, who don’t even take the time to understand the different needs, all whilst imposing their idea of beauty, their norms,” Sofia explains, adding that notions such as emancipation, feminism, self-expression and rebellion all needed to be rethought locally, with religious and cultural expectations in mind, “rather than copy and paste a very white idea of rebellion and freedom”.
"In On Beauty Zadie Smith writes, 'Art is the western myth with which we both console ourselves and make ourselves.'"
The aim, for the trilingual French, Arab and English publication, is to create a new media and fashion language that is rethought. Take the French case of “cheveux normaux” (normal hair) which usually means straight hair. Darker makeup is referred to as “peaux ethniques” (ethnic skin), and nude means beige.
As for Moroccan designer Amine Bendriouich, he designed a collection named Touaregs du Futur, which mixed a North African futurism with traditional dress and high-tech textiles. “This is a dream vision of what North Africa could have been had it not suffered from centuries of colonisation. It is a way of unifying but also celebrating the differences of the “Other”. I am Berber, I am African, there are millions of variations of Arab-ness”, he says. On his website, it states, “Thank you for your stereotypes, I am building my own aesthetics.”
And then there is French brand Aswad (“black” in Arabic), founded by French-Moroccan designer Sonia Ahmimou, producing haute maroquinerie -- A mix of brutalist and Islamic art and architecture, as a way to question high and low, aristocratic and functional.
All this needs to be applied to the way fashion is taught, Alice Litscher believes. “It is a matter of rethinking how discourse and power is produced and transmitted, developing local industries, and mostly, looking at yourself critically: who are you, what are your privileges, in order to put into place a respectful design process.”
In On Beauty Zadie Smith writes, “Art is the western myth with which we both console ourselves and make ourselves” -- let’s hope these projects allow for new, non-western mythologies to inspire generations to come.