Protocols for Decolonizing Fashion

How to dismantle and reorientate the industry’s current dominant culture and history.

Key Takeaways

  1. Decolonizing fashion is the practice of dismantling and reorienting the structures and systems that the industry (much like our economy itself) was built upon. Even today, most of the supply chain relies on the unequal exchange in power where the North depends on the materials and labor from the Global South, often to its detriment.
  2. Colonialism affects how we see and interact with products, most notably clothing. Our demand for more and more of it drives the fast fashion industry which exploits the labor of women in low-income countries who are often unable to earn a living wage. Purchasing clothing from mainstream brands reinforces these power dynamics and world trade routes that have existed for centuries and further perpetuates the problem.
  3. Decolonizing fashion involves more than just a consumer act. By utilizing a multilevel approach where buyers make informed sustainable purchases, amplify the work of BIPOC designers, and hold corporations accountable we can make progress.

We live in a unique time in history where most young people have embraced social justice and ‘woke’ culture. Although the term has already been banished from our lexicon, the fact remains that many people are now actively aware of the inequities that are rife in our society. While the world grapples with racial and sexual discrimination issues, a climate crisis, and an ongoing pandemic, activists are beginning to dismantle colonialism within our cultural institutions. The fashion industry is also ripe for change as it is one of the biggest offenders of environmental destruction, exploitation of workers, and cultural appropriation.

To decolonize fashion, one must first recognize and understand what colonialism is. Defined as “the maintenance of political, social, economic, and cultural domination over people by a foreign power for an extended period” (W. Bell 1991), it was first established in the 15th century when European countries followed policies of mercantilism as well as dispatched Christian missionaries around the globe. Today it relates to the “extraction and exploitation of resources- from the natural environment to labor-as the means for exponential financial gain.” (Ethical Style Journal) Colonialism’s influence on the fashion industry is everywhere. The supply chain, which has come under scrutiny recently, is heavily reliant on an unequal exchange, where the North overburdens materials and labor from the Global South. In addition, our concept of beauty and fashion discourse itself is skewed by a lens of European values that omit the experiences and identities of people of color. Upending the narrative, which has historically favored and been centered around Western Europe, is no easy undertaking. Still, the movement is being championed by many women of color and through the academic study of post-colonial theory. This scholarly study focuses on the idea that most of recorded history has been unreliable since it’s been told from the viewpoint of the colonizers rather than the colonized people (I.D.).

Colonialism and a Eurocentric outlook permeate our daily life and how we interact with products, even today. In his article for Global Horizons, Choong discusses the phenomenon present in today’s society [which] is characterized by the “dissolution of traditional frameworks of class, race, and sex.” As a result, “Clothing is a vital part in the social construction of the self in that it is a performative act- to dress in a particular way is to align oneself with particular identity markers.” (qtd. In Choong). Purchasing and wearing clothing manufactured by mainstream fashion brands further perpetuates the problem. Fashion’s dependence on the labor of BIPOC garment workers in low-income countries means that it’s highly likely that an economically vulnerable woman produced the clothing consumers purchase. According to a 2019 Oxfam report, “0% of Bangladeshi garment workers and 1% of Vietnamese workers earned a living wage.” (Good on You) With clothing consumption increasing year over year, believing that conscious consumerism is a real possibility is nothing more than a fallacy. Shifting the focus off of the old guard requires consumers to cut back on their frivolous purchases. Before buying more garments, careful consideration of one’s wardrobe must be given to strive towards true sustainability. By making an effort to support black and brown independent designers and second-hand shop owners, consumers can amplify their voices/businesses.  Yet even the purchase of secondhand clothing may be problematic since it may not serve decolonization efforts.

The fashion industry remains predominantly Eurocentric despite the contributions of countless designers of color and the often unrecognized labor of BIPOC people behind the scenes. Many designers have appropriated the cultural signifiers from black and brown people to varying levels of outrage throughout the years. The 2016 F/W Marc Jacobs show where he sent models down the runway with colorful dreadlocks comes to mind, as do the collections of Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s that borrowed heavily from Arabic and Morrocan traditional clothing. While the decision to use dreadlocks by Marc Jacobs in 2016 was generally panned, the collections made by Yves Saint Laurent are praised and archived in the collections of museums around the world. Our collective aptitude for equality is finally catching up to the advocates who have always spoken out against these distorted depictions of other cultures.

Much like the world powers that once relied on colonialism, the fashion machine depends on its ability to dominate and differentiate itself from the ‘Other.” In this way, the industry can fetishize what it considers to be the exotic (albeit clichéd) idea of how it perceives cultures outside of Europe. This is glaringly apparent in the “China” collections of Jean Paul Gaultier and Galliano’s “Rastafari” collection for Dior, both of which have aged poorly. Although Y2K vintage clothing is having a moment with Millenial and Gen Z consumers, some designs frankly should remain in the past. Angel Jansen refers to this phenomenon in her article “Decolonizing Fashion: Defying the White Man’s Gaze” for Vestoj. She explains that even European designers such as Dolce & Gabbana are forced to reference their cultural identity to build their brand. However, she argues that despite this limiting factor, unlike non-European brands, Dolce & Gabbana is still considered ‘real’ fashion. Many fashion designers outside of the established fashion capitals are repeatedly asked to reference their cultural backgrounds in interviews, pushed into using these stereotypical viewpoints in their work such as “wax-print for African designers, bold colors for Latin American designers, or minimalism for Asian ones.” This reductive depiction of culture is directly in keeping with the traditional imperialist values of colonialism; Europeans would document and record the cultures of their colonized in one unified way, which effectively diminished complex and region-specific characteristics into a homogenized whole. Once these people became free, they were forced to adopt these simplified depictions of their history, losing their indigenous identity. To be taken seriously in fashion, many are forced to “‘self orientalize’” or “‘self-exoticize’” in order to compete on the national and international market as consumers are conditioned to expect these defining characteristics in their work.

It may take an entire generation to decolonize fashion effectively, but the change has begun. Dismantling a system that has been constructed over centuries will not occur overnight. It involves changing the discourse of fashion and rewriting sartorial history. It’s time we pay due respect to fashion’s contributors of color and those outside of the white Christian point of view. Revolutionaries, fashion students, and everyday consumers should be directed to resources such as The Fashion and Race Database™, which challenges the narrative of fashion history. Run by Kimberly Jenkins, a fashion scholar, the site is revising what we know about traditional indigenous attire, provides profiles on style icons and designers, and includes an essential reading list.

Engaging in activism will involve attacking colonialism on all levels. Along with understanding past injustices, supporting indigenous and BIPOC designers by purchasing directly from them mobilizes and empowers them to establish both a cultural and economic resurgence. However, eschewing fast fashion and relying on just buying clothes from different sources alone is not enough. The industry’s countless family-run multinational companies and heritage brands are still primarily overseen by white men, who still hold the most power. Until there’s a seismic shift in fashion’s racial reckoning, we must have these companies accountable and create more opportunities for BIPOC fashion designers, influencers of color, fashion journalists, and fashion historians.