Sandra Niessen presents a ‘Table of Industrial Fashion Myths’, a work-in-progress. She prefaces it here briefly with some preliminary thoughts about possible links between these myths and fossil fuels.
For decades I have looked at coloniality, othering, and the hubris of the West/Northern Nations, as a ‘wrong turn’ in philosophical terms. If the error of our ways could only be demonstrated, has been my thinking, then all could be set aright! Hence the adoption of strategies of jumping into the pen, teaching, appealing to the innate goodness in people, their ratio. Nothing can change the world like ideas.
Recently, however, the idea of ‘energy-blindness’ as explained by Nate Hagens (see his podcasts on Youtube) has altered my own thinking on the topic. It is obvious that fossil fuels enable industry, including the Fashion industry, nothing new there. What is new, that Hagens has sparked in my thinking, is the significance of the fact that Western Industrial fashion is a function of the discovery and use of Fossil Fuels. I don't mean this in a deterministic sense, but clearly the course of Western fashion history has been shaped to some extent by the use of fossil fuels, and is inextricably intertwined with access to fossil fuels. In that case, Western fashion history needs to be examined through the lens of fossil fuel enablement. This insight may have ramifications so profound as to require a re-write of Fashion history; in the traditional focus on design history, the significance of roles and types of fuel in Fashion have been underexposed if not completely ignored.
Key to this insight is that for more than a century, the distinction of ‘rapid style change’ has been attributed to Western superiority, not fossil fuels. Furthermore, when ‘rapid style change’ was regarded as definitive for Fashion, by deduction Fashion had to be exclusively Western. The Eureka moment here is the possibility that not only Western Fashion, but also the Western Fashion ego, is indirectly a product of fossil fuel access. This ego appears to have undergone a kind of collective rush when exposed to the exceptional power of fossil fuels and I propose that this rush was expressed in delusions of superiority and mythologies of othering. Indeed, a wrong conceptual turn, but there was a hydrocarbon foundation underlying it. While acknowledging that this proposition still needs to be researched and verified, I would still like to go one step further by pointing out that the Fashion ego appears to be part of a larger fossil fuel thought complex.
During this crisis era of global heating, researchers and writers are scrambling to come to grips with society’s addiction to fossil fuels. Andreas Malm’s historical research has revealed that steam power (from coal combustion) out-competed water power in the early decades of the 19th Century because coal could be privately owned and stored where and when it suited the needs of the owner (industrialist). Water power could only be generated in proximity to flowing water and access to it demanded negotiations with others having access to that same source, as well as reliance on the right weather conditions. In short, according to Malm, steam power offered greater latitude to exploit labour (Leather 2017), and thus the stage was set. It did not take long before fossil fuels were requisite to compete successfully in industry and deploy the labour coming into the city. In addition, fossil fuel offered more independent autonomy to industrialists and thus became the lifeblood of high social status -- which it has remained until this day. (I write just as the decision of a single individual, Elon Musk, to thwart a Ukrainian drone attack on the Krim has come to light, illustrating my use of the word ‘autonomy’ in regard to high social station, i.e. isolation from social controls.)
The characterization of Fashion’s uniqueness relative to all other fashion forms in the world is strikingly parallel. It was a vertical binary setting off, but also separating, the West from the Rest. Those ‘with’ fashion placed themselves on a pedestal, a status position, that also isolated them from the Rest.
Kendra (2021) has reviewed white supremacy in the oil industry as evident in labour relations, racial segregation and racial violence, and concluded that it “is so much the norm that it is easier to point to the exception." Malm’s research went on (in White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism 2021) to document the link between fossil fuels and the defense of white privilege, Donald Trump being a good example of a supremacist who did all in his power to remove limits to fossil fuel discovery and use. In their review of the government of climate change, Diego Andreucci and Christos Zografos (2021) noted that othering is a technical tool used by the government of climate change in strategies of ‘mitigation’ (extraction of minerals for alternative energy systems), ‘climate migration’, and ‘vulnerability’ (a filter through which to assign where social ‘improvements’ are needed). All of these strategies extend capitalist relations of racism and colonialism. They discerned that “othering helps to preserve existing relations of racial, patriarchal and class domination in the face of climate-induced social upheavals”, concluding that “[O]thering is not only a feature of fossil fuelled development, but a way of functioning of capitalist governmentality more broadly…”
Notably, the accepted sustainability discourse in Fashion has stubbornly failed to address the issue of othering embedded in the existence of sacrifice zones, labour exploitation and industrial growth.
I am not aware of fashion having been brought into discussions about relations of race and coloniality in the fossil fuel industry, but there appear to be reasons for doing so, given that Fashion is arguably the most potent tool to facilitate and normalize othering. Fashion has its origin and raison d’être in the intent and practice of othering (Niessen 2003). It not only makes othering possible and palatable by normalizing it, but exalts it by showcasing it in association with mythologies of superiority and the goodness of consumption. Fashion’s continual physical expansion works hand in glove with fossil fuel expansion. There appears to be a relationship of complementarity between the two. While fossil fuels have clearly played a powerful role in industrial Fashion history, Fashion appears to have played a complementary role in the social history of fossil fuel relations and consumption. In the needed re-write of Fashion history attention must be paid not only to what Fashion is, but what it does. Furthermore, in the task of ‘getting Fashion off fossil fuels’ it becomes clear that entirely new fashion thought systems will need to be constructed. Taking the plastic out of our clothing and switching to other power sources will not be sufficient to change what Fashion does in the manner of fossil fuel Fashion.
I cite Andreucci’s and Zografos’s conclusion that “[A]ny genuinely radical, comprehensive and meaningful response to the climate crisis must attack the root causes of the ongoing, uneven and combined socioecological catastrophe” (2022) in the event that in the job of unpacking and exposing the partnership of fossil fuels and Fashion any additional encouragement is required.
A comprehensive account of how the political and historical links between Fashion and fossil fuels have been expressed in Fashion mythologies and othering is significantly beyond the scope of this exploratory blog. A graduate student may want to take on this important work! The ‘Table of Industrial Fashion Myths’ below is a draft list of the ways in which hubris has functioned in Fashion. It has long been averred that fashion is the handmaiden of capitalism, but its enmeshment in perpetuating the fossil fuel economy not yet. Readers are invited to comment on and contribute to this foray.
Centrisms of Superiority
Manifestationsof othering and superiority
Fashion Mythologies of othering and superiority
Fashion depicts individual superiority
Fashion depicts individuality
belief in Western technology
cultural sacrifice zones are condoned
Fashion is a zenith of cultural ‘evolution’
Fashion depicts social/cultural relevance
Fashion is rapid change of styles
“A least it gives them jobs” (re: Fashion labour)
Indigenous designs and techniques are freely available for use by industrial fashion
Industrial Fashion can perpetuate the clothing systems/technologies/designs of the other
‘globalization of Fashion’
confidence that technology will solve the sustainability problem
‘we’ are dependent on the Fashion industry for beautiful clothing
ecological sacrifice is condoned
human ingenuity will solve all problems
most conceptions of ‘sustainability’
By Sandra Niessen. Read more of Sandra's blog posts here.
Diego Andreucci, Christos Zografos, Between improvement and sacrifice: Othering and the (bio)political ecology of climate change, Political Geography, Volume 92, 2022, 102512,
ISSN 0962-6298, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2021.102512.
Hagens, Nate. The Great Simplification. Podcast series on Youtube. Ongoing since 2022.
Kendra, Pierre-Louis. Understanding the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Legacy of White Supremacy. Who What WhyApril 2021.
Leather, Amy. “Why capitalism is addicted to fossil fuels”. International Socialism: A quarterly review of socialist theory. Nr. 153. 2017
Malm, Andreas. White Skin, Black Fuel : On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. Verso. 202
Malm, Andreas. Fossil Capital: the Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. Verso. 2016.
Niessen, Sandra “Afterword: Reorienting Fashion Theory” In Niessen, S.A., A. Leshkowich, and C. Jones (eds.) Re-orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress. Oxford: Berg Publishers. pp. 243-266. 2003.