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Why racism in fashion goes deeper than you think

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

An interview with Sandra Niessen by Safia Minney

Following the murder of George Flloyd in May 2020, protests across the world called for the end of systemic racism. Fashion has always upheld eurocentric notions of beauty, and in response, corporations, publications and individuals throughout the industry made claims to change. The conversations mainly centred around representation, calling for people of colour to feature not only in campaigns, editorials and on the catwalk but also in the boardrooms and positions of power.

But what if we looked at fashion itself as racist?

In this interview, Safia Minney, social entrepreneur, writer and activist, speaks with anthropologist Sandra Niessen about how fashion has historically been used as a tool of oppression. Sandra explains that it is a marker of what decolonial theorists call the ‘colonial difference,’ used to create a bifurcated world where people are considered ‘in’ or ‘out’ of fashion. It has also enabled sacrifice zones, where people and places are deemed sacrificable to make fashionable clothing.

At Fashion Act Now, we have been wrestling with this. As a group, we are colonisers, all based in wealthier nations where we have grown up with fashion, the dominant globalised system. We are asking: at this juncture, how can we work to decolonise fashion? And what impact would doing so have on people who rely on it to make an income? Here Sandra addresses some of these points and calls for myth busting and broader learning about how fashion is colonial. An extract from this interview will be included in Minney’s upcoming book Regenerative Fashion out in October 2022, published by Hachette.

While the absence of Black, Indigenous and people of colour in boardrooms and on runways today is usually pointed to as evidence of racism in fashion, the extent of fashion’s racism goes much, much deeper, and has become so normalised and expected that it is rarely consciously perceived.

SM: What is the relationship between Western fashion and racism?

SN: The colonial era cleaved the world in two; the substratum of diversity became colonisers on the one hand, and the colonised on the other. Throughout the history of the world there have always been power hierarchies, but with colonialism there was, for the first time, one that operated globally to create a single binary. Decolonial theorists refer to it as the ‘colonial difference’. Clothing, a powerful signifier of status and identity, became perhaps the most immediate expression of that colonial difference, to the extent that the first definitions of fashion slotted the phenomenon of ‘fashion’ and the practice of fashion on the ‘civilisation’ side of the binary in contradistinction to what was considered ‘uncivilised’: ‘tribal’, ‘primitive’, ‘heathen’ and ‘lacking in’ history, fashion and so on. In short, the binary was constructed on a foundation of race, with the white race embodying the superior component. This binary has continued to operate in the fashion industry.

While the absence of Black, Indigenous and people of colour in boardrooms and on runways today is usually pointed to as evidence of racism in fashion, the extent of fashion’s racism goes much, much deeper, and has become so normalised and expected that it is rarely consciously perceived. Nevertheless, all wearers of fashion currently support it, willfully or not. This conceptual blindness is evidence of a powerful capacity of the fashion industry to shape thought. Fashion places emphasis on visual products: style change, trends and seasonality all skillfully presented through fashion advertising including the catwalk. The behind-the-scenes of fashion are kept hidden and rarely seen by consumers, until egregious human rights abuses, of which the collapse of Rana Plaza is an example, make them visible for a moment. This happened again during the COVID-19 layoffs. The fact that millions of people are chained, through poverty, to a system to make garments that are not of their own culture should be proof enough of global injustice, based on race, regardless of the pay rate. It is also to the Southern Nations that the majority of fashion waste is increasingly being tossed. Racism in fashion is evident, through these examples, by its erasure from the face of fashion.

The February 2022 cover of Vogue magazine depicting nine top African models has been making headlines for marking the dawning of a new era in fashion (e.g. Elan in The Guardian, Friday 14 January 2022). Undeniably an important step in “The rise of African representation in modelling...” Equally undeniable is that there remains a very long way to go. Fashion Act Now calls for deep fairness wherein the colonial foundation of the industry is recognized, also for how it continues to be expressed in the relations between producers and consumers in mass production.

Furthermore, fashion has been highly successful at erasing the importance of all other systems of clothing that are not integrated in the global fashion system. They are negated by language, for example: the term ‘craft’ situates indigenous dress systems a grade below fashionable dress. The value of other dress systems is also erased by the normalization of their loss, awakening the expectation that indigenous peoples and their clothing systems are doomed to inevitable disappearance. The much-hailed cover of Vogue magazine, while important, is still on the side of ‘big fashion’, and does nothing to address this deeper racism; indeed it colludes in the cover-up of ‘non-fashion’ dress systems. Fashion continues to function on a momentum of racism.

SM: What can we do about it?

SN: In a nutshell, awareness of fashion’s colonial origins is a first step in correcting this skewed foundation of fashion. A new fashion practice rooted in deep fairness and respect is another.

Fashion functions through lies, myths and erasures to hide from view that it maintains cultural hierarchies based on race and discrimination. These lies, myths and erasures need to be called out and exposed to end the complicity of fashion in global racism and unfairness. Fashion education needs to be restructured around the human universal of clothing rather than the culturally specific ‘Western fashion’, and the history of global dress systems needs to be recognized as the context of the history of Western fashion. Remediation can only occur when people, both makers and consumers, begin to connect the dots and refuse to be complicit in the strategies that the fashion industry uses to promote its global-scale hierarchies. Respect for living cultural and natural systems must become a limitation to expansion for the Western fashion business, and the ultimate rationale for it to radically scale down in size. Fashion Act Now points to the need for a diversity of equally respected clothing systems to supplant the current singular, globally dominant fashion system.

Respect for living cultural and natural systems must become a limitation to expansion for the Western fashion business, and the ultimate rationale for it to radically scale down in size.

SM: You say that you can’t have capitalism without sacrifice zones, and these zones don’t exist, without disposable people and disposable people without racism. Please tell us more….

SN: In his article, ‘Racism is Killing the Planet’ Hop Hopkins wrote memorably that,

“You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can't have disposable people without racism.”

Your question makes the connection with capitalism, and that is the correct inference. Capitalism is an economic system based on resource extraction and growth without restrictions, and therefore both creates, and depends on sacrifice zones: places on earth deemed dispensable and disposable for the furtherance of economic interests. Growth has become the holy grail of capitalism, a principle that our governments and business leaders have been unwilling to touch or to attempt to alter, despite overwhelming evidence that GDP growth is not equivalent to well being and is destroying the planet. Terms like ‘anthropocene’, ‘capitalocene’, and ‘plantationocene’ have been coined to designate the massive destruction of our planet through the doings of humans in the pursuit of economic growth. Wealth has become the focus, not need and not well-being. What Hop Hopkins was getting at is that destruction at this scale is only possible if there is disregard for humanity. He is pointing out that guardians of ecosystems are being denied their humanity, and this on racist grounds, in order to gain access to their lands and the resources therein. If there was respect for all races and peoples, and for all ecosystems, business interests would be ‘limited’ by the obligation to perform consistent with that respect. An ideology has been developed to make it not just thinkable, but also justifiable, to destroy the means of life-support of indigenous peoples, and all other peoples conveniently deemed ‘dispensable’ to prioritise the interests of GDP growth.

If there was respect for all races and peoples, and for all ecosystems, business interests would be ‘limited’ by the obligation to perform consistent with that respect.

I have argued that the fashion industry is involved with sacrifice zones in a variety of ways:

  1. It utilizes the products from sacrifice zones. Examples are oil-based synthetic fibres and dyestuffs. It also heavily depends on the oil industry for the extensive transportation of goods entailed in the production, marketing, and disposal of clothing.

  2. It creates sacrifice zones. An obvious example is cotton grown on plantations, water-guzzling, green deserts of industrial agriculture.

  3. The fashion industry lays waste to other cultures. I have expanded the use of the term ‘sacrifice zone’ to include indigenous cultures and people. Women whose lives are wasted on insufficiently compensated labour and tribal peoples forced to give up their culture when forcefully removed from their land are examples of human sacrifice for the sake of economic growth. Cultural sacrifice is huge and involves profound psychological and spiritual damage as well as knowledge and heritage loss. It is the loss of history and the psychic wealth of humanity.

  4. Recently Sara Arnold pointed out that all of this adds up to a temporal sacrifice zone, namely the future of the planet. This is what the youth of today are calling out very loudly.

The fashion industry benefits in sales from the production of sacrifice zones. The industry conceptually erases the destructive impacts of its own economic growth. Clearly the production and sale of clothing is no longer the goal of the industry, but rather a means or a strategy to expand their own interests and wealth. When indigenous peoples are forced to give up their clothing heritage because they are removed from their lands, they are simultaneously forced to buy clothing made available on the market. In this way, the sacrifice of their own, usually environmentally-friendly clothing systems, entails the expansion of the unsustainable global industry of fashion that is deeply dependent on fossil fuels.

Two final notes: First, as pointed out by Naomi Klein, the ‘who’ making the decisions about what and who can be sacrificed has everything to do with white supremacy and global power relations.

Second, any amelioration of this systemic problem must involve the regeneration of the land. To cease creating sacrifice zones and to permit people to pursue their own lifestyles on their land, must involve respect and limiting the growth of industry and consumption.

SM: The early fashion theorist, Georg Simmel, claimed that “Fashion exists in our society and not in tribal and classless society because of hierarchy, and that hierarchy drives style change.” Tell us your perspective on this.

SN: This early claim has been cited and repeated like a mantra of truth in schools of fashion for and by generation upon generation of students. From my perspective, this ‘accepted wisdom’ is an example of the ‘colonial difference’ (mentioned above). It can inspire no pride that it has become accepted in academe, while based only on preconception and bias and not on research. As I tried to point out in my answer to the previous question, this is a claim based on Western ethnocentrism and hubris.

I propose something quite different, viz. that diverse clothing systems be understood in terms of their unique internal dynamics; each system is tailored to local circumstances, environments, cultures and histories. It doesn’t make much sense to say, “’They’ don’t have fashion because their clothing is not like ‘ours’”. It only leads to a circular argument based on an initial premise of Western superiority. More useful, in the interest of comparative study, is to examine similarities and differences among clothing systems. I fail to see that the dynamics of the Western fashion system are more or less unique, or intrinsically superior in any way, to the dynamics of other clothing systems. Alas, there has been little attention paid to other systems and therefore there is not much knowledge of them among students of fashion. The historical accidents of economics (colonialism and capitalism) and technology (the impact of the industrial revolution) have facilitated the global dominance of, and the huge attention paid to, the Western system.

SM: How do we cut emissions and create a Just Transition, one where the 60 million people in the fashion industry can still feed themselves?

SN: There is no doubt that the fashion industry has to degrow by a significant amount. It must get to carbon neutral by 2030 (this goal is considerably more ambitious than 2050 and corresponds with a precautionary approach to the global emergency) and the only way to accomplish that is to shrink considerably in size, use renewable energy, support regenerative agriculture and start operating locally. If the fashion industry truly cared about the 60 million (or more) people in its labour and supply chains, they would not be so badly paid as they are now. Let us not use the ‘just transition’ as an excuse for a slow transition. The very best that the fashion industry can do for people is ensure they inherit a healthy planet. Governments, not just the fashion industry, must shoulder this responsibility. Money must be invested in the grassroots instead of flowing upward for ostentatious and rapacious consumption by rich power-holders.

Reparation needs to occur with powerful motives, not for profit but for global well-being.

SM: How can regenerative fashion empower tribal and indigenous people and cultures?

SN: What is ‘regenerative fashion’? Certainly all clothing systems, including Western fashion, need to be sustainable. That is beyond question. By now, however, it will have become clear that my interest is in clothing self-determination as a facet of cultural self-determination, global cultural diversity and cultural survival. I would like to see the regeneration of local and cultural clothing systems, many if not all of which have been compromised in some way by the globally dominant fashion system. I am interested in the revival of the commons in the development of local clothing systems. I am often impressed that ‘empowerment’ as an outside force is not needed because it implies that somehow the fashion industry knows better; this is hubris. What I perceive as necessary is allotting room for self-determination. The fashion industry has to take many steps back and allow other peoples the latitude and means to practise their own cultural traditions. In the spirit of reparation and good will the fashion industry can offer genuine, disinterested support to indigenous peoples and cultures where necessary to enable them to once again thrive in their own communities, on their own land and within their own cultural systems. Paying a living wage and reparations for past insufficient wages are a start. Offering support with no strings attached to indigenous efforts to rekindle their clothing systems is a further step. This may mean assisting in the re-acquisition of ancestral land, or offering courses in regenerative agriculture. Industry can show respect for indigenous design by not stealing it. It could celebrate and support indigenous ways, from a respectful distance. Reparation needs to occur with powerful motives, not for profit but for global well-being.

Safia Minney, MBE, is an award-winning social entrepreneur, founder of People Tree, a pioneer of sustainable fashion. She is also an advisor, executive coach and author of many books including; Slave to Fashion, campaigning to eradicate modern day slavery in the fashion industry and Slow Fashion - Aesthetics meets Ethics. Safia recently launched REAL to promote sustainable living and leadership and joined other business leaders inspired by XR to establish Business Declares.

Sandra Niessen (PhD) is a Canadian/Dutch anthropologist whose research on clothing and textiles among the Batak people of North Sumatra, Indonesia generated insights into the impact of global fashion and economics on indigenous dress. Since retiring from academia, she has become active in the Research Collective for Decoloniality and Fashion (RCDF) and Fashion Act Now (FAN).


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