We are delighted to have our first guest post from Professor Victoria Kelley, UCA’s Director of Research and Education. Here, Victoria reflects on a recent seminar she attended on decolonising the fashion curriculum. The speaker, Dr Elizabeth Kutesko discussed decolonising the fashion curriculum, based on her research on fashion cultures in Brazil.
It is all too easy to assume that ‘fashion’ is an exclusively western phenomenon, a symptom of modernity that has its roots in capitalist economies and societies—and to allow the canonical history of western high fashion to be over-dominant in teaching fashion. Fashion historians have debated both when and where fashion first appeared, but most of the answers they have come up with have been Euro-centric. As Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil assert ‘most of the world, including Africa and Asia, as well as great parts of the Americas and Eastern Europe, are sidelined and often totally ignored in histories of fashion’. I’ve found their collection, The Fashion History Reader: global perspectives (2010) to be a great starting point in taking a wider view. Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun’s new publication, Fashion History: a global view (2018) also looks very useful.
Liz Kutesko outlined a very straightforward definition of fashion—it is simply rapid change in clothing styles, so that ‘fashion exists in all places at all times’. In the contemporary world it is both global and local, and it emphatically does not belong just to the West. There are clear lessons here for an inclusive curriculum, suggesting that we might make efforts to widen the examples used and the geographies covered to give accounts of fashion that look relevant to all our students, whatever their nationality or ethnicity.
Kutesko outlined how her title slide, a photograph of a woman of the Guarani-Kaiowá indigenous group wearing a slogan t-shirt and leopard print skirt accessorised with a feather and bead necklace may look like an instance of colonisation through fashion—the spread of commodity clothing from western origins into communities in which it is to some degree ‘alien’. But as she pointed out, this fails to consider the agency or the identity of this woman. Long-term ethnographic study (rather than the instant image-capture of the documentary or fashion photograph) may be necessary to reveal the complex play of identities and hybridising influences that are typical of global fashions. Kutesko usefully highlighted key texts that include the work of anthropologist Joanne Eicher and fashion scholars Susan Kaiser and Sarah Cheang. I was also reminded of Antonia Finnane’s Changing Clothes in China (2008), which identifies Chinese contributions to the development of the modern fashion system (there is an extract from this in Riello and McNeil’s Reader).
I know this is an issue that many of our staff are considering (in fashion and in other disciplines): if anyone has good examples of an expanded curriculum, we could share them here. If one of the routes to enabling high attainment in our BAME students is to offer a curriculum that is more relevant, then a good place to start in the teaching of fashion is to make sure we recognise that it is something that belongs to everyone and has multiple origins, as well as multiple versions in a globalised world. It struck me too that quite apart from our work on BAME attainment, this recognition is a matter of simple historical accuracy. The traditions of academic structures may have encouraged us to think of the western world as the chief site of change, advance and modernity, and therefore, of the restless quest for novelty that characterises fashion. But in fact change is everywhere, and fashion is everywhere too—and our teaching can reflect that.
If this post has ignited your own interests in this topic, we are interested to hear from you. We are particularly keen to gather any good examples of an expanded fashion curriculum, to share on our creative education resource area. Please send any examples you have to Annamarie McKie, Teaching & Learning Development Manager, firstname.lastname@example.org