1. How do I even begin?
Towards a more critical approach to “thinking” (about) Latin American fashion
How do we even begin to think about fashion in Latin America, when the word itself is so often detached from the region? How do we think about it, when we’re used to believing that fashion is superficial, vain, pretty—but never substantial? How do we do it in our own terms, when most narratives, ideas, and histories circle around the same names —at times extremely difficult for us to pronounce— of a few, most of them foreign and quite distant from our local realities?
These and other related questions have been following me for years. If I had to choose one single reason for starting this newsletter, I would say: to find the answers to these questions! It’s not a job I can do on my own—I need other people to help me think through them. And it’s not an easy job—I don’t even know if I’ll be able to answer them with any certainty.
What I do know is that fashion cannot be taken from us. And by “us” I mean Latin America as a region, but also every single person who forms part of it, whether we’re interested or not in fashion, whether we live in Abya Yala1 or not.
A few years ago, one of the most established scholars of Latin American fashion invited me to co-edit a book on contemporary Latinx fashion. Needless to say how excited and honored I was… until I read, among the first lines of the book proposal, that “fashion” is a misnomer in Latin America.
I still get the chills when I think about that moment. Even more so when I remember the negative—and even condescendent—answer that I received when I contested the idea.
Why is Latin America banned from fashion?
I just can’t seem to be able to walk away from this question. And the more I think about it, the more obvious the answer becomes: Because we’ve been thinking about fashion mostly in its Euro-North American2 versions, in cities like Paris or New York. We’re used to understanding fashion as a modern phenomenon of constant change that emerges in Europe and then expands to the rest of the world.
But fashion is much more than that.
We could start with the definition used by Fashion Theory, perhaps the most important academic journal in Fashion Studies (and which I actually used to begin my glossary entry on fashion for Culturas de Moda):
Fashion [is] the cultural construction of the embodied identity.
This definition allows fashion to be a Western/European, modern, and rapidly-changing phenomenon. But it also allows fashion to be that second skin, at times impossible to remove from our bodies, that we find in dress. It includes all the adornments that help us create and communicate our identities. It recognizes the importance of culture, as well as the social, political, economic, and even technological contexts in which fashion emerges. But most importantly, this definition is specific enough for us to define “fashion” as an object of analysis, while at the same time leaving enough space for the wealth of sartorial expressions in Abya Yala to enter the discourses of fashion.
The problem, I believe, is that we’ve internalized the idea that fashion isn’t something we deserve. We still think that our fashion calendar “lags behind” that of the global fashion capitals. And we’re still convinced that, to “make it” in fashion, we need to conquer the hegemonic spaces in which fashion appears: fashion weeks in New York, Paris, London, and Milan; huge, international department stores like Le Bon Marché and Moda Operandi; publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
But what if we changed the narrative? What if, rather than “conquering” other worlds, we focused first on reframing our own fashion system(s) from within, and then move on to attracting others?
This might sound counter-hegemonic and revolutionary. And that’s precisely why it’s so difficult to achieve. But it’s also why it’s such an encouraging—and hopefully fruitful—move.
In Géopolitique de la mode. Vers des nouveaux modèles? (Geopolitics of Fashion: Towards new models?), Sophie Kurkdjian (2021) attributes the success of French fashion to the creation of a collective imaginary that is mobilized by a complex system, in which creators/producers and consumers of fashion have participated over the years, as well as educational institutions, museums, and even fashion weeks.
Although some of these players seem to avoid having to think about fashion, others—mostly schools and museums—have begun to build more and more critical approaches, especially in the past decades. And they’ve attempted to build them in collaboration with the fashion industry, although these efforts are certainly still incipient.
If that’s the case in France, I wouldn’t even know what word to use in Abya Yala, where we’re only just realizing the importance of our own fashion system, beyond the stereotypical and romanticized discourses about “ancestral knowledge” that we repeat so often and uncritically about textiles in the region.
The Latin American fashion industries have been reluctant to adopt critical ideas and methodologies in the creation of fashion. Fashion media are fragile and rarely move beyond simplistic and superficial narratives of fashion. And education is often more focused on massive copying than on more complex processes of research, analysis, critical thinking, and generating ideas.
That’s why we need to learn to constantly think and rethink Latin American and Latinx fashion. We need it to strengthen the fashion system of Abya Yala and all the sub-systems (so to speak) that compose it.
Here’s a list of five steps that I think can help us advance in the process:
Redefine fashion from our local ideas and histories and from a deep knowledge of the diversity of cultures that have existed in Abya Yala since before the European invasion;
Find our own references and local aesthetics—but always working to avoid falling into practices of cultural appropriation or the unsubstantiated “auto-exotization” of our own culture(s);
Question absolutely all the fashion histories and narratives that are told from Euro-North American perspectives about what fashion is and should be—whether it’s Latinx or not;
Explore and tell new histories of fashion, from perspectives that are more and more critical and “thought through”; and
Hold complex conversations and debates, through which we are able to construct and fabricate our own theories and ideas about fashion can and should be.
I will be disintegrating each of these steps/ideas in the next issues of this newsletter, as always thinking through how to reformulate what we already think we know about Latin American and Latinx fashion.
The first part goes out in two weeks.
Thank you for reading!
I use the expression “Abya Yala” to refer to what we commonly call “Latin America”. This expression comes from the Guna-dule nations that inhabit the territories of what we call Colombia and Panama today. Abya Yala means “perfectly ripe land” in their language and has been proposed as a non-Eurocentric option to call “the Americas” by several Indigenous nations from the continents since 1992.
Although the term “Euro-North America” sounds somewhat awkward, I use it on purpose to highlight both the constructed nature of these regions and the violent processes through which they have become hegemonic in today’s world. I borrow the use of the term and its purpose from Ruth B. Phillips (1999) in Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900.