5. Interrogating fashion
Or why we need to be more critical about everything we’re told about fashion (Latinx or not)
Dear fashion thinkers,
Welcome to a new issue of Thinking Through Latinx Fashion! As I promised last time, today I return to the list with which I started this newsletter—and which feels way too far in the past—with action steps towards learning how to constantly think and rethink Latinx fashion in order to strengthen the fashion systems of Abya Yala.
My mission of the day is therefore to highlight the need to question absolutely every narrative we’re told from Euro-North Americanperspectives about what fashion is and should be—whether it’s Latinx fashion or not.
To do so, I’ll use my personal experiences as well as my experiences as an educator—as I end up doing almost inevitably these days.
Let’s begin with the latter.
In a seminar on “Design and (de)coloniality” that I’ve been teaching since last semester, we’ve spoken several times about the creation of knowledge, especially when it comes to design. Who has the right to narrate the histories of design? Why are we told some stories and so many others are left untold? And why do we believe, almost blindly, pretty much anything that we’re told in a somewhat “academic” fashion?
These questions are wide open and no doubt difficult to answer (especially in such a small space as this one). But, in a few words, we could say that “History” is told by people who hold certain power, which is often endorsed by academic titles and certifications. Their points of view tend to ignore everything that is not hegemonic, according to the standards set by the globalized world we currently live in. And we believe these people—and their ideas—because the structures behind Western (and colonialist) ways of thinking have taught us that they are the only sources of knowledge and information that are “100% trustworthy.”
In our class discussions I’ve also realized that we believe in these sources because that’s exactly what we’ve been taught to do since early on: We learn to absorb information, to repeat and summarize what we’re told, but never to question these ideas. There are very few spaces—especially within “formal” education systems—that foster criticism and encourage us to question what we are told, especially when it comes from figures that are considered “experts” or “authorities” on a certain subject matter.
Maybe that’s why we continue repeating ideas like fashion was born in 18th-century France. Or that there’s no such thing as “fashion” in Abya Yala, as all we manage to do is copy foreign models. Or that the only “look” that really represents Latinx aesthetics is that Caribbean-tropicalism that is starting to get tiring (for some of us at least).
And this leads me to my personal experience.
A few days ago, I listened to one of the latest episodes of one of the podcasts that’s on my usual playlist while I move around Bogota. And I was absolutely shocked by two things. First, that the person interviewed spoke in such an intense Spanglish that I didn’t even dare to share the episode because I feared that some of my followers wouldn’t understand it for using so much English. (And here I must note that this podcast is meant to be in Spanish and intended for a Spanish-speaking, Latinx audience.)
The second aspect that shocked me was that the interviewee defined Latin American fashion—and its attractiveness for the global fashion industry—based on the extravagant, opulent, and even excessive stereotypes about Latinx identities, which have been imposed on us for so long.
I don’t know if I was the only person shocked by these two relatively minor aspects of a podcast episode that was otherwise informative and entertaining. But I have a feeling that they remain unquestioned by most of the people that have listened to this episode.
And that’s likely because the trope of Latin American fashion as tropical and excessive has been repeated at least since the dawn of European invasion of what we now call “the Americas”. One of the historical examples that I’ve analyzed in my research comes from a travel account published by the Spanish scientists Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa in 1748. They comment that, in Quito at the time, “people of fashion dressed ostentatiously”.
Like Juan and Ulloa, other travelers wrote about the fashionable excesses of people who inhabited Abya Yala during and after the colonial period. In a way, this idea was likely an extension of the legend of “El Dorado” and other myths about the overflowing riches of the Americas, which actually ended up justifying many European colonial enterprises.
But what I’d like to underline here is that the stereotype of Latinx tropical excess is so engrained in our thought that we’re still repeating it almost 300 years after Juan and Ulloa commented on it. Even worse: we’ve internalized it so much that it now forms a constitutive part of how we construct and express our Latinx identities as both individuals and brands.
My personal relationship with this trope has had ups and downs and many contradictions.
I’ve shared in other spaces about my relationship with color. After rejecting it almost entirely during my first months as a graduate student in New York, I ended up returning to it as a way of reclaiming my origins and embracing an identity that I had denied at some point in order to “fit in”.
But I also realized then that I was—and I am still—quite far from being that joyous and noisy Latina, curvy and sexy, that is so often portrayed in different kinds of media.
Around this time I was also forced to confront the harsh reality that, however awful it may sound, I am part of that “global north of our global south” in Latin America. I am part of those privileged few that are so often so ignorant and so rarely empathetic, that we tend to forget what being Latinx means, especially outside of Latin America.
And I think it was there, exactly, where I learned to question everything around me.
I can’t point to a specific moment. But I can tell you that it was within the fissures and the contradictions that emerged within these processes of self-recognition and self-stereotypation that I learned to question.
I learned to question everything that we’re told about being Latinx. I learned to question what a Latina is, can, and should be in the New York fashion industry. And I learned to question the possibilities of a scholar of Latinx fashion in the whole wide world.
And without noticing I took the leap to what I still do today: work towards a radical transformation of what we think about Latinx fashion, past and present, within and outside of Abya Yala. This radical transformation is centered in questioning absolutely everything we’ve been told that fashion—Latinx or not—should be.
That’s why my Ph.D. dissertation attempts to rewrite the history of Latinx fashion during the colonial times, focusing on the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada in the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s why I adopt decolonial and counter-hegemonic perspectives whenever I teach about fashion studies and design studies. That’s why I write this newsletter and try to share as many ideas as openly as possible on social media.
But I’ve now come to realize that this ability to question is also the fruit of my own privilege: A particular kind of education and opportunities, as well as having quite a loud voice that is heard by many (and which I shouldn’t take for granted).
So what about those who don’t have the chance to question everything so openly (for whatever reason)? And how can we foster more critical approaches to fashion, even among the “general public” (so to speak)?
I honestly don’t have clear answers yet. In my courses and social media I try to note the importance of questioning absolutely everything every time I can. Writing this newsletter might also contribute.
But is this enough? And what else could we do?
As usual, I need you to help me answer these questions. What do you think? Please do let me know your ideas in the comments or by replying directly to this email (if you received it).
Thank you, thank you for reading!
Until a next issue of Pensar la moda: Thinking Through Latinx Fashion.
**The background music is “Morning Coffee” by HoliznaCC0 (2022), used under Creative Commons Licence with attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0).
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.
“la gente de moda viste ostentosamente” (my translation). Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, Relación histórica del viage hecho de orden de S. Mag. a la América Meridional. Primera Parte, Tomo Primero (Madrid: Imprenta de Antonio Marín, 1748), 366.