7. Fashion and Politics
Reflecting on Colombia's Presidential elections and how to effect change *through fashion*
Dear fashion thinkers:
Some of you might know that my homecountry of Colombia held presidential elections last Sunday. And—as usual—this has had me thinking. I’ve been thinking about the collective state of panic I’ve seen in the country—especially among some specific social sectors—and about the many comments and predictions. But, most importantly, I’ve been trying to figure out how fashion enters the whole issue. Because, as you might know, I just don’t seem to be able to think without integrating fashion in one way or another.
In fact, I’ve inquired on the relationship between fashion and politics for years. Maybe that’s why I chose to register for an elective on fashion and identity during the ancien régime and the French Revolution back when I was a first-year MA student. During that course I had the chance to research the representations of idealized femininity in the construction of the French Republic. And I even thought about continuing with that research subject for my MA thesis and become yet another scholar of the history of French fashion.
But my research for that course also made me question the relationship of fashion and politics at the other side of the Atlantic, in Colombia and Latin America. In the end, I was seeing more parallels than differences in how the two nations were being constituted (at least discursively).
And a whole MA Thesis and several years of research later, I still believe that the pillars upon which both France and Colombia were constructed—and pretty much every other modern, Western nation for that matter—are quite the same. But that’s a subject for another time.
Let’s fast forward a few years instead.
I am now back in Colombia, right in time for the presidential elections of 2018 (and before moving back to the US to pursue my Ph.D.). I am confronted by a polarized country, where hate discourses seem to define pretty much every comment about politics and fear rules everyone’s mind. For the more privileged, advocating for the benefit of everyone seems impossible, as it requires rejecting the comfort that our privileges have afforded us and quite a lot of work! But others—especially those who are already exhausted from not being able to even achieve the most basic conditions of human existence—were screaming for real, structural change.
This scream was finally heard four years later, when, last Sunday, a left-wing government won the elections, lead by Gustavo Petro (as President) and Francia Márquez (as Vicepresident).
The political polarization of the country—during both electoral cicles—was reflected, somehow, in the social media discourses of the different members of the fashion industry. It seems impossible for them to stay silent about political issues, including elections, the armed conflict, and even the social reality of the country. But, at the same time, their postures seem tamed, nostalgic, and romanticized—almost completely opposite to the violent and difficult reality of so many citizens. It’s almost as if the fashion industry were trying to avoid any direct association with politics even when reacting to or reflecting about the political issues faced by the country. And I have a sense that this is because many still think that fashion is not meant for serious discussion, since it’s just a pretty form of escapism.
Back in 2019 I published some of my observations in Fashion Theory. I analyzed how some brands and members of the Colombian fashion system engaged with politics and other social issues during the 2018 presidential elections.1 I haven’t been following the subject as closely this year and my academic production at the moment is confined to my Ph.D. dissertation, so I don’t think I’ll publish a “sequel” of my original essay.
But I’d still like to say (or write) a few ideas.
I must make a disclaimer, however, that I’m not going to tell anyone to leave the country if they don’t like the elected president, or defend any of the candidates at this time. What I will say is that, while we keep repeating how “hurt” we are about our “awful” and “ignorant” nation—as I’ve seen so many do on social media—without actually finding our own ways to personally execute change, there won’t be any real transformation. And if we just celebrate the triumph of “the left” without taking into advantage the opportunity that we now face of dismantling the structural problems of the country, we probably also won’t see any real change.
So, rather than celebrating or mourning our country, my call today is to think about how each of us can create a new, collective social contract that can help us build a better country from our own experiences and possibilities.2 (And here I must say that the terms of that “better” must be defined according to what works here, and not after Euro-North American impositions that have made us believe we are condemned to eternal underdevelopment.)
But “better” is quite a generic adjective. And it is subjective, as it has different meanings for different people. So how could we agree on what’s “better” for all?
Thinking in terms of fashion—as always—I came out with a list of ideas:
Eliminating violent practices in the production of fashion, including low-paid work and cultural appropriation;
Questioning—and hopefully one day eradicating—stereotypes associated with how people dress and look, and even the fact that “real” fashion and elegance are more often associated with Euro-North American models than with any other culture in the world;
Avoiding the simple copying of formulae that have worked for some Latinx and Latin American designers, mostly based on simplistic and limited ideas of a “tropical”, “exotic”, and “unexplored” land; and
Replacing the first three for a profound search of real authenticity, based on thorough research and the realization that fashion, in fact, is a substantial cultural phenomenon worthy of critical study!
The question that remains is how to come up with tangible and measurable actions to effect these changes. What do you think we could do?
As always, I look forward to reading your own ideas in the comments.
Thank you, thank you for reading. And until a new issue of Pensar la moda.
**The background music is “Latina” by Caslo (2022), used under International Creative Commons License with attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0).
Beltrán-Rubio, Laura. “Design For Dissent: Political Participation and Social Activism in the Colombian Fashion Industry”, Fashion Theory 23, no. 6 (2019): 655–678.
Jorge Luis Garay, ed., Repensar a Colombia: Hacia un nuevo contrato social (Bogotá: PNUD–ACCI, 2002).