It’s the end of #fashionrevolution week. It begs us to ask the question: #whomademyclothes What do we wear and how does what we wear make us feel … or do we even think about it? Some of us, me included, choose to wear clothing designed and made by indigenous women.
These are ancient designs, considered part of cultural heritage. These are styles that come with creativity, innovation, dedicated work, long hours bent over dye baths and back-strap looms, from regions of isolation and impoverishment. Most are not copyright protected. Some are lost art resuscitated by a new generation of sewists and designers.
Some of us want to believe that we are part of a socially responsible fashion movement. Many of us want to meet the maker or at least know who made our clothes. We read labels to know fiber content and country of origin. We buy at consignment and thrift shops to reuse the perfectly discarded.
This New York Times story, Finding the Beauty in Other People’s Styles, sent to me by Jenny Brinitzer, takes me right to the core of the discussion I’m very interested in:
Why do I buy and wear clothes from other cultures? Am I playing dress-up, just like I did as a young girl, fantasizing about being different or noticed? Do I have the right (and privilege) as a first-world Anglo to don the clothing of an indigenous culture far from my own roots? Is this colonial behavior, admiration … or something else? Must I conform to wearing socially and politically correct cloth by adhering to Western style?
In this era of fast and disposable fashion, where we have thousands of choices, I think these are questions worth examining. Perhaps the answers are justifications for how we dress. Perhaps the answers dig deeper into our own values and motivations. Perhaps its a simple answer: It is just beautiful.
I think it’s important to be aware of fashion that borrows or combines style elements from one or several indigenous cultures. We see designs digitally copied or cut from whole cloth, applied to machine woven material, then sewn into a tailored dress. They become the hem or the bodice or collar, far from their origins. Renown designers do this. So do mass marketers. The original versions would have been squares or rectangles woven on back-strap looms, joined with embroidery, complete garments loose and comfortable.
Which is why I like to wear indigenous cloth. The reasons are practical. They are made with natural fibers — cotton or silk. They are easy to wear and are usually washable by hand with mild soap and cool water, so taking care of them is easier (and cheaper). In hot North Carolina and Oaxaca summers, and warm Oaxaca winters, loose weaves keep me cool.
There are emotional reasons, too. My grandfather was a tailor. He made all my mother’s clothes by hand. He knew the importance of fine detail. My mother taught me to make small, almost invisible stitches on hems and seams, the clothes I continue to make and repair. I think of the labor-intensity of a hand-made piece of cloth and I think of the generations of makers, women and men, who came before me, and I think of my family.
How I feel when I wear a huipil from Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, for example, is more complex.
The cloth is made by women and men from a different culture from my own. This offers me a chance to honor what they do and to create connection between us. To see the similarities instead of paying attention to differences. In the buying of what they make, I contribute to their ability to sustain their culture, their craft, and their families. This is intimate and personal and gives me a great deal of satisfaction. This, I believe, is cultural appreciation. I have a chance in the act of wearing, I think, to narrow the divide.
In wearing these clothes, do I say I want to be different from who I am? That I want to take on the persona of another. I think not. What I want to communicate is that I am a woman beyond borders, where clothing tells a story of unlimited possibility. For me, it is a subtle statement that we share more in common than not and serves to tell the world a little about me — albeit unspoken.
By now, most of us know ourselves, our personalities, what we like, what looks good on us, what we are comfortable with. Identity is conveyed by clothing choices. Mine say: I am free, independent and strong. I like quirky style, I like color, I like cultural variation and respect diversity, conventions be damned.
So, I admit it. I am respectfully appropriating the culture of Mexico or Japan or India or Guatemala, where I have traveled and shopped in remote corners where talented people in humble circumstances create beauty. It is not offensive to me to wear these garments because I believe I understand their origins, the political and social struggles of marginalized makers. I do not live their lives, yet I sympathize by wearing their cloth.
Your thoughts and responses are welcome.
Recently, I was invited by Selvedge Magazine, London, United Kingdom, to contribute an article about Chiapas textiles. It will be published soon. They asked about what inspires me to work with artisans in Mexico and introduce people to the makers. I’ll be writing more about that here, too.