Perspective: A Reflection on Fashion Cultures and My Own Increased Awareness
Becoming situated within the fashion studies program came with a sense of panic, an overwhelming feeling of what do I do with this information? sweeping over me as I read through the history and theory assigned in my first semester classes. While I felt as though I was learning and growing, I could not physically map out for myself a route or potential career path including all of the new, challenging, and pertinent information I was taking in. When the information is being presented either as pure history or pure theory, it becomes difficult to distil it into smaller, focused information rather than viewing them as more widely applicable concepts and ideas, especially within contemporary society. However, taking Fashion Cultures has shed light on just how this information will be useful for me in a potential career, and more importantly, how I have taken the information learned in this class and have been able to apply it to my everyday life. In fact, my biggest takeaway from the course was the realization of how much I did not know, but how much was still left to do within the field of fashion – both academically and within the industry. Each week, as lecturers from around the world came to talk to us about their own passions, I began to see just how much versatility there truly is in this field, and how many gaps and discrepancies there are that we are now able to think about (and address!) critically.
First of all, within fashion studies, while there is a lot of talk about the idea of the West not being “the center of it all” in terms of fashion, there is still predominately middle to upper class, white voice that seems to dominate the conversation. Not that these opinions and observations are wrong or invalid, but the viewpoints offered by Fashion Cultures speakers were, in my opinion, a true success in giving us perspective and orientation where many topics may seem so one-sided. For example, Dr. Sharon Lee’s talk about plastic surgery in South Korea had me thinking about a topic that had, until recently, seemed so removed from my own life. However, not only did this talk open my eyes to how global the issue of plastic surgery was, but also refocused my attention on how we address and talk about the issue in Western society. As Dr. Lee writes in her article entitled, “Neoliberalism, race, and the (geo)politics of beauty:”
Thus, we see what Chandra Mohanty, in her now seminal “Under Western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses”,characterizes as a First World/Third World divide. And the demarcation is clear: Western women are characterized as “educated, as modern, as having control over their bodies and sexualities, and [exercising] the freedom to make their own decisions” representations of Western women, thus seemingly stabilizing Western feminism even as it continues to be a contested site at home. In marked contrast, the “average third world woman” “leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and her being ‘third world’ (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc.) (ibid).
For me, being aware of this clear split in perception of “us versus them” and in language is integral for understanding all that follows within the fashion industry, and more importantly, for being responsibly active within the industry as well. Though this point is fairly clear, I think that it has much more poignancy once it has been articulated. Further, as Dr. Lee connected the rampancy of South Korean plastic surgery to norms created and circulated in the West, it drove the point home again that our actions here are without consequence, and in fact, are felt via a global impact.
As a product of Western society, it is difficult not only to realize that there has been so much blindness and lack of sensitivity to the issue of race, gender, and class, but that many of these stories and histories have been actively and intentionally left out of the Western cultural dialogue, and creation thereof. Perhaps that is why, for example, Dr. Minh-Ha Pham’s talk left such an impression on me. Her extremely poignant observations about the fact that the fashions of women of color were left out of contemporary fashion exhibitions and curations truly left me dumbfounded. Further, as I listened to her observation about the way that fashion displayed in museums, “by being exhibited, they [the museum] become the authority”, leaving the uneducated viewer with “unquestioned consumption,” (Pham) I felt totally foolish. As a person who feels as though they are aware of racism and when it’s being enacted, the truth is, is that I have been completely blind and unaware to the reality of the situation. On one level, it is difficult to realize how much of a product you are of the culture, and on the other, more difficult yet, is that this is a problem that not only persists, but is one that rests comfortably in the hegemonic norms of society.
Though I felt as though this class succeeded for me personally in many ways, I think the perspective I gained through it is what was most important to me. Though I was only able to speak briefly about some of the speakers, I felt as though each of the lecturers had a message that resonated with me in this same vein. I think that while it is, of course, important to learn about the history of fashion, it is also extremely important to learn about the histories that have not been recorded, or that have been intentionally left out so that moving forward, we are able to be truly inclusive, as it almost goes without saying, that everyone’s story is not only equally important, but equally accountable for contributing to the culture not only of the West, but of the world. As fashion grows to reach more and more people and places through globalization, it will be interesting to hopefully see a shift to include more and more histories, stories, and human beings.
Pham, Dr Minh-Ha. “Archival Intimacies: Of Another Fashion.” Fashion Cultures. The New School. Thew New School, New York, NY. 12 Mar. 2014. Lecture.
Lee, Sharon Heijin. “Lessons From “Around The World With Oprah”: Neoliberalism, Race, And The (geo)politics Of Beauty.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 18.1 (2008): 25-41. Print.
Lee, Dr Sharon. “South Korean Pop Culture.” Fashion Cultures. The New School. The New School, New York, NY. 5 Mar. 2014. Lecture.