My relationship with fashion dates back to the early childhood. Dressed in floral ensembles with glittery boots of matching colours, a tiny bow decorating the bob haircut I—to the horror of my mother—had insisted on getting, I daydreamed about becoming like the empowered, stylish woman that brought me up: always immaculately dressed with pastel-coloured pantsuits, sky-high heels, and long curls framing the beautiful smile that still manages to comfort me more than anything else in the world. The early ensembles were often replaced by full-skirted dresses for special occasions; later, and more permanently, by outfits made up of cropped tops, bell-bottom jeans, and 5-inch platforms; and eventually by pussy-bow shirts, culottes, and floral Gucci slippers. As I grew, the ways I fashioned myself changed, but one thing remained constant: the sense of empowerment that I give myself with clothes.
As a fashion historian, one of the questions I find repeatedly asking myself has to do with the truthfulness of representations of costume in Latin America before the invention of photography. Although, until relatively recently, posing for a photo included a very delicate selection of the outfit—and it continues to be the case for some occasions—we can assert that the clothes that appear in a photograph are real: they are much more than the idealized product of an artist’s imagination, which, quite undoubtedly, is trained to show the power of the sitter through a series of visual codes, or a perfected copy of the European model, to which the American character is added.
Past the galleries of Medieval art, with fairy tales narrated by the tapestries on their walls, and welcomed by a short glimpse of the most beautiful Chinese ceramics, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits the Costume Institute’s latest creation: Manus x Machina. The exhibition, which transformed the renown Lehman wing into the cupola of a Florentine Renaissance church, opens with the dress that inspired it. Designed by Karl Lagerfeld as the closing garment for his autumn/winter 2014-15 haute couture collection for Chanel, and made with synthetic diving-suit material, its surface soft as a whale’s skin, the dress extends about 6 metres backward, its train showcasing the most perfect intersection of manus and machina. The brocaded pattern was first hand-drawn by Lagerfeld, then pixelated with a computer aid. Rhinestones were inserted using a heat press, and the gold paint and pearls were embroidered by hand, taking the artisans no less than 450 hours of manual labor in the completion of this masterpiece. If the dress presents a pregnant figure, made specifically for the model who wore it down the catwalk a few years ago, it also presents the conception of the most recent creative vision of the curatorial genius that is Andrew Bolton, curator in chief of the Costume Institute.
In many ways, Colombiamoda 2016 reflected the state of contemporary creative culture in the country. This, culture influenced by the legacy of “easy-doing” promoted particularly during the last half century by drug trafficking and violence, seems to be carried in the veins of the Colombian peoples since the settling of Mozarabic Spaniards during the Colony. And, despite seeming ready to face the world, especially in terms of fashion, the Colombian creative culture is yet to wake up. But more that highlighting some of the problems of Colombian fashion, something that “critics” trying to find their 15 minutes of fame have already done for me, I want to highlight the good things, those that make me believe that someday—hopefully not too far away—fashion will become an aspect of Colombian pride, both inside the country and abroad.
With Colombiamoda (Colombia’s annual fashion week) just around the corner, I have been thinking a lot lately on the state of fashion both in the country and the broader region of Hispanic America. Although my thoughts on the matter have evolved as I develop a more critical, studied, perspective with my increasing knowledge of the field, two common threads don’t change at all: First, that Colombian (and Latin American) fashion has a great potential of appealing to cosmopolitan consumers from different places and of providing the international fashion market with world-class goods; and second, that there is a strong need to develop a more critical approach, in which we talk about fashion as a local phenomenon, within its own context.
Here are some of my thoughts, a short reflection on the topic I wrote about 18 months ago.
One of my favorite ways of researching fashion is documenting and reflecting on my own dress practices. In doing so, I undergo a process of introspection where I question not just the actual clothes I choose to wear—both on the day to day and on special occasions—but also the reasons that lie behind those choices. It is a process of self-ethnography that allows me to explore the relationship between my own body, its material extension in clothing, and the social context in which it lives.