Collage with three photos. The first, on the left, shows a desk in front of a window, on top of which is a vase with flowers and a laptop showing the cover of the book "The Dress Detective" by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim. The photo in the center portrays a woman reading the book "Dressed in Dreams" by Tanisha C. Ford. And the photo on the right has several books stacked on top of each other and flowers. "The Latin American Fashion Reader," edited by Regina Root, is thee most visible book in this photo.

Latin America is not ready for Fashion Studies

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Hi everyone! (Should I call you fashion friends or is that too cringy and weird?) Thank you for tuning in! This is the very first official episode of Re/dressing Fashion and I’m super excited to finally be recording this after giving it way too much thought and pushing it back probably for longer than I should have. But anyway. Here I am, finally. And, before we get into the details of who I am or what this show is all about, I want to talk a little bit about fashion studies. In other words, I’ll introduce myself, explain what it means to redress fashion, and attempt to summarize what fashion studies are in the next episode. Today I just want to share some ideas that I’ve been reflecting on over the past few months, especially as I try to figure out my next steps as a specialist—or should I say Doctor? Ph.D.-holder?—in fashion studies.

Let’s dive right in.

I’m a firm believer in the power of fashion studies. From an academic standpoint, fashion studies offer new insights into many of the practices and interactions that have shaped our societies since the dawn of humanity. And, outside academia, fashion studies reveal the many failures of the fashion system, as it functions today, because it continues to subjugate in different ways millions of people—and our non-human kin—around the world.

More selfishly, I’m a firm believer in the power of fashion studies as a career path. I was privileged enough to get a degree in this field that I saw as new, novel, and exciting, finding an excuse to make a living out of thinking about fashion all day. (Though it has turned out to be a lot more difficult than I first thought.) And, over the last decade, I’ve come to realize that fashion studies is exactly what will allow me to actively work to create a better world while doing something I love.

Today, I’m fully convinced that, by translating research insights from fashion studies into educational programming for members of the fashion industry, we can actually create better informed and more diverse, ethical, and sustainable fashion practices.

And I’m not alone in this.

The power of fashion studies has been embraced by many scholars, higher education institutions, NGOs, and governments around the world. More personally, it was my main motivation to return to Colombia to work as hard as I could to grow both fashion studies and the fashion industry in Latin America. But, to my own surprise, over the past couple of years I’ve been crashing into one wall after another, until I finally gave up (sort of).

I was hired by none other than my Alma Mater under the promise that I would be able to grow the field of fashion studies in Latin America from within Colombian academia. Perhaps in part because of technical, bureaucratic, and budget restrictions, it never happened. But I have a sense that it’s also in great part because Colombia—and Latin America—are not yet ready to embrace the power of fashion studies.

I’ve come to that conclusion after going through many frustrating experiences as I’ve tried to participate in the development of the field over the past few years. I’ve also spent months reflecting and self-evaluating my work as a fashion scholar in Latin America, especially as I’ve tried to decompress and recover from burnout after I quit that job.

Before explaining how I got to this conclusion, I must say that I sincerely hope that the few of us who are doing the hard, painful, and super slow work of laying a solid foundation for fashion studies in Latin America will eventually achieve a space that’s a bit more open and welcoming to critical thinking in and through fashion—and to fashion studies as a whole.

Now let me explain why I think that Latin America is not ready for fashion studies.

First, the common behaviors and expectations shared by the local fashion academia reveal a generalized lack of engagement with critical thinking in and through fashion. For example, one of the supposed “leaders” of fashion studies in Colombia showed up as a student to my inaugural master’s level course with a beautifully assembled booklet made up of printed copies of all the class materials, but never proved to read or attempted to engage in critical conversations on fashion. An influencer who enrolled in one of my courses as an elective for her master’s degree in journalism ignored all the feedback I’d given her throughout the term when writing her final “essay” on sportswear. Her piece felt more like an easy blog note with too many pictures and very few words—and yet she dared to complain about her final grade at the very last minute. And my other master’s level course on fashion history would always fill up with 20 students in just a few hours, but only 4 would remain after they realized they had to actually read, for we weren’t just going to gossip about Dior and Chanel for two hours twice a week.

The general expectation, then, seemed to be that fashion studies was something “easy” to do, that knowledge in the field could be achieved without reading and in a purely anecdotal manner. And, while I am all in for diverse modes of teaching and learning, I don’t think we can afford to give up on critical thinking as we attempt to make fashion studies more accessible.

Then there’s the industry side of things.

It’s been proven that no one is ever ready to hear the hard truths, but here it seems that no one is open to even conceiving a slightly different way of seeing and thinking about fashion. Instead, spaces are only open to those who, in one way or another, strive to maintain a certain world order in which thinking—especially thinking critically—is unthinkable.

As a result, both industry members and the general public end up trusting celebrities and influencers more than they trust scholars, established journalists, and critical thinkers. And the people who’ve gained trust have made sure to build a wall that’s so large and bulky that it would be impossible for newcomers to cross it.

The wall is so sturdy that it even admits open acts of intimidation and censorship, which I have had to face myself. Here I want to quickly summarize an incident that I try not to think about too much—because it’s still incredibly embarrassing and frustrating—but will help me illustrate my point. When I was just starting my Ph.D. and my first publication in Fashion Theory came out, a group of self-proclaimed fashion studies scholars in Colombia came after me, demanding the editors of the journal to take my article down. The reason, they claimed, was that my study overexposed the people whose Twitter interactions I used as the basis of my research.

Rather than exposing certain people (who had already done so for themselves, by sharing on social media), my article was intended as a close reading of the use of social media among members of the fashion industry in the middle of a very complex political situation. The article was approved by editors and peer reviewers so it couldn’t have been all that useless. This is why, over the years, I’ve come to understand that this whole issue was more about gatekeeping than about the content of my article. In sending their intimidating petition, the gatekeepers aimed to stop my growth in fashion studies as soon as I dared to enter the field.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this same group of people came after me (again) when I was offered to teach the first graduate course on fashion studies in the country.

But even then I chose to stay, even though I have never felt more powerless and scared as I did back then. I chose to surround myself with supportive mentors and colleagues I admire—mostly abroad—who have encouraged me to continue pushing to diversify fashion and fashion studies through my work, both as a scholar and a consultant. And I chose to work through my frustrations and burnout, especially over the past six months, deciding not to give up on fashion, rekindling my love for teaching, and devising new ways to redress the fashion industry through research and education.

So, as the new year approaches, I now know that I won’t stop actively working to create a more diverse, ethical, and sustainable fashion system. Next year I’ll start a new teaching position (in a brand new country), where I’ll take everything I’ve learned from my superstar students in Colombia—the ones that chose to stay with me—to make sure that critical thinking becomes the root of fashion. I haven’t forgotten about my mission to develop fashion studies in Latin America and strengthen the fashion industry in the region—I’ll just have to keep doing the work from abroad. And I’ll continue to research, write, speak openly, create spaces for reflective conversation, and translate scholarly insights to create strategies that help an entire industry reimagine the future for fashion. Or, as I like to call it: to redress fashion into a better future.

That’s precisely what this podcast is all about. It’s an evolution of what started as my monthly audioblog, where I shared “loose thoughts” as I attempted to think through fashion and pull together the many ideas that came my way as I navigated between my Ph.D. research in the history of Latin American fashion, my teaching of broad subjects around material culture for practice-based design students, and the real-life challenges faced by my clients in the industry. Here you’ll find heartfelt conversations, actionable strategies, and—yes!—even more loose thoughts that I hope will help us set right everything that’s proven to be wrong with fashion as we know it today.

Please tune in on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month starting in January 2024 and, if you already feel like it, do subscribe to be notified when new episodes become available.

In addition to the podcast, I will continue to write in my blog, send my weekly email updates, and—of course—host our all time favorite book club! So make sure to sign up to my email list (linked in the show notes) to make sure that you’re not missing out on any of these spaces and events.

Thank you, thank you for listening and until the next time!

—L 🩷


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