Researching Fashion: How to decenter and reframe research on fashion in Abya Yala?

My semester ended a couple of weeks ago and that means to me that I can finally focus on my research!

Funny because, as a full-time professor, researching is technically part of my job. But I generally spend most of my time preparing classes, grading, supervising students, and involved in a bunch of other academic obligations, so I don’t get to research much while the semester is in session. That, at least, has been my experience until now.

Actually, more than funny this is frustrating, as researching is what I like the most about being a scholar.

But what is all this research about?

I realized last week, while I was preparing an Instagram post on what it means to be a researcher in fashion for Latinoamérica de Moda (in Spanish, sadly) that I have way too many things to share about it. So I decided to dedicate this post to the subject.

And the first thing to do, I think, is to define “research”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means:

Systematic investigation or inquiry aimed at contributing to knowledge of a theory, topic, etc., by careful consideration, observation, or study of a subject.

OED [1]

Fashion can certainly be the “topic” under consideration, and the facts, attitudes, practices, and discourses around fashion can be the subjects to be considered, observed, and studied.

We tend to think that research needs to be purely unbiased for it to be “scientific.” But this idea has relegated the arts, design, and the humanities to a sort of underdog in research because interpretive analysis is fundamental to their study. Because these interpretations are (at least partially) personal, they are inherently endowed with a subjective component that make objectivity impossible in these fields. And for some this means that research is not possible in the arts and humanities—although, of course, I disagree.

But if there’s something I’ve noticed in the more than a decade that I’ve been conducting research myself—and not just in fashion but also in economics—is that absolutely no scholarly exercise is completely objective. And we need to both recognize and integrate our subjectivity into our research practices so that they can account for all the human complexities that lie behind the topics of our research, especially when it comes to fashion, culture, and the arts. In the words of anthropologist Heike Jenss, who is also Professor of Fashion Studies at Parsons:

researching or “locating” fashion, is also linked with locating oneself as a researcher in time and place, through the selection or shaping of specific themes and fields, the ignoring of others, the raising of certain questions, the developing or integration of particular theoretical frameworks, etc.

Heike Jenss [2]

At this point I don’t think it surprises anyone that the “location” of fashion—and its researchers—has been in the hegemonic centers for both fashion and the production of knowledge, namely prestigious universities mostly in Europe and North America. Perhaps that’s why most of the “global” fashion histories that have been written until now ignore a lot of what happened in the Americas and Africa, especially before the European invasions of these territories.

But even when we study fashion and its history from the so-called “periphery” we do so from hegemonic perspectives. This is, in part, because the people (like me) who are dedicated to researching fashion come from these same European or North American universities or adopt the theories and methodologies established by the “Western” academic canon. Even in Abya Yala, most of the academic sphere is in fact constructed as a mirror of this canon and it is very difficult—if not outright impossible—to get out of it.

So how can we decenter research in fashion?

I certainly don’t have a definitive answer for this question and I doubt there will ever be one (as it tends to happen in the humanities). But I have been thinking about this question for years now and I think I have a few semi-formed thoughts on the matter. I even shared some of them in the first season of the Sartorial Society Series in 2020 and I think it’s worth recalling some of them today.

Perhaps the first thing to do is to get rid of that idea that research in fashion must be 100% objective since, as I explained above, it is just impossible to be completely unbiased. To this we should add something that I’ve repeated quite a lot over here and in my social media: we need to understand that fashion is a serious subject of inquiry that must be critically thought about and researched.

A third step, which you might have expected at this point, is to fill academic and research discourses about fashion with the practices and occurrences that have emerged in places like Latin America, Africa, and Asia (although the latter, I feel, has been a bit more present in the global histories of fashion than the first two).

This last step, however, has several challenges. First, because there are much fewer collections of fashion, dress, and textiles in Abya Yala than there are in Euro-North American contexts. This makes object-based research much more difficult. Even if there exist amazing historical archives and repositories in cities like Quito and Bogotá, smaller cities, especially those in regions with higher temperatures and humidity and less resources, have lost much of their own historical records. Lest we speak about fires and the systemic destruction of archives at the hands of questionable leaders!

But, as everything in life, there is a positive side to the scarcity of resources. And in this case, I think, is that we end up becoming more creative when it comes to research. In my case, I’ve had to look at historical tailoring manuals and even documents relating to the examination procedures to certify tailors in the past in order to recreate historical garments and, through them, gain a better understanding of the materiality of fashion in the past. One of my colleagues has been immersed in conversation with present-day Mayan communities in order to better understand their arts and culture before the European invasion. And these are just two examples!

The second example, I believe, is especially important because working horizontally with Indigenous nations is an important step towards decolonizing research. Even more so when it leads to outcomes that the people in these communities want and desire. This, I think, is taking a step beyond simply decentering research.

In fact, I believe we need to get rid of many of the methodologies and systems that exist in academia in order to actually decolonize the ways in which we conduct our research. We need to begin by recognizing that pretty much every single research method as we know them today are founded in colonialist ways of thought. Once we realize that, we might be able to replace these methodologies by “a set of techniques and procedures… decolonial actions and footprints,” as Alexander Ortiz Ocaña and María Isabel Arias López have proposed. [3] I’ve been trying out some of these footprints in my teaching of research methods for design, as part of the seminar on Design and (de)coloniality that I teach at Universidad de los Andes (and which I might have mentioned over here before), but I won’t get into the details today.

What I do want to insist on is the importance of conducting research in order to create fashion. Ir might be needless to say at this point but I do firmly believe that we will only be able to move towards more a solid, efficient, ethical, and maybe even “eco-friendly” fashion system if we develop rigorous research practices that can be applied by everyone—starting with fashion creators. So what we truly need are more people who can conduct critical research in fashion.

And this is my call to everyone who reads me and has even the slightest curiosity about doing research in fashion as a potential career path: do it! Research in fashion can happen in “traditional” places, like academia and museums, but it can also take place in the creation of collections and brands, in textile production and design, and even in our everyday dressing practices.

And if you want to embark on this path but don’t know where to start, please don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comment section. As always, I would love for us to have some real conversation in this space, and very much look forward to reading your thoughts.

Thank you, thank you for reading! And until next time.

— L🩷


[1] “research,” OED Online, September 2022 (Oxford University Press).

[2] Heike Jenss, “Introduction. Locating Fashion/Studies: Research Methods, Sites and Practices,” in Fashion Studies: Research Methods, Sites and Practices (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

[3] “un conjunto de técnicas y procedimientos… acciones y huellas decoloniales” (my translation). Alexander Ortiz Ocaña y María Isabel Arias López, “Hacer decolonial: desobedecer a la metodología de investigación”, Hallazgos 16, nº. 31 (2019): 1–20.

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