What does it mean to be a fashion historian?

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a fashion historian.

Here I’m not talking about the ins and outs of the fashion history “trade.” I definitely have not been thinking about what it means to do research in fashion history, what a day in the life of a fashion historian may look like, or what a professional career in the field may entail. I think I’ve spent enough time researching fashion history and seeing myself as a fashion historian to have more or less precise answers to those questions at this point.

Instead, my reflections have focused on a more practical and perhaps even “philosophical” take on what it means to be a fashion historian in the very disturbed world that we live in today.

I’ve been pondering questions like: What is the purpose—if any—of fashion history? How can we use fashion history to actively reshape an industry that is clearly rotten and needs a good shakeout? And what is the role of a fashion historian in shaping contemporary design or even the future of fashion?

Most days I am privileged enough to simply avoid thinking about these questions, focus on my fashion history research, writing, and lecturing, and just ignore most of what’s happening in the world around me.

Then there are the days in which I consciously feel thankful that I’m a fashion historian because I get to use my focus on history as a way of escaping all of the troubles of our world.

But then again I am part of this world and I can’t simply escape it. In fact, feeling like I can hide from many of our worldly struggles—and even being able to pursue fashion history as a career—already point to my very privileged existence. And the hierarchies that allow for the privilege of some might have in turn contributed to at least some of the problems that humanity faces today.

The idea of “escaping the present” to hide in the past also reveals a form of romantic nostalgia that sees the past as a “better” time—one that we should long for. But the truth is that focusing on history is also painful, especially when we look at the starting points of many of the struggles that we face (collectively as human beings) today.

This is true even for a fashion historian. Fashion, as one of the most accurate expressions of human interactions and collective anxieties, always reveals social tensions and the many acts of violence enacted by humans. So, when we study fashion history, we inevitably also look at the entangled histories of colonialism, human thought, politics, economics, and technology. And, in doing so, we uncover many forms of domination, systems of power, and expressions of systemic violence around the world—even though textiles can also carry positive, inspiring, and beautiful stories, at times at least.

Perhaps that’s why Khensani Mohlatlole stated recently in a brilliant reel that:

Historical fashion can sometimes feel like an exercise in pain and suffering.

This is especially so when we look at fashion history from a non-hegemonic lens and with the objective of uncovering the many fashion practices of groups and people whose cultures have been violently attacked, their voices systemically silenced, and their traces erased throughout human history.

But fashion history has a fantastic potential to uncover precisely those silenced stories, challenging the erasures and, most importantly, reveal the different ways in which fashion has fostered (or at least supported) different forms of systemic violence, such that we avoid perpetuating them by repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

For more than 10 years, I have had the opportunity to challenge those erasures, by researching the histories of fashion in the Americas. As a result, I’ve been able to prove the existence of fashion in Latin America, despite the narratives that tell us it doesn’t exist. And I’ve been able to uncover the inevitable—and very strong—presence of Indigenous people, technologies, and knowledge in shaping fashion as we know it today. (Fun fact: did you know that most tailors in the colonial Andes were Indigenous or of Indigenous descent?)

More recently, I’ve been privileged to share my ideas with hundreds of design students (mostly from Latin America) and I’d like to believe that my research has reframed how they perceive fashion, moving beyond the Euro-North American canon. I’m having some impact on how they think about “Latin American” fashion and how they relate with Indigenous designers, artists, and craftsmen. But I have my doubts.

But what is the point?

A fantastic article on the importance of Black fashion history education in Fashionista sums it up quite accurately:

If I can’t trust that the contributions of historically marginalized communities will be acknowledged in higher education, what possible hope do I have that they would be as I continued to climb up the ladder in the industry?

So the point of fashion history is precisely to show to a largely white, Eurocentric industry that fashion belongs to all cultures and “races” and that it can nurture greatly from diversity. Only then can we start to move—however slowly—towards more diverse and equitable practices that can, in turn, dismantle many of the toxic, colonialist dynamics that survive in the fashion industry and collectively construct new ways of thinking, wearing, creating, and talking about fashion.

The question now is whether us fashion historians can convince an entire industry to embrace diversity or if diversity will continue to be a façade to drive sales and popularity among fashion brands, without moving towards real change. What do you think? Don’t hesitate to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

And one last thing while I have you: if you’re interested in engaging in more thorough conversations about this topic, please join my Patreon community. By doing so, you can get access to a group chat, a study guide, a book club and a 1:1 coffee chat with me every month. I’d love to see you there!

As always, thank you, thank you for reading and until next time!

—L 🩷

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