Loose Thoughts: Why I insist so much on expanding the definition of fashion

If you’ve been reading me for a while, you may realize that I’m a big advocate for the adoption of expansive definitions of fashion that move beyond the strict connection of fashion with modern, Euro-North American capitalism.

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I wrote about the more expansive definitions of fashion that I adhere to in an article titled “Redefining Fashion from Abya Yala” back in 2022, so I won’t delve into them here. What I want to focus on today is the ongoing resistance to embrace these broader definitions—one that, I must confess, has taken me by surprise even though I keep finding it in spaces and conversations of varied sorts.

I had to justify my use of the word “fashion”—instead of “costume” or “dress”—over and over again when writing my Ph.D. dissertation on colonial Latin American fashion. Even after years of having this discussion with different committee members, it still was one of the questions that sparked the most discussion during my defense. (And I’m trying to gather the main points of these discussions for my next podcast episode, going live next week.)

I also talk about it all the time with friends, students, and colleagues. And I find it quite curious that it is often the people who claim to know the least about fashion who adhere the most to its traditional, Eurocentric definitions. So I had come to the conclusion that those of us who are involved in some way with fashion studies have generally embraced the more expansive definitions of fashion that go beyond the Euro-North American canon.

Until my recent Instagram takeover for The Art of Dress.

In the first couple of videos I created for the collaboration, I questioned the (unfortunately too common) idea that “fashion” in Latin America is a misnomer and the myth that fashion was “born” in Europe only to expand to other parts of the world. Both reels received a lot of comments from knowledgeable individuals, many of which called me out for not knowing what fashion is and correcting my use of the term, noting that I was actually talking about “costume”—not “fashion.”

But I’ve spent years trying to understand what fashion is, what we’ve been told it is from the hegemonic narratives that have shaped much of fashion history and fashion studies, and the discursive distinctions between “fashion,” “costume,” and “dress.”

And, after more than a decade thinking about such categories, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, that the separation of (modern, Western) “fashion” from (premodern, non-Euro-North American) “costume” and “dress” is the result of colonialist discourses about fashion that predicate European cultural superiority. Second, that the long-lasting categorization of practices of bodily adornment into the separate, hierarchical categories of fashion and costume/dress is a strategy used by the fashion hegemony to maintain its order centered on Euro-North American exceptionalism. And third, that if we truly want to “decenter,” “redress,” or “decolonize” fashion, we must question and hopefully one day get rid of such categories. 

The reason? Because the design of clear-cut, separate categories is rooted in the form of European thought that denies the “both/and” nature of many other worldviews and much of human existence. (French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the central aspect of categories in the European paradigm in The Order of Things.) (This is also why I’m not exactly a fan of strict categorization, as I mentioned in the introductory episode to Redressing Fashion).

This is precisely why I insist so much in the need to embrace a more expansive definition of “fashion” that includes the diverse practices of bodily adornment that have existed throughout the ages in pretty much every human culture.

But I’m also curious about the reasons to maintain the order imposed by strict categorization and, with it, the strong resistance to expanding Eurocentric definitions and historical narratives of fashion. So, especially if you are one of the people who defend the separation of “fashion” from “costume” and “dress,” I’d love to hear from you!

More generally, I’d love to know: Which definitions of “fashion” do you adhere to? And can you conceive an all-encompassing definition of fashion that includes all practices of bodily adornment? Why or why not?

Please, please share your thoughts in the comment section! I’d love to know what you think and engage in some more conversation on the matter.

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

—L 🩷

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