West over Rest: Fashion's Internalized Racism - Author + Designer

In the academic field of fashion studies, a problematic language system has been codified and normalized by dress historians, fashion theorists, and students, as a result of longstanding opinions regarding modernity, globalization and Western perspective on world history.  This cultural conditioning, a subsequence of the European opinions of the historical progression of modern human development, has fostered a dangerously reductive view of fashion, its historicity, and its players. 

According to the work of Sandra Niessen, in the essay, “Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress,” published alongside Ann Marie Leshkowich and Carla Jones, fashion rhetoric and its definitions need to be revised.  The existent and accepted terminology that surrounds fashion and its international classifications is glaringly discriminatory in nature and speaks to the problematic perspective on global development by Western positioning.  Niessen’s examination of fashion and its international disbursements condemn the prevailing binary of the ‘West versus the Rest’ mentality for misshaping the academic tradition.  A concept recently addressed by Susan B. Kaiser in the book, Fashion and Cultural Studies, “Indeed, modern Western thought is riddled with either/or thinking that has limited what and how we know fashion in the context of a transnational world: fashionable (i.e modern) dress versus ‘fixed’ (i.e. traditional) costume, Western dress versus ‘the rest,’…” [original emphases]

Historically, fashion has been defined by such theorists and sociologists, Georg Simmel and Thorstein Veblen, as a strictly “Western phenomenon;” a unique cultural paradigm, exclusively the product of modernization and ‘civilized’ societies, characterized by rapid change and economic hierarchy.  Joanne B. Eicher upholds this imperialistic claim in her essay, “Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time,” when she cites a darwinian theory of societal development: “wearing of western dress was associated with a society moving from a state of ‘primitivism’ to one of ‘civilization’,” [original emphasis].  While she explains the dissemination of fashion, dress, and clothing across global ethnoscapes (an Appaduraian term for ethnic dimensions) quite successfully, her classifications unfortunately operate in the framework of oppositional structuring and have a distinctly discriminatory tone. 

In the opinion of Dorrine Kondo in her essay, “All About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater,” attempts of fashion scholars and critics to address ‘the Rest’ in the fashion sphere, is best characterized as Orientalist.  Specifically, Kondo illuminates the tendency of historians and critics to problematically generalize and group fashion designers by nationality—despite their apparent diversities—as a protective tactic to preserve the exclusivity of fashion and its Western propriety.  As “unsympathetic gatekeepers,” fashion writers have consistently patronized non-Western designers in critical examination and review, by “tracing their commonalities to cultural continuity.”  According to Kondo, the only circumstance in which successful work by foreign designers may be lauded, requires a contextualization of  “national essence” or ethnic identity.  As such, international acclaim is often founded upon the modernization or reinterpretation of traditional folk dress.  A prime example of  this at work, is Bill Cunningham’s review of Hannae Mori’s 1988 collection inDetails.  Though seemingly celebratory, Cunningham faults the designer’s “years of misguided attempts to imitate European style,” prior to her acclaimed haute-couture collection, crediting her then new-found success to a capitalization on her “ancient Japanese” heritage.  Despite the fact that Hannae Mori received praise for her work worldwide, it was through a condescending lens of unabashed Orientalism. 

Arguably, the blind acceptance of this prejudiced historical designation is a product of social constructions formed early in the educational stages of Western student experience.  As most twentieth century post-structuralist theory suggests, scholars often unknowingly internalize inherited opinions as truisms based on educational shaping and generational influence.  In turn, learned platitudes subliminally affect critical stances and serve to shape the trajectory of the discourse.  Such as in the case of fashion, the traditional definition has gone largely uncontested by theorists and historians despite its obviously reductive scope and troubling xenophobic undertones.  

However, a new perspective upheld by designers and consumers across the globe may change the longstanding preconceptions of fashion forever.  Due to globalization and the cross-pollination of ethnoscapic boundaries, fashion, its development, and terminology have become increasingly inclusive and fluid.  A sentiment addressed by Islamic fashion designer Sophia Kara of Imaan Collections in Emma Tarlo’s essay, “Visibily Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith,” is the desire to abolish cultural barriers through the use of clothing.  Essentially, to mediate the differences in national, religious, and gender constructions through fashion as a global phenomenon.  This maturation of fashion as a cultural straddler and boundary abolisher signifies a new phase in the perceptions of fashion, “in which distinctions of ethnicity…become irrelevant.”  Tarlo’s essay spans far beyond the discussion of the Islamic fashion scape to propose the possibility of a progressive world view: a status not so far away, as the field of fashion studies grows exponentially each year.  Challenging the presupposed oppositional binary of the ‘West vs. the Rest,’ critical conversations within the field of fashion have recently served to address its transnational intersections and convergences—finally acting to redefine fashion as a global system—characterized by inclusion, fluidity, and fashion for all.  


Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press 1998. 

Eicher, Joanne B. and Barbara Sumberg. “World Fashion, Ethnic, and National Dress”. In: Joanne B. Eicher (ed). Dress and Ethnicity: Change across Space and Time. Oxford, Washington D.C. 1995. Pp 295 - 305.

Kaiser, Susan B., Fashion and Cultural Studies. London, New York: Berg 2012.

Kondo, Dorinne. About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater. New York: Routledge 1997. Pp. 55 – 99. 

Niessen, Sandra. “Afterword: Re-Orienting Fashion Theory.” In: Sandra Niessen, Ann Marie Leshkowich, Carla Jones (ed.). Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress. Oxford, New York: Berg 2003. 

Tarlo, Emma. Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics and Faith. Oxford, New York: Berg 2010. Pp. 189-229.

© Cayla A. O'Connell 2013