Activism can take many forms, but a common trait is that the action often aims to manifest an alternative, in either means or ends. Design activism within fashion would, in a similar vein, aim to produce alternatives to the dominant model of fashion. However, as mentioned in the example of YOMANGO, as an alternative counter-system opposes very strong forces within the main model the alternative may produce conflict and agonism.
As mentioned before, the current reluctance to see a conflict of life practices, for example between today’s hyper-consumerism and socially and environmentally sustainable practices, is one of the problems of the current models of designing sustainable systems. With all talk about “resilience”, our coping with disturbance, we tend to overlook the violence orchestrated and sanctioned by the fashion system on its subjects and stakeholders. It is not only the natural environment that is affected by the violence of fashion, it is also workers, families, teenage consumers, victims of anorexia or racial profiling, kids harassed in school about their clothes, and many more. When fashion is “democratised”, easily accessible on a global scale, the violence of fashion is everywhere. And this violence we should not be “resilient” to, we must mobilise resistance against it.
Fashion violence should not be seen merely as a physical force or assault, but as a transgression, humiliation, harassment or a violation of integrity. Fashion violence is an act of violation conducted through the means of fashion, and sanctioned by the mechanisms of fashion. Violence is in this case a social act that is not necessarily violent, but produces an exploitative relationship, degrading a fellow through a violation of their being in order to elevate the perpetuator by exploiting a victim. As political theorist Vittorio Bufacchi has highlighted, also seemingly non-violent acts, such as imprisoning and starving someone to death, is an act of violence (Bufacchi 2007: 14f). Fashion may not be violent, but is still enforces violence on the environment, social relations and subjects. A micro-act of violence conducted through fashion may be a degrading comment or sustained harassment on the basis of clothing. Such micro-acts, or microaggressions, are parts of a larger scheme of sanctioned violence.
The violence processed through fashion is ambiguous as it resembles the processes of sexualisation. According to cultural theorists Eileen Zurbriggen and Tomi-Ann Roberts, sexualisation happens in several spheres; cultural, interpersonal and intrapsychic, which all produce an ideal where young women are “depicted as having value only for their sexuality.” (2013: 304) However, this degrading perspective of self-objectification may sometimes appear to the individual as a form of empowerment:
'There are many rewards for self-sexualising, including popularity, status, power, and increased chances for romantic relationships and sexual exploration. Moreover, it often feels good to fulfil the roles we are expected to fulfil, and doing so can garner acceptance and (in the adult world) substantial rewards, such as career success and higher salaries. It would be a mistake to dismiss girls’ choices as having only costs, and no benefits.' (Zurbriggen & Roberts 2013: 308)
In a similar vein, submission to the ideals of fashion supremacy may produce many benefits in social status, yet it perpetuates mechanisms of exclusion and violence on a social scale which are hard to see from the inside.
Following the typology of peace researcher Johan Galtung, three levels of violence could be amplified through fashion; “direct”, “structural” and “cultural” violence (1990). Cultural violence functions as the legitimising order that supports the fact of structural violence and the acts of direct violence. Cultural violence makes structural discrimination seem “natural” and endorses individual acts of direct violence with the help of mechanisms of inclusion/exclusion, social hierarchies and norms:
The culture preaches, teaches, admonishes, eggs on, and dulls us into seeing exploitation and/or repression as normal and natural, or into not seeing them (particularly not exploitation) at all. (Galtung 1990: 295)
To take an everyday example, cultural violence may make the slim Caucasian model body an explicit standard of beauty, discriminating other bodies both implicitly and explicitly, and structural violence may be the manifestation of these ideals into sizes, patterns and social or racial sorting mechanisms. The direct violence may happen in forms of harassment or microaggressions, by a shop attendant, a bouncer at a restaurant or fellow pupils at school.
The systemic cultural violence of fashion, that I would like to call Fashion Supremacy, makes the mechanisms of fashion violence seem natural and also internalises the mechanisms of violence into its subjects. Similarly to how white supremacy reproduces and normalises white racial norms and values, fashion supremacy becomes the filter through which we see and judge our social environment, our peers, and ourselves. For example, fashion media and popular culture supports perspectives where we are to judge others by how they look and what they wear. The industrial fashion system supplies garments and social media platforms which encourage these types of mechanisms of judgement, through garment sizes and cuts, cosmetics, and commodities perpetuating the ideals of fashion supremacy based on models of hyper-consumerism. An ideal body type, in race and size, may be endorsed by media, supported by commodities, internalised through individual self-starvation and externalised again in the form of degrading comments among peers. But through the system of commodities, fashion supremacy also sanctions fashion consumption as its main model for self-realisation, with the act of shopping as the primary format for everyday production of meaning and identity. Those who do not fit into the ubiquitous but exclusive framework of fashion supremacy are locked out from this “democratic” arena of self-realization, while still maintaining the exploitative order.
Fashion supremacy and its inherent violence is not something that we should be “resilient” to. It needs to be resisted, through various forms of activism and agonism that challenges and produces counter-systems. The systematic production of alternatives, micro-utopias that render the possible discussable, can come to form new symbiotic models of empowerment (cf. Wood 2007). Such systems can form new “ecologies of practice”, that is, dynamic compositions of resistance through socially sustainable counter-systems that opposes the violence of fashion, co-producing new practices in fashion production and distribution as well as consumption.
Design activism, producing alternatives through small-scale but strategic interventions, would mean putting efforts in creating alternative ecologies of practice. An example could be how a collection of clothes for persons with non-stereotyped proportions is synchronised in design on a material level with cuts and textile materials, and also in distribution (not only on the main street) and how media, social scenes, critical education, and product service systems are provided to support the wearer. The clothes are just one of the elements in such alternative ecology of practice. In order to create such a change, several small actions need to be coordinated, incentives distributed, as well as a coordinated push for change of culture in our perception on the status of the person, both in the eyes of the media and among peers.
These kind of alternative practices, manifested through direct action and nonviolent means, can displace power and push it away. This may realise, at least temporarily, a prototype situation of hopeful provocation. Such visionary and provocative situation is what interaction designer Preben Mogensen has called a “provotype” (Mogensen 1992), which aims to break passive and non-imaginative resignation.
One example of an alternative practice that has tried to avoid reproducing the dominant order in fashion could be the various forms of clothes libraries that have been emerging in Sweden over the last years. One example is the “Klädoteket” (Clothes Library) in Gothenburg (www.kladoteketgoteborg.se). Founded by Louise Eriksson and Sara Habte Selassie in spring 2012 following earlier initiatives in Stockholm and Malmö which have existed since 2010, the library has a small space open two days a week and a site with the extensive catalogue of clothes available. A 15 Euro fee for a three-month membership offers the user to borrow up to five garments simultaneously and for a month at the time. The system hosts almost a thousand garments, most donations but also a lot of unique pieces, offered from designers or from the remaking workshops hosted regularly at the library.
Image 1: Klädoteket Göteborg Sara Habte Selassie & Louise Eriksson
As mentioned by Eriksson, the garments offered through the library are more special than the everyday garments, complements rather than basics. The format and protocol for the library is still under development, and the founders test various models in order to produce a sustainable model, which also circulates the clothes as much as possible among the members. The clothes libraries in Stockholm and Malmö test slightly different models and this opens up for exchange about best practices. The library also hosts a series of social events, from the sewing café on Mondays to craft workshops, and other kinds of public events that engages members and non-members to explore other ways to live with clothes rather than keep on consuming evermore. Every occasion is a manifestation of alternatives, mobilising values and discussions on alternative fashion literacy.
Image 2: Klädoteket Göteborg Window
At its best, these kinds of prototypes of alternative systems may work as something artistic director Darren O’Donnel has called “social acupuncture” (2008). They are strategic social acts in civil society, which aims to redistribute the energies throughout the social whole. According to O’Donnel, unlike Western medicine, which is focussed on underlying reasons for disease such as bacteria, Eastern medicine sees the whole body in a continuous feedback process. Microbes are always there, but they just matter when your immune system is compromised. Similarly, O’Donnel sees holistic problems in the social body of today,
'The lack of free public space for unstructured discourse can be seen both as symptomatic of a democratic deficiency and as contributing to the situation, in what amounts to a feedback loop, each contributing to deterioration of the other.' (O’Donnel 2008: 48)
Thus interventions into the body as well as the social system require a holistic approach, with no aspect isolated or analysed without taking the whole into account. Releasing healing energies through the body could apply also socially, and O’Donnel continues,
"Theoretically, then, the same thing should apply to the social body: small interventions at key junctures should affect larger organs, in turn contributing to feedback loops that can amplify and affect the distribution of energy resources." (O’Donnel 2008: 49)
Image 3: Klädoteket Göteborg Dresses
A series of small trials in shared clothing libraries may not be much of resistance in the face of institutionalised fashion supremacy, but each of the initiatives are test beds for alternative practices and counter-systems to the dominant model of fashion consumerism. The library temporarily displaces consumerist regimes of domination, and can become a platform for critical education and the forming of new kinds of empowered publics beyond the market, not too unlike the public library in its ideal form. The clothing libraries are all small incarnations of both means and ends to resist the cultural and structural violence of fashion. They could even bring about the best of civil society; the library as a commons and shared resource for critical pedagogy, citizen education and civic engagement, a platform from where to dismantle domination. And even if they would not prove sustainable in their current form, their experiences will add to a pool of instances that oppose hyper-consumerism and possessive models of fashion domination. In this form, even a modest clothing library can be an alternative platform of critically informed hope.
Bufacchi, Vittorio (2007) Violence and Social Justice,New York: Palgrave
Galtung, Johan (1990) “Cultural Violence” inJournal of Peace Research,vol. 27, no. 3, pp.291-305
Mogensen, Preben (1992) ”Towards a Provotyping Approach in Systems Development”Journal of Information Systems, Vol. 4
O’Donnel, Darren (2008) Social Acupuncture,Toronto: Coach House Books
Schumacher, Ernst Friedrich (1974) Small is beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered,London: Sphere
Wood, John (2007) Design for Micro-Utopias; making the unthinkable possible,Aldershot: Gower
Zurbriggen, Eileen & Tomi-Ann Roberts (eds) (2013) The Sexualization of Girls and Girlhood: Causes, Consequences, and Resistance,Oxford: Oxford University Press