Fashioning the Other: Representations of Brazilian Women’s Dress in National Geographic, 1888-1988
Elizabeth Kutesko is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art under the supervision of Dr Rebecca Arnold. Her thesis examines globalization and the representation of Brazilian dress in National Geographic since 1988. She has published articles on Brazilian fashion designers and Moroccan fashion designers in the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion. She is currently writing about the representation of the Sapeurs in the Congo by two 21st century Italian photographers, Danielle Tamagni and Francesco Giusti, for publication in the Courtauld peer-reviewed journal Immediations in December 2013.
As a popular ‘scientific’ and educational journal, National Geographic has positioned itself as a voice of authority within mainstream American print media, offering what purports to be an unprejudiced ‘window onto the world’. This paper will examine the role that Brazilian women’s dress, and the representation of Brazilian women’s dress, has played in National Geographic as a means of framing and solidifying an idea of Brazil in the American popular imagination. It will question, for example, why National Geographic has documented high fashion in Western urban centres such as Paris, New York, London and Milan, but overlooked comparable Fashion Weeks throughout Latin America, such as Sao Paulo Fashion Week and Fashion Rio, that have provided a mechanism for Brazilian designers to achieve new heights of international visibility and commercial success.
This paper will apply and develop Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of the ‘contact zone’ to National Geographic’s representations of Brazilian women’s dress and adornment. Pratt defines ‘contact zones’ as ‘social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power’. Here we might understand ‘contact’ not as a static, deterministic state but as an intricate and, crucially, continually shifting process of cultural exchange, one that is characterized by conquest and colonization. Representation in such a zone emerges as a complex cultural process, in which meaning is not inherent in the clothing itself, but has been fashioned by National Geographic in response to modulations in the balance of power between America and Brazil.