To Die For: Fashion and the Indigenous
Sandra Niessen is an independent scholar/anthropologist based in The Netherlands. In 1979 she began to study, lecture and write about the Batak cultures of North Sumatra, Indonesia. Legacy in cloth: Batak textiles of Indonesia (2009) documents the full repertory of textile types of the Toba, Karo and Simalungun Batak, including design history and techniques of production. In 2010, she gave 40 copies of Legacy in cloth to weavers in the Batak villages. She has since conducted two more repatriation projects, the latest with her film about Batak weaving techniques entitled ‘Rangsa ni Tonun’. Sandra is co-editor of Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress (2003) and Consuming Fashion: Adorning the Transnational Body (1998).
Much has been written about the relationship between emerging non-Western (centres) of fashion and dominant global fashion. In the examination of the construction of national identity in fashion there is less focus on the relationship with the tribal. What happens when fashion designers use the tribal as a marketing tool and source of inspiration? How does that ‘traditional identity’ by which ‘non-Western fashion’ is characterized relate to the traditional? In Indonesia, local fashion expressions inspired by the traditional dress of the Batak people of Sumatra are expanding and applauded while traditional textile production and the ‘look’ on which it is based is dying out. Batak fashion is eating its own tail.
Fashion expressions are part and parcel of a process of folklarization and objectification of self that are taking place. If non-Western fashion is ineluctably peripheral to Western fashion, must local fashion developments ineluctably play a folklarizing role normalizing self-objectification of the source of inspiration? Is engaged, ethical fashion a possibility in response to the current crisis of loss of human cultures in the way that environmentally-friendly fashion trends are a response to the environmental crisis?