• Giselle Littleton

Decolonizing Fashion: Subverting the Natural Order Through Unique Stylistic Choices

Illustration by Janie Wang

From the grey, white, and black business casual dress codes of the traditional workplace to the ‘appropriate’ cocktail party dress, our attire is constantly dictated by imaginary social confines. 


Photo by Jack Mannix

The rules that bind us to strict dress codes, making us afraid to stand out, are inherently tied to Eurocentric capitalist-colonial ways of being. What we feel comfortable wearing is rendered by a social system that defines how a good, productive citizen should appear. Much of that definition has to do with appearance and dress. The antidote to colonialism is decolonialism, a way of thinking and living that centers around unlearning Western knowledge and ways of being. Decolonization is unabridged liberation. 


Decolonialism in fashion separates everyday, casual attire from the status quo of dress codes and appropriateness. People are increasingly taking traditional bedroom wear, such as slips, nightgowns, and silk button-ups to the streets without even blinking an eye. Slips have historically been confined to the bedroom. The bedroom and the activities that occur within it are traditionally inappropriate subjects to make public to society. Much of this sentiment is derived from the western ideology that transforms sexuality into a taboo subject. Likewise, a primary tenet of colonialism is to impose strict ideologies upon those bound by a colonial system that designs appropriateness. Western and Eurocentric fashion is rooted in colonialism and designates what attire is appropriate. By wearing slips, wearers subvert Eurocentric fashion by openly acting against the notion that slips are solely bedroom attire. They reject the very notion of appropriateness in fashion. 


Slowly, individuals digress from chasing trends and move towards relying on our creativity to dictate what to wear. This movement away from fashion constructs substitutes the conformity of colonialist fashion with our own creative visions. Decolonialism in fashion has always taught us that to conform is to be safe, to be a desirable member of society. Relying on personal creativity to navigate fashion choices is a rejection of the fear and shame associated with standing out. 

Photo by Breyona Holt

Using our own creativity enables us to use clothing to represent our genuine self-perceptions rather than what we think we should be. Small, sustainable brands have been at the helm of this movement, creating unique pieces that subvert mainstream trends. For instance, Zig Zag Goods is an L.A-based brand that prides itself upon creating self-proclaimed “contemporary clownwear for the everyday freak”. Their funky, kitschy apparel rejects textbook definitions of street style or formal wear in lieu of embracing one’s inner child. Liberation is feeling free to wear whatever your heart desires, anytime, or anywhere. 


Decolonization in fashion also involves venturing beyond the sphere of western influence. By limiting ourselves to only Eurocentric representations of fashion, we perform two actions. First, non-Western fashion brands are prevented from receiving international recognition. Secondly, individual self-expression is harmed by an adherence to purely Western ideologies. We prevent our fashion creativity from taking flight.


According to Lyst Index, an international fashion search platform that analyzes consumer interest and purchasing trends, the top five fashion brands of 2020 are Nike, Off-White, Gucci, Balenciaga, and Prada. A brand originating from a non-western country is notably absent from the top 20 brands on this list. It is clear that Eurocentricity has stifled and limited many brands outside of Europe and the United States to success in their countries of origin. Fashion lovers must expand their horizons and embrace apparel from other parts of the world. Brands like Bloke, PatBo, YanYan, and Silvia Tcherassi create wonderfully-inspired, eye-catching designs that originate outside of the western sphere. Support for these brands ranges from purchasing their items to sharing these brands with friends and family. By contributing our support to non-western brands, we can ensure that they receive their long-overdue international acclaim.


Photo by NumberFiveStudio

Decolonialism is a movement that represents taking a stand against Eurocentric norms. It is a rejection of constructs that attempt to dictate how we move in society. In regards to fashion, embracing decolonialism is to make a conscious effort to understand how Eurocentric standards influence our appearance.  We should seek to wear non-western trends to normalize them as appropriate attire suitable for any occasion. However, it’s important to conduct our own individual research on cultural appropriation and understand how specific non-western articles of clothing are sacred to given cultures. Such pieces should only be worn by certain cultural communities. With this in mind, younger generations have primarily been at the helm of this movement, embracing the traditional attire of their individual heritages. They are rejecting any and all frameworks that have discouraged them to digress from western fashion in the past, and celebrating their culture through dress.


Wearing brands that originate outside of Europe and the United States would bring a unique edge to any fashion lover’s wardrobe. Such brands offer an assortment of unique patterns, textures, and styles to choose from. Fashion is a mode of self-expression. Many of our identities extend beyond the sphere of Western influence.


For those anxious to wear the statement piece sitting in their closet, remember that these fears are natural, yet narrated from a colonial perspective meant to induce fear of nonconformity. It is possible to reject these notions by refusing to partake in them to the best of our abilities. It is possible for our clothing to be unapologetically liberated, self-identifying, and enjoyable all at once.