What is fashion? This question is one of the guiding inquiries that inspired Uncut Attire. Since entering grad school, I have begun to consider ways in which the definition of fashion may be broadened to include multiple forms of dress. During my time as the Jane Graff Textile Research Assistant, during the 2021-2022 academic year, I became interested in how to think about weaving as a primary point of design rather than silhouette. I combed through the Helen Louise Allen’s textile database to consider items that are considered clothing that may not initially present as clothing and what began to form was a selection of objects that have a different relationship to the body, to clothing waste, and ultimately the idea of fashion. By thinking about fashion changes as any variation of change, it becomes easy to apply this concept to what is normally categorized as “traditional” dress.
Within the Mayan town of Zinacantán in Chiapas, Mexico, fashion is visible in two of the community’s festivals. The expectation is that Zinacantecs wear their newest clothing. Overtime, subtle changes become visible at these events. Changes have varied from differences in the striped patterns to the incorporation of floral embroidery, to changes of the color of the year.
Playing with forms of dress is deeply rooted in the town’s history. Before Europeans invaded the American continents, Zinacantecs took inspiration from the dress of their Aztec neighbors. The present-day wedding huipil, or k’uk’umal chil il in Tsotsil-Maya, is thought to be one such garment. It uniquely features feathered-thread, a technique for which there are only six archaeological examples. While the practice of creating with feathered thread disappeared in former Aztec regions the knowledge of this technique was kept alive by the Zinacantecs. The persistence of this unique technique within a highly fashion-conscious community is just one example of how traditions are redefined to fit into the present moment.
While the Uncut Attire exhibition hopes that viewers will leave with a better understanding of grassroots global fashion systems, many of the examples are also in dialogue with high fashion. This is most visible through the example of kente cloth from Ghana. Kente cloth has an ancient history as the garments of Asante royalty. Each square may convey different localized meanings that illustrate daily life, values, and histories. The bright colors and striking geometric designs have also stood out to contemporary designers such as Ghanaian-American designer Virgil Abloh, adapted kente cloth to include Louis Vuitton logos in one of his 2021 collections. Poet, Amanda Gorman, famously posed in one of these kente cloth pieces on the cover of Vogue in May 2021.
One of the drivers of our current fashion impulse comes from the changes in seasons with the need to adapt clothing not only to variations in weather but also to participate in the latest trends. This constant need for novel clothing items is one of the critiques of the fast fashion market that is also aiding in an exorbitant amount of waste. This ranges from the physical waste of discarded clothing to the toxic waste from dyestuff flooding Asian rivers. Seasonality doesn’t have to be wasteful. The example of the Japanese kimono and the fabric in the center of the gallery shows us how design might express the current seasons. Kimono colors, designs, and fabrics vary as a reflection of the surroundings. The kimono also expresses a sense of sustainability in that it uses one piece of cloth to create the elegant garment. The deep blue kimono fabric features birds migrating in pairs, perhaps indicating that this would be made for autumn or winter wear, whereas the bright pink kimono with blossoming flowers is likely intended for spring or summer. This is a reminder that fashion may reflect the seasons through a mindful approach to the changes in nature we experience.
These examples demonstrate the intertwinement of relationships between people, their forms of dress, and their experiences with the world. The Zinacantec wedding huipil demonstrates a tradition that is maintained in a highly localized fashion system. The kente cloth reveals how a local cloth may take on new global meanings. Lastly, the kimono provides an example of elegance, sustainable design, and mindful seasonality that is absent from our current understanding of fashion. I hope the other objects in the exhibition spark inspiration for visitors to think deeply about their own interactions with fashion and its multiple points of intersection with the world.
Addison Nace is currently a PhD student in the Design Studies Department at the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also serves on the board of Natik, a nonprofit that supports grassroots organizations in Mexico and Guatemala. Addison’s research focuses on textile history, sustainable design, resistance, and repair across cultural boundaries. She recently curated Uncut Attire: How Weaving Informs Wearables, which explores weaving as a primary design feature rather than silhouette in clothing around the globe. Nace received a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship to research strategies of protection of the Indigenous knowledge embodied in Mayan textiles while they are also transformed into a tool for economic development. Her other projects include research on mending in the Anthropocene and alternative fashion systems.