Habits of consumption through the Western lense
By Brenda Odria
On my recent return to the motherland in Latin America, I experienced for the first time the significant culture shock between my current life in The West and childhood in a third world country. Where for the first time I was able to see my country through the lense of a privileged individual, that was both comfortable in familiarity and longing I’d had for aspects of my culture and guilty over covetting items to bring back as proof of my time in a foreign place. This guilt stems from acknowledging the minute amount I’m paying for clothing that will contribute to my sense of status and belonging in a Western society. The purchasing of goods that are embellished in Latin Culture, is my culture a commodity?
Fashion for development analyzes the consumer in their choices and behaviors, in their socialized norms and practices. How to understand someone through their patterns of consumption. It all comes down to taste, the decision to exclude or include something into your wardrobe of aspirational identity. This collection of clothing reveals an individual’s presence in certain communities, such as basic white girls, sk8r boys, hipsters, art hoes, the list goes on although aside from art hoes these groups are predominantly white. Taste is produced through knowledge of culture and the critical ability to appreciate it. This piece analyzes certain aspects of fashion for development, in the Western consumer that seeks “authenticity” through working towards a sense of individuality while maintaining a presence in an imagined community strictly through their western lense. How everything you buy fits a larger purpose of placing you within your desired community simultaneously presenting a constructed identity.
A consumer who purchases “luxury goods” signals a level of consumption that points to their desire to appear as an embodiment of power, wealth and status. In the same way the consumer who purchases clothing through the lens of covetting “otherness” seeks authenticity by focusing on societies that reflect the relationship between cultural appropriation and social dominance. Where the consumer is dominant and producer is dependant. This relationship becomes crucial because the growing gap allows consumers to appropriate more and more the symbolic dimension of life in the other society for the purpose of constructing this “authenticity.” This desire consumers have for “authenticity” relies on the delay of the Other’s cultural progression, in that modes of dominance become essential in painting the third world as a place of romantic landscapes and exotic individuals focusing on the differenced to reinforce unequal power relations to create a binary of The West vs The Rest. This relationship supports the theoretical context behind certain items, the association we have with certain prints and objects to places like Latin America. Textiles are embedded with cultural meanings along with fur, a romanticized vision of a faraway place. When people encounter these garments they are plagued with the aura of “otherness”, a unique and persuasive experience that exists outside of the western experience making it desirable.
When a Western person wears these contextualized garments it is as an effort to be unique, they are commodifying a culture. In that objects or garments, may be considered standard and everyday but in the eyes and hands of a tourist it becomes heavily embedded with other meanings. The objects become removed from their cultural context and exists instead within this vision of the exotic or the “other”, with the possibility of evolving into a representation of status or power. The souvenir is an untouchable object to be admired, in the eyes of The West this unattainability increases it’s value. This process constructs a multicultural connoisseurship, which in 2018 is so relatable with the desire to travel and take every opportunity to share that experience to climb the social ladder whether it is making an instagram story or wearing your newly acquired “exotic” items. Objects are decontextualized from their original state whether it is religious or symbolic and recontextualized into a symbol of status for the well traveled, “cultured”, cosmopolitan global citizen.
These objects symbolize the equation of the “authentic” with the foreign. The macrocosm of the twenty first century has subjective social structures, in which the individual functions based on their social position established by knowledge and practises. Fashion reinforces these structures, clothes are bought and worn to deliver a message we think they have, a message we have assigned to them.
In Latin America clothing reinforced social structure as well as provided the means to transcend it. In pre colonial Latin America, fabrics were meant to express social and religious identity, colonization changed it into using garments to establish social, cultural and racial differences. Clothing was used to indicate the caste system, individuals had a goal to set themselves apart from others to establish elitism. However wearing my printed headbands and scrunchies in Latin America is a completely different context than wearing them back in The West, in that now these items are regarded as new, exotic and fashion forward.
The Western consumer has remained permanently within the lense of an imagined geography of foreign places, much like the issues of celebrities exclusively posting pictures of third world countries only displaying images that support the unequal power. Pictures of orphan children or deserted areas, ignoring the functioning beautiful cities all around the world to preserve this vision of otherness and alienate The Rest. For producers they acquire an increased dependence and a quest for economic growth in pleasing the desire of the consumer, searching for ways to make their culture marketable for The West producing this situation of commodifying a culture in the struggle for survival. In romanticizing the otherness that is displayed in material culture consumers rely on homogenizing narratives to validate their false assumptions on the Other, at the same time this signalling their dominance. Their search for “authenticity” is an attempt to capture exoticism and mystery of “unspoiled culture”. This exoticism in fashion is the fetishizing of foreign or rare motifs, an effective way of creating friction within social conventions. ie, cultural appropriation. There is so much history that lives within the clothing of a country, I’m aware now that this connection between the history and traditional dress has the possibility of becoming lost.
My upbringing in The West allows me to recognize my privilege while simultaneously witnessing the downside of having my culture sported as a fashion trend. In my attempts to demonstrate and connect with my culture I now know that these garments don’t mean the same thing to the people around me.