The sight of murals. Colourful. Monumental. Ubiquitous. On one of the avenues in downtown Bogotá, at an intersection made of bridges and vast cement circuits, the eye catches a few metres of walls that read: ‘Wake up, indolent country.’ Letters are thick. They have been painted in red, white and black. Some are colossal, others stand out for their verbal ferocity (‘With no health and education, we chose subversion.’), others are just a single word, Narcoestado; Resistencia. This is the aesthetic of discontent. Its utterly material sign. The sum of its vestiges, the visible marks of social protest.
In April 2021, with the Colombian government’s announcement of a fierce tax reform, millions of people poured, in protest, onto the streets. The people’s weariness brewed. The explosive display denoted a long-held malaise. What took shape as the paro nacional gathered a collective and perplexed gaze. For many of the younger eyes watching, the daily scenes had no precedent. A monstrous show of police brutality soon became a pattern. Men clad in uniform, wearing heavy shields, helmets and black-padded apparel confronted youth and the bodies that were occupying the streets. Armoured vehicles, deaths, disappearances. Sexual violence. Fierce detentions. Fires. Fervour on the streets. Brutalised young people. Destruction. Financial hits. Fear. Conspiracy theories. Structural wounds. How do you remain untouched by such a landscape? The digital gaze tuned in with what felt, for many, like an unspeakable wound.
This scenario unveiled some tensions that had been brewing also within the local fashion industry. Similar debates had emerged before, during the 2018 presidential election. In Colombia, like in many other places, fashion has the ability to transform into poignant radiography. It can delineate political conflicts, social class realities, ideological spectrums. Here, one finds a rampant sense of bipartisanship – which has also transformed itself along the last decades, spanning from a liberal versus conservative dispute to contemporary feuds between uribismo and petrismo: an aggressive and visceral polarity between leftist and right-wing viewpoints. And also, clothes as ideological markers, as subversive methods but also as gatekeepers of the status quo.
At that moment, in April 2021, commenting on the social protest setting seemed inevitable There was a boiling atmosphere. Renowned bloggers, designers and influencers were silent. Their daily publications kept gravitating towards their usual topics: what and how to wear clothes, luxurious purchases, aspirational shots in European cities. This began to feel like an unsettling detachment, an inappropriate disconnect. Meanwhile, some segments and public figures soon shifted their regular contents to contribute and render visible what was going on in the capital, in intermediate cities, in many neighbourhoods across the country, and in order to declare public solidarity with what had burst on the streets. Later on, rather prominent figures invited their audiences to pray, collectively, with a Catholic rosary to ‘soothe’ the discontent. Others shared videos where the protest was reduced to conspiracy theories, arguing that the opposition was ideologically ‘kidnapping’ the country. Protests extended themselves and took a blow on shipping, deliveries and commercial rhythms. This affected the industry. Certain cities were severely damaged and faced scarcity. Latent tensions stirred up in fierce manners.
Fashion is a polysemic category. When it comes to thinking about it critically, there’s one aspect I particularly like: the way in which fashion is also connected to a more philosophical dimension – referring to a form of temporality; to the search for newness, the ‘irrational’ appetite for novelty; the idolatry of commodities; a speedy pursuit of replacement and therefore, an assimilated rationale based on transitoriness and ephemerality. This particular Euro American narrative of fashion has dictated that ‘the centre’ of ‘real’ fashion derives from European modernity; and that such a ‘centre’ would further land in four great cities that ended up making the global circuit of runways. In this narrative, widely accepted and dispersed, the rest, in other words, everything that stands outside of such a location is considered the periphery. This story has, however, begun to break down. The subject deserves a more hybrid narrative. Please, allow me a detour before I return to the Colombian context.
The circulation of fashion as digital image from the 2000s, the ubiquity of fast fashion, all conflated, contributing to an overall consideration of the entire centre/periphery narrative. This digital and visual omnipresence also coincided with the institutionalisation of fashion studies as a field in a myriad of academic spaces. Hence, uncomfortable questions directed towards the fashion industry have also been on the rise. A lot of them have particularly posited momentum on themes of inclusion, diversity, environmental issues and decolonial thought. With that, the fashion industry has been interpellated from views that consider it wasteful, excluding and exploitive.
This explains why the term fashion is today, in itself, a territory for dissent and dispute. This feels especially acute when the term lands in a specific context, such as the Colombian setting. In contemporary discussions within the field of fashion studies, and in los estudios críticos de las modas latinoamericanas, there is much talk about ‘decolonising’ fashion: an intellectual practice that can also be understood as the problematisation of this traditional narrative. At times, this means ‘reclaiming’ the term. At others, it implies rejecting the term fashion itself, in viewing it as one that responds to a rather European and American vision of the world. Scholars like Angela Jansen suggest, for example, that the word fashion not be used as a noun – linked to an exclusive geography and temporality – but rather as a verb, and hence as an action that embraces and includes every single sort of effort, shape or form of dressing, styling and ornamenting the body. Seen as a verb, the term is significantly amplified, becoming more elastic, more generous, and not completely reduced to modernity (and therefore to colonialism.) Neither does it limit itself – as has happened throughout certain view of its history – to certain places. As a verb, its spectre widens, in terms of geography and time.
It is true that to decolonise can also mean to observe, define and comprehend something in its contextual radicalness. As many other places which have also experienced a boom in the interest for fashion, understanding the term within the context has become crucial. Today, in Colombia, this can mean taking a glance at the intersections between fashions and politics. It is at these crossroads in which fashion has acted as a vehicle for international politics; as a mirror for fierce tensions in terms of social class; and also, as symbolic and material consecration of the political idea of peace – something so crucial and defining in Colombian history. It can also be seen to reflect epistemic disobedience, rebellion and political affirmation.
Seen in this context, fashion also reflects the way in which ‘peripheral’ subjects assimilate a yearning to be validated and legitimised by fashion’s ‘centre,’ and also, as Jansen explains herself, in the ways they utilise self-exoticisation logic and local narratives as linked to tradition, folk dress, crafts, but not fashion. Many designers from the ‘periphery’ tend to render such narratives in order to merchandise a sense of uniqueness for a system always and voraciously hungry for a sense of ‘novelty.’ To decolonise can also mean to look at a term in its radical context. It is the context that enlivens it that allows to dispute, or amplify possible meanings.
Fashion, when seen in context, as aesthetic modes, can mean more than clothing and can be the many city murals that ‘dress’ Bogota’s ‘skin.’ In line with Jansen’s idea of speaking of fashion as a verb, the word moda connects to the term modos – ways, forms, manners of dress, yes, but also of aesthetics, ways of living, of resisting, politicising, rebelling and adorning. Today, the tension, combination and hybridity between splendour and subversion is perhaps what marks the cadence in the Colombian fashion context as it increasingly entwines with politics. It goes from the glamorous and Caribbean-drenched look of women clad in colourful and ruffled dresses, to the myriad of ways in which social protest has become aesthetic in recent times – ranging from the pussy hat in the United States, to the use of the green scarf across Latin America – as well as to the many symbols of resistance being employed in adornment and dress (face cover-ups with frills, the colour purple and political T-shirts).
Academics and theorists from the field of fashion studies such as Molly Rottman and Hazel Clark have declared that the very nature of fashion can in itself be political because the ways in which clothes are made and represented usually entail power dynamics.1 Fashion can thus shape the identities of nations and cities.
In Colombia, fashion has served as a mechanism for global recognition, a vehicle for proper legitimation within traditional spheres in the global industry. And it has done so by using a language that has rendered florals, ruffles and the aesthetic codes found in a Caribbean chicness that sealed itself as a desirable and recognisable look. In this sense, fashion has served as a way of healing collective and national imaginaries. By channeling design languages that have used a flirty, joyful tropicalism, this aesthetic particularly managed to consolidate ideals of national pride, hence shifting consumer habits and self-perception, creating the very notion of ‘being proud’ to ‘wear Colombia.’ An idea that seldom existed before, in a context in which ‘being fashionable’ was exclusively connected to foreignness. This here is a first layer to the expressions between fashion and politics. And it is perhaps connected to Benedict Anderson’s ideas of how shared imaginaries can help to forge a sense of national identity.2
Around 2013, Colombian fashion began to gain a significant and unprecedented notoriety within circuits located in the fashion ‘centre’ (North American and European department stores, highly noted publications, well known editors from these media spots.) At that moment, a particular alchemy began to take place. There was a creative boom in terms of local design, academic offers and classes started to grow and diversify, digital discussions and a general interest sparked a wave of commentators and digital figures, as well as an outburst of events. Fashion became a vehicle to remake collective identity ideals. In a country which had long been associated to ferocious stereotypes based on drug-trafficking, war and terrorism, displaying a sense of pride towards local aesthetic creations was not something minor.
Fashion ‘regenerated’ the imaginaries that composed a possible national identity. The global recognition received by designers such as Johanna Ortiz and Silvia Tcherassi, and the ways in which popular platforms such as Moda Operandi set their gaze on Colombian designers like Paula Mendoza and Leal Daccarett, were all things that pointed out an important and transformative chapter. Then, there were all the publications talking about and representing the northern city of Cartagena de Indias, a place well suited for all things related to the consecrated Caribbean Chic aesthetic. Fashion began to work as a different way of association, one that spoke of a destination now known for its exciting and flourishing aesthetic creativity. This attention also allowed for stereotypes to be problematised as well. Not all design aesthetics in Colombia are, by any means, attached to tropicalism. Edgy minimalism, cool silhouette playfulness, interesting and hip knitwear, to name just a few, have also been a part of creative visions in the local context. Even when certain signs and noticeable looks became associated to Colombian design, variety and multiplicity are at the heart of local fashion.
Politics is also both about social possibility and freedom. It is also true that, in the Colombian context, fashion has also been a significant theme in dynamics linked to social class. Social class is an excruciatingly political subject here. Class distinctions are fierce. Clothes and places are their heavy markers. A visual survey in Bogota’s airport, for example, or taking a look at the very geopolitics of different cities can reflect this in a myriad of ways. During the paro nacional, in April 2021, the action of placing the body on the street, dressing in a certain manner to engage in protest, seeing three queer, non-binary individuals dancing gloriously and fearlessly in front of (Esmad) anti-disturbance officials, were all demonstrations of fashion’s subversive quality and potential.
There is subversion, but in Colombia, fashion can also be a way of maintaining and gatekeeping the status quo. The right-wing and the ideologically conservative segments also have their own sartorial displays, one that anxiously clings onto familiar hierarchies. The fachaqueta – a puffy jacket and sometimes vest often used by the former Colombian right-wing president Iván Duque – is, for example, a potent sign of a certain hegemonic masculinity, which adheres to traditional gender roles and which is frequently worn by men who seek rigid, binary tradition. In this equation, which blends fashion, politics and social class, another recent example can prove to be illuminating. In September 2021, Colombian-born musical artist Kali Uchis launched her ‘buttocks-enhancing’ jeans line in the global market. If there has been a piece within the Colombian context that so acutely illustrates the complexities that certain garments carry in their political connotations and in terms of social class, this is perhaps one of the most emblematic. Construed as symbols of what has been deemed pejoratively as ‘popular fashion,’ the technology found in these jeans has been persistently codified as something that belongs to a conspicuous aesthetic and, hence, because seen quite frequently from a classist lens they have also been rendered as objects of ‘bad’ – or at least questionable – taste. They have also been associated to the vestiges often related to an aesthetic that derives from the narco culture. It is certainly a piece that seems to contain the social class tensions in a country that expresses exuberant pride when it comes to being recognised by foreign spheres for its Caribbean ruffles but that seems more adamant when a global success comes from a sartorial and technological development that achieves what many women seek when they try on or purchase jeans: seeing their butts flattered by the fit. Classism usually renders a hierarchy between a sense of taste that has been acquired from looking abroad, versus the aesthetics that are less concerned about modesty and prudence. Jeans levanta-colas, (butt-enhancing jeans) are all about conspicuous bodily demonstration. ‘Bodied by Kali Uchis’ displays another layer in the ways in which fashion, in its international politics dimension, can prove to be a subversion of some sort. The artist, who has roots in the small city of Pereira has used her background working-class neighbourhoods there to evoke other imageries in terms of taste when filming music videos.
But perhaps one of the most beautiful and hopeful demonstrations of the political power carried by fashion has been materialised by the project and brand called Manifiesta. In 2016, after a complex cycle of negotiations, the Colombian government signed a historical peace agreement with the Fuerzas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc), one of the oldest guerrilla rebel groups in Latin America, created in 1964. The signing of this agreement detonated, with a democratic plebiscite, a very polarised atmosphere. The majority of voters said no to the accord. And yet, the government proceeded, stirring fierce polarities. Manifiesta, created by political scientist Angela Herrera, is a clothes brand that works with ex-guerrilla Farc fighters. This makes it a vision that seeks a deep sense of sustainability, by creating ethical manufacturing processes, as it allows buyers to know who have actually made the clothes they purchase and wear – but most especially because it is a potent and concrete materialisation of fashion as a carrier of social innovation and justice. Manifiesta seems to make the elusive and complex idea of political peace in Colombia a material reality. The pieces in themselves are made by people who are reintegrating themselves into society that has learned to viscerally demonise guerilla insurgency. Manifiesta’s clothes shows a way of literally weaving forgiveness beyond a ferocious war conflict that has destroyed Colombian territory for decades. In a country that has so much difficulty forgiving and humanising otherness, this is everything but minor or insignificant. Plus, Manifiesta has also made a cause for challenging simplistic relations between social justice and aesthetics. They have fought for complexity: the right to dress beautifully and creatively whilst championing social justice.
This summer Colombia elected its first left-wing government. The victory was undoubtedly propelled by the youth that took to the streets during el paro nacional, by the weariness of a people tired of a neglectful government that refused to listen. Tension fills the air. Hope brews is the atmosphere. On July 20th, a new Congress took seat. Andrés Cansimance, a representant for Putumayo who defends the LGBTI community wore a deep navy-blue suit, a tie, and heels. María José Pizarro – the daughter of a M-19 guerilla leader who demobilised in 1989 and was assassinated in 1990 – wore a colourful jacket by designer Diego Guarnizo, who has worked for years with women from rural communities. Senator Berenice Bedoya wore an ivory piece, with molas made by indigenous women from Tule, Urabá. Jennifer Pedraza, an advocate for gender equality, peace and environmentalism wore a jacket made by Tarpui and Manifiesta which displayed a natural dye process. Afrocolombian Cha Dorina Hernández, the first palenquera representant, wore a lively African print. Other female senators, like Cathy Juvinao, wore the word despertamos (we woke up) sewn on the edge of her sleeves. Several sartorial compositions contrasted heavily against a right-wing force which tends to perform in conformity to sobriety and tradition. This use of fashion and clothes as political affirmation is unprecedented and reflects a spirit of disobedience, of possible change.
The intersection between fashion and politics in Colombia places two topics in the forefront. One has a structural quality, and reflects the spirit of a time which is being led towards discomfort, a context that has increasingly been meaning to posit uncomfortable questions to an industry that is strongly linked to problematic practices connected to whiteness, a dispossessing sense of capitalism, exclusion and the Euro American ideals as the aspirational ideal. The second topic speaks of the ways in which applying the term fashion to the radical particularity of a context implies disputing such a term. Perhaps it even entails making a distinction between Euro American fashion and the meaning the term acquires within that very context. Decolonial thought encourages us to be disobedient, to reclaim and define the terms of one’s own existence and experience, it implies the political act that is to name the world from one’s own place in it. This also means understanding our local aesthetics as beams of splendour on its own terms. A titanic, rebellious mural; orchids and ruffles; Afro expressions; ancestral craftmanship. Our splendour can only be defined in radical acceptance of beauty in contextual terms. And all the defiance: politicians dressing in colourful and provocative ways, the recent election, the possibility of some change. This may be perhaps one of the most political aspects in contemporary Colombian fashion: the tense, exciting, painful, hopeful, contradictory process of recognising our very own meaning, and the the singular significance of what we are and can be.
Vanessa Rosales Altamar is a Colombian fashion writer and scholar. She’s the author of two books, Mujeres Vestidas and Mujer Incomoda, and is currently at work on her third.