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(1)Clothing is the visual map of the human condition. The unique textiles and ways of dressing of various indigenous communities represent the identity and dignity of these people. 

Fashion is a powerful way to influence culture and the global fashion industry as we know it today has strong links to colonialism. (2)When western colonists came to claim territories, they came in with the mindset that they were civilising the ‘less socially advanced’ and this naturally included westernising these communities’ ways of self-presentation or dressing. This was often imparted through education and religion, where there was a perceived 'advancement' and 'goodness' in adopting Western ways.


The impacts of colonialism on Philippine fashion are evident. The Spanish that colonised the Philippines for 333 years converted many indigenous Filipinos to Christianity. This led to the need to dress more conservatively, which transformed the indigenous dress of women into what was known as the ‘Baro’t Saya’. (3)Typically a ‘tapis’ or wrap skirt was worn on its own by many indigenous people but because the Spanish (4)demanded more conservative ways of dressing, Filipino women wore the ‘tapis’ on top of a longer skirt called the ‘saya’. (5)The ‘baro’, which is a blouse with butterfly sleeves, was said to have been influenced by the costume of the statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

(6)The ‘baro’ was typically made of handwoven pineapple and abaca - materials readily available in the Philippines, which was often a translucent material. Since modesty was imperative during the Spanish colonial period, women wore an ‘alampay’ or ‘pañuelo’ for additional coverage on the chest area. The mix of indigenous Philippine culture and the cultures of their colonisers birthed a form of dress unique to the Philippines that is still well known today. (4)Illustrations of how Filipinos used to dress in the 1700s - 1800s showed that despite the influences of colonialism, Filipino people still managed to create clothing unique to them. This continued on with the Filipino style of dress constantly evolving over the years up until the 1970s with the prominence of global fashion trends. Eventually, globalisation and ultimately fast fashion - another form of colonisation, grew in popularity in the 1990s. This led to the prominence of homogenous fashion, where all people across the world wear the same type of clothing regardless of the culture they originally had.


(2)The global fashion industry has led to fashion's sacrifice zones: negated natural and cultural systems considered expendable for the growth of fashion. This has led to less demand for locally made products that represent the culture of a specific place and ultimately the disappearance of traditional craft skills. (2)Racism is also prominent in fashion, where luxurious handcrafted textiles and products made in the Global South have been seen as less valuable than textiles and products made in countries like France or Italy. (7)There have also been issues connected to cultural appropriation, where traditional crafts and cultural heritage are commercially exploited by fashion brands without credit or economic benefit to the original creators or communities from which these have originated. (8)Another level of this is cultural extractivism, where indigenous cultural practices that were once discriminated against are used in a commercial context by businesses or individuals who are not members of these indigenous communities. These unethical practices perpetuate the old colonialist way of acting from a place of privilege.


In order to build a world with diverse and flourishing cultures, there is a need to decolonise the way the global fashion industry operates. But how do we decolonise fashion? As this is a relatively new area of research, this is something we have yet to find complete clarity on. 

However, we did discover the work of other (9)organisations and individuals on a similar mission and have identified some key actions that we, as a fashion brand that works with indigenous artisan communities, can take to ethically promote cultural preservation, celebration and exchange.


1.Adopt the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative 3Cs approach to working with indigenous artisan communities (10):

Consent - Consult with indigenous artisan communities on the limits between inspiration, appreciation and appropriation and ensure that the brand has the permission of indigenous communities to take inspiration from their culture 

Credit - Give credit to the indigenous artisan community that acts as the custodian of the culture where the designs are being drawn from. Share the story and history behind the indigenous craft being used. Also, show the local people, the history and the sources of inspiration then show the creative reinterpretation of the design 

Compensation - Beyond fair pay for the labour involved in creating the handcrafted product, the brand must provide benefits to the custodian or owner of the indigenous material culture through royalties or something similar. 

2.Create a space for dialogue with artisans and facilitate conversations that allow for collective decision-making within indigenous artisan communities. (11)Designers or other professionals have historically been parachuted into marginalised communities with the assumption that their knowledge and expertise can solve these communities’ problems. This has often resulted in top-down, technical solutions that do not effectively address the specific needs and aspirations of diverse local communities, nor honour the cultures from which they originate. 

3.Commit to long-term relationships with artisans or custodians of material culture rather than only doing one-off projects or collections. 

4.Treat artisans as equals and facilitate cultural exchange between the fashion brand and the owners/custodians of material culture. Cultural exchange involves the equal sharing of skills and knowledge between the designer or brand and the artisan community(7).

5.Encourage and support craft innovation within indigenous artisan communities if this is what the community desires(8). One risk of promoting a particular craft is that it can discourage radical product development or the use of new technologies in some communities. This perpetuates a false idea that clothing cultures are static and don’t change and evolve. 

Building a brand with cultural sustainability as a central part of its mission is both exciting and also challenging. To decolonise fashion, we need to dismantle the way the current oppressive fashion system works and empower indigenous communities. We recognise that we don’t have all the answers and we believe best practices when it comes to cultural sustainability will have to be determined by the custodians of the rich material culture we hope to preserve and celebrate. As we continue to work closely with Filipino indigenous artisan communities, we hope to strengthen our understanding of what it means to be culturally sustainable and also share our thoughts and experiences with the wider fashion community. Keep an eye out for our future blog posts on this topic!

Other references: 

Centre for Sustainable Fashion - textiles

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