Fashion Fest 2017 @ Tropenmuseum Amsterdam

by - December 09, 2017

It's day three of 'I haven't written anything yet and it's already 22:35'. LET'S DO THIS!!!

Today I went to Amsterdam (again) to attend Fashion Fest 2017 at the Tropenmuseum. What's fashion fest? Good question. I hadn't heard of it either before Thursday (that was one of the things the meeting was about), but it's a fashion contest where designers, makeup artists and hair stylists compete against each other inspired by an object from the museum. And only one can be the winner... (Just to be clear: the designers don't compete with the makeup artists, but there are different groups consisting of design/makeup/hair who then compete with other groups).

"I've basically dealt with this kind of stuff for four years already and man why can't I ever get a break from stuffed tigers in a museum."

As said, I hadn't heard of it before and didn't really had any expectations. Because what must one expect from a fashion contest? When I was still studying Cultural Heritage we went to the Tropenmuseum -what felt like- daily so I knew what to expect there. Which is, for those who are unfamiliar with the Tropenmuseum, one of the largest museums in Amsterdam specialised in ethnography. Funnily enough I'm currently reading the chapter 'The Poetics and Politics of Exhibiting Other Cultures' in Representation by Stuart Hall (ed.) for uni and although I can't get through it because I've basically dealt with this kind of stuff for four years already and man why can't I ever get a break from stuffed tigers in a museum (yes, that's a shout out to Kenneth Hudson whose tiger logic (for those uninformed: a tiger in a museum is a tiger in a museum and not a tiger) hunted us Cultural Heritage students for four years, only to be surpassed mid year four by my brilliant teacher who said: "Don't throw with a stone, throw with a bird". Which became our 'inspiring' Facebook banner and uplifting mantra ever since. Because who knows what she meant by it but we all accepted her madness by then. Apparently we Cultural Heritage people just love our animals).

Part of the exhibition 'Fashion Cities Africa'

Right. Back to the chapter I'm reading for uni: it deals with how ethnographic museums use a specific representation system that neutralises the way we think about what they are actually telling us (i.e. that what in the first place is categorised as ethnographic and in the second place how that information is presented to us). Going Foucauldian, museums/ethnography operate in certain discourses whereby their 'truthfulness' or power/knowledge relation isn't questioned as they are seen as institutions which "[makes] the museum become an arbiter of meaning since its institutional position allows it to articulate and reinforce scientific credibility of frameworks of knowledge or discursive formations through its methods of display." (p. 170, 2013).

But what has got this to do with this fun fashion contest I was talking about before I went all animal crazy? Well, the Tropenmuseum tries with Fashion Fest to use their collection as an entry point for further creation and narrative added by the contestants upon their original significance within the collection of the museum. Although the inspiration for some designers go as far as 'my object is this beaded necklace so I'm going to use beads', it in many ways helps to re-imagine or open up the conversation about inclusiveness. Inclusiveness not only in the sense who the bearer of the message is, but also the contextualisation/incorporation of that message to begin with. A big question going with incorporating or being inspired by ethnographic objects is often when the line of cultural appropriation is violated. Although that question was certainly asked, it got mostly danced around and some designs or stylistic choices were -in my eyes- dangerously nearing the edge of 'mmmmmm that's not 100% ok', BUT this event wasn't for a change entirely about that question.

Fashion Fest is part of the Weekend of Global Cultures (9 and 10 December 2017) which focuses on fashion, hip hop and activism. The essence of which I think was best described by Wayne Modest (Head Research Centre for Material Culture at Tropenmuseum, organiser of Weekend of Global Cultures and gave probably one of the best lectures during my 4 years as a Cultural Heritage student): people ask what place popular culture and hip hop has within museums. Which to us is an uninteresting question as this weekend demonstrates.

"That's not to say 'oh that guy is from a mixed background so that's fine', but more in the sense that the way the subject was handled wasn't in the ethnograpic/museological sense but more explorative."

It's important therefore to mention that the bearer of the message, the designers, makeup/hair and the models during Fashion Fest were inclusive in the sense that say 95% of them were people of colour and different shapes and perhaps different identities. Hereby the sense of 'otherness' was not presented as a deviant or as an exception, which I think pushed the boundaries of when culture was or wasn't appropriated. That's not to say 'oh that guy is from a mixed background so that's fine', but more in the sense that the way the subject was handled wasn't in the ethnograpic/museological sense but more explorative. That's also honestly not to say that I was either blown away by the designs or thought them to be as inspiring as the premise I've just written. And although the lines were a bit more blurred as a conversation-starter, it certainly shouldn't stop there and the 'is it appropriation though?' is still a good question to ask. Not only by the designers/makeup/hair, but also by the museum and in which way they present and become resources as an entry point for today's society.

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