With a workshop for about 50 Business & Fashion students from MBO Zadkine at the depot of Museum Rotterdam, in November 2022, the research project Localising Global Garment Biographies got off to a flying start.
The project, funded by the Dutch Research Agenda (NWA), seeks to explore, explain, and challenge the inequalities and alienations that shape today’s garment value chain. The vast majority of the world’s garments are produced in low-income countries of the Global South, to be sold to consumers worldwide.
Producing garments is typically profitable for brands and retailers, while garment workers and farmers earn a very meagre income from the essential labour they contribute to this industry. The research project wants to develop new ways to let garments tell the stories of how these are made, used, reprocessed or discarded. It is being conducted jointly by a broad range of societal and academic partners, located in the Netherlands as well as in India, spanning garment design, production and usage.
The workshop aimed to provide the Zadkine students with a variety of inspirations for the design of a T-shirt or top, to be co-produced with project partners in India. Each of these inspirations in one way or the other was connected to freedom, or its opposite, confinement. Preceding the workshop, Museum Rotterdam selected fifteen garments from its collection. Some of these garments quite literally drew on liberation, or being subject to control, while others referred to the desire or the need to express cultural or personal identities. Among the items that most attracted the interest of the students were a straitjacket, the dress of a woman factory worker, and the self-embellished pants of a homeless man. Most of the historical pieces were cotton, inviting the students to reflect on the usages, production, and origins of this very versatile material in a historical context.
Workshop at the Museum Rotterdam with students of the Zadkine College (Renske Bakker Schut)
Working in pairs, using photos and texts, the future fashion professionals had already chosen their favourite garment from among the fifteen pieces. They were challenged to look for additional and hidden stories, instead of judging clothes through their eyes as modern fashionistas only. What biographies could the garments hold? During the workshop at the depot of Museum Rotterdam, the students got to see the garments for the first time in real life. Sharing ideas and impressions, they analysed their choices for their favourite piece, discussed the collection items, and provided preliminary ideas on the new designs they were working towards.
These 1981 ‘punk’ pants from the collection of Museum Rotterdam were a favourite. The students tried to put themselves in the shoes of Jean Marc, the former wearer of the pants, and learned that the real thing often provides more information than just the picture. Photo by Museum Rotterdam.
Expanding on the stories that garments can tell, the workshop included a session on the materiality, preparation, usage and symbolism of the Surinamese angisa. The angisa is a colourful headdress, which is folded from a starched cloth. Different folding techniques result in distinct creations, each of which conveys its own message. Folding an angisa is demanding, and involves skill, creativity and passion. Both the garment and the folding techniques are integral to Afro-Surinamese cultural heritage, revealed angisa expert Jane Stjeward-Schuber, who also arranged the input. The session resonated very well with the Zadkine students (some of whom trace their roots to Suriname), providing them with an example of what a garment biography can encompass.
Workshop on the folding of a Surinamese angisa. Photo by Museum Rotterdam.
“Big change starts with a small seed”, Niccy Kol told the students, holding up a small seed from the cotton plant. In her session, she discussed the trajectory of a cotton shirt, from growing cotton by Indian farmers, to the final product. She illustrated this with reference to a T-shirt made for the crew of the Tomorrowland music festival (Belgium). This shirt is made from regenerative, organic cotton and designed to be circular. That is, once the T-shirt has reached the end of its usage life, it can be recycled and used as a raw material for jeans. In this recycling process, it is not necessary to dye the yarn again since the T-shirt has been made in a color that anticipates its eventual recycling and reprocessing.
The T-shirt for Tomorrowland crew in the hands of the indigenous women farmers who grew the regenerative, rain-fed cotton in southeast India. Photo by Raddis/GVK Society.
Next, Aditi Mukherjee and Erik de Maaker, both from Leiden University, took a critical look at the group of students. “Almost everyone here is wearing dark clothing”, they noted: black, dark blue, dark brown. This is very unlike the clothes people wear in India, which are typically bright and cheerful. This led them to introduce the students to a selection of garments from India, both classic and contemporary. These ranged from an iconic Indian sari (a long wrapping cloth for women), to men’s kurtas (an upper body garment), to designer blouses and even a pair of brightly-coloured hand-knitted woollen slippers. Provided with brief background stories for each of these items, the student pairs also chose an Indian garment as an inspirational piece, to work into their design.
These mojaa or slippers, designed to take the chill off winter days in South India, were handmade by Indu.
Charged with this variety of inputs, in the days and weeks that followed the students set off to design their own tops. Garments tell stories, but what these stories are varies with the cultural and societal contexts within which they are situated. In the Netherlands, Suriname or India, the stories woven into the garments will each be unique. This becomes particularly interesting considering that garments that are worn in one cultural context are linked to others through their design and production processes. The garments provide the threads for weaving an integrated tapestry of stories, looping the students into a global network of stakeholders. The students were faced with the challenge to draw on the inspiration gained, to create a design that is aesthetic, while also considering how it relates to the global garment value chain.
Students Business & Fashion of MBO Zadkine at work in the depot of Museum Rotterdam, after an inspiring workshop on Indian clothing. Photo by Violetta Riedel.
This post has been authored by Mayke Groffen, Erik de Maaker and Rachel Lee.
Localising Global Garment Biographies is a partnership of: Universiteit Leiden, Museum Rotterdam, MBO Zadkine, Modemuze, TU Delft, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Grameena Vikas Kendram and Raddis Cotton.