Speculate and Reverse: Decolonizing Fashion Vocabulary

Decolonizing fashion. A line drawing of sheep growing on a plant
How 14th Century Europe imagined Indian cotton plants. Drawing by John Mandeville.

“For a very long time, in this remarkably diverse, fabulously vibrant, and economically important world of cotton, Europe was nowhere to be found. Europeans had remained marginal to networks of cotton growing, manufacturing, and consumption. Even after they began importing small quantities of cotton during the Greek and Roman times, they remained of little importance to the global cotton industry as a whole. People dressed, as they had since the Bronze Age, in clothing made of flax and wool. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, while India supplied Europe with cottons, Europeans themselves “were submerged in barbarism, ignorance, and a state of wilderness.

Cotton, quite simply, was exotic to Europe. The fiber grew in far away lands, and many Europeans reportedly imagined cotton as a mixture of a plant and an animal – a “vegetable lamb.”  Stories circulated in medieval Europe about little sheep growing on plants, and bending down at night to drink water; other fables told of sheep attached to the ground by low stems…..”

The Empire of Cotton, Sven Beckert, 2015

Not so long ago, cotton was “exotic to Europe.” The Beckert text above probes us to think about the current Western hegemonic control over the global textile and fashion industry. It pushes us to rejig conventional ideas of civility that have historically divided the East and the West, as we have imagined the former to be barbaric, backward and traditional, and the latter to beits binary opposite. The description that imagines the cotton plant as a “vegetable lamb” is thus humorous for its out of placeness, the flip it sparks.

However, what struck me about this excerpt is not just the inversion of race and power that it alludes to. I was interested in how, while the Western understanding of cotton was so profoundly limited (and inaccurate), the ability to imagine this crop still remained alive. There was both space to fantasize about what cotton would look like, and the means to document this speculation.

In the Global South, we are not just robbed of resources and authority; we are also often robbed of an imagination – especially when it comes to fashion and textile vocabulary. Words in this industry are handed to us with pre-determined meaning and value, and there is no room to navigate their meanings, let alone imagine what they could have meant before we ever encountered them.

This experimental, playful piece tries to reclaim the power of imagination. It allowed me to do what is no longer possible. I asked: 

what would these words look like if ‘we’ in the Global South never knew what they meant? what if we had the liberty to speculate, document and reverse-imagine?

Then, I did what Europeans in Medieval times got to do: I documented my radical thoughts, and imagined, without burden. 

Fashion Vocabulary


Couture, to the alien ear, sounds just like ‘cut-your.’ Wouldn’t this be a masochistic, self-propelling machine that takes an arm for every shirt? Illustration by Mansi Maheshwari.

Wasp Waist

This is the wasp waist, which in fashion terms means a very narrow, adeptly constructed waist. It sounds emaciating, like something that would unwittingly turn a woman into another thing. Illustration by Mansi Maheshwari.

Boyfriend Fit Jeans

And boyfriend fit? A coffin shaped like a man that one would have to confine themselves to, while faking adulation. Illustration by Mansi Maheshwari.
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