TEXT: AMY DUFAULT
Cloth as Connection to Land
What would it be like if every region in the world utilized clothing to reflect place, economies and gender? Would it change the way we think about community and the origins of where we come from?
At a recent event at the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator promoting his book Oaxaca Stories in Cloth, a Book about People, Belonging, Identity, and Adornment, author Eric Mindling asked the audience to consider what that would look like and what that would feel like to be so in alignment with place. If cloth was audible, what would it say of being rooted?
“This storytelling happens in different ways,” says Mindling. “My own lack of roots gives me an understanding of the value of the rootedness.”
Covering more than 50 Indigenous communities for his historical documentary project, Living Threads: Oaxaca’s Traditional Dress and the People Who Wear It, Mindling looks at the massive diversity of styles of traditional dress and the individual people that wear them. His Living Threads project, a product of two years of field work, is a documentation of Oaxaca’s traditional dress and gives insights into a changing world not keeping the pace of tradition.
“Consider that men are the ones who interact with the outside world,” says Mindling, “and there is a tremendous amount of discrimination against indigenous people and to wear this clothing is to identify yourself as indigenous and experience that racism,” he says.
Yet at a time where we are seeing more high and low fashion brands knocking off indigenous communities’ patterns, colors and craft, the bias goes only so far when it can make a fashion house money.
Adding to almost infinite access of craft online, there now exists an aging generation of people who were born into unique traditional ways, now witnessing their children abandon these in favor of cheap, commercial goods. Leaving communities, as Mindling says with only pockets of people who know the history or traditions of their people.
Yet he inspires hope that through his own storytelling there can be a renaissance of heritage and craft consciousness on behalf of the 50 communities he spent time with. “Our necklaces speak of our power as women,” Mindling says of a woman on the screen. “She is called ‘La Coronela.’ She is retired now but she was once a colonel in the Mexican Army,” he says to a laughing crowd.
Or another story he tells of a Cuyuche woman: “I taught my daughter to be a woman and to be a woman is to weave. And you have to make good tortillas. My daughter wanted to study, and we had the wherewithal to do that for her and to make it possible. My daughter went to study what was it, chemical engineering. She works in a hospital now. And she still comes home every month and she makes very good tortillas.”
“I think of language as culture made audible and clothing as culture made visible,” says Mindling. For the Mago and the Zapotecs to the Coyuche and the Yalala, there’s a sort of presence that Mindling brings to his project that does give them voice, and it seems very likely that people are listening.