Clothing as Healing: Operational and Ecological Methods



Our clothing choices are impacted by larger structures of societal life: gender, fatphobia, even foreign policy. Although it could be easy to demonstrate how clothing relates to these aspects of our lived experience, what remains overlooked is how these same issues — foreign policy, representation, sexism, etc. — influence our interior lives: our emotions, psyche, and health. Nevertheless, our circumstances are bound to affect our bodies. Just as corporeality is the site of many social politics, it also evidences the trauma we experience through these politics.

A recent study by sociologist and medical doctor Roberto Montenegro explores the effect of chronic stress from racism on health. But for those who experience the trauma of social marginalization, these connections have already been made clear through experience. Those who experience trauma are more likely to have issues with their gut and nervous system, along with the mental health concerns caused by such situations.

Despite these links between trauma and the body, the objects with some of the most intimate relationships to our corporeality have not been explored adequately as for their healing capacity. Despite all of the ‘reading’ that goes on in cultural studies linking clothing to representation, not enough work has explored how clothing might become an interlocutor between the worldly causes of harm and our often fragile states of well-being.

The field of design hasn’t completely ignored this need. Emotionality has long been a legitimate focus of design problem solving in various ways. European designers like Stijn Ossevoort have focused on the idea that designed objects must fulfill not only our practical needs, but also our emotional ones. Utilizing narrative, specifically, to accomplish his goal, in one project he created objects based on the stories of individuals. One multi-project investigation named “Wearable dreams” explores the possibility of using wearable devices to portray human emotions and connection. Ossevoort began the investigation through a focus on the relationship between people and their clothes. He used indirect questions to gain information about people’s deep feelings and fantasies about their clothing, such as by asking what their favorite piece of clothing would be like personified — what gender, age, and personality would their favorite piece of clothing have, for example? Using information from his series of questionnaires, Ossevoort created various design projects, one of which was a jewelry project called “Thoughts of Love.” In this project the jewelry pieces exist in a set for loved ones. Each jewelry piece has a remote activation interface that triggers a smell in the other, reminding the person receiving the smell that their loved one is thinking of them.

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Sacré Coeur (2016), a project by Stijn Ossevoort who designed a coat that has a “heart “beating in sync with its wearer’s heart. / Photograph by Niki Segers (courtesy of the artist).

However, emotional design, like most other facets of design, has remained overwhelmingly white — not in terms of demographic inclusion, but in its way of approaching emotional issues as if they are individual rather than structural. Eurocentric design, even when able to consider emotionality, cannot deal with the ugly truth of feelings caused by Eurocentricity itself, and is much more likely instead to focus on emotions as a personal problem. In contrast, some of the most important social justice work involves validating the affectual responses to, and consequences of, structural injustice on marginalized and oppressed individuals.

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(above and below) Examples of Olatiwa Karade’s SplendidRainCo collection. More on Karade’s Etsy online shop.

Perhaps an obvious site of study is the use of resistance messages on clothing. Like sartorial posters, these modes of dressing often bear social justice slogans, controversial phrases, and images of impactful leaders. One popular recent example is that of Splendid Rain Co., an Etsy company created by Olatiwa Karade, which features sweaters with phrases like “Your Founding Fathers Owned Slaves,” “Fuck Your Racist Grandma,” “Worthy of Humanity,” and “Columbus Was A Murderer”(see photographs on next page).

Though not much work has gone into examining the psychological effects of these kinds of pieces on the wearer, it is fairly easy to speculate that it might have a positive emotional impact by creating a voice within the often helpless silence enforced in a deeply racist society. Important in-roads to further developing this kind of resistive expression would necessitate an understanding of how it improves the wearer’s sense of well-being, towards a methodology of healing clothing design.

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Resistive messages allow us to begin investigating the idea of clothing as a buffer between the external world of harm and the emotional experience of those othered by that world. While the messages are effective in communicating certain collective emotions, and arguably cathartic, I am of the opinion that greater interventions are necessary. What I find more impactful is a field of design which produces what I would describe as ‘operationally’ resistive clothing. That is, clothing that resists functionally, creating its intervention through the medium itself. One great example of this type of work comes from Adam Harvey for the NeuroSpeculative Afrofeminism Project. A hijab he has designed, HyperFace, features a pattern that can thwart face detection technology as an additional item to his series of designs (Stealth Wear) subverting drone thermal recognition.

These types of media-oriented interventions could change the full lived experience of how an othered person feels in the world. Mental and physical health issues, such as stress-induced pain and anxiety, are to be expected in war zones where HyperFace and Stealth Wear might be used. And yet research, somewhat superficially, has continued to be focused on the obvious political impact of these works, without including their impact on emotionality, health, and well-being.

Unfortunately, these issues are not addressed until the post-war stage, in interventions for refugees, for example, when the traumatic incident has already occurred. This brings up two important questions as to the nature of research on this topic: firstly, why are methods for preventing trauma not taken into more consideration at the cross-roads of trauma and design? And secondly, is it considered trite to focus on a feelings-centered approach to addressing social/corporeal politics? Has the world of social-justice study taken itself so seriously that it can’t help but look beyond the central goal — joyous people in good mental and physical health, able to have all human needs for well-being met regardless of their sexual orientation, race, religion, etc.?

What would ideally be the best interventional approach to this is an approach that has both representative and interventional qualities: something that has a personal and internal cathartic, emotionally expressive, and self-esteem boosting quality for the wearer, while also intervening. One might imagine, for example, a drone-dodging hijab with calligraphic textile designs of ayat-kursi, the verse of the Quran traditionally read for protection.

As a designer, scholar, and African futurist, I believe in the importance of the holistic connection of all things. It is perhaps inevitable that my work — which was previously centered on the ways that elements of culture, such as clothing, are used to reproduce and perpetuate oppression — would also lead me to a deep commitment to the question of whether clothing can be explored as a legitimate healing modality and response to structural violence. While we observe the multitude of ways clothing is embedded into larger structures of capitalism, labor inequalities, and racism, we must also recognize how creating clothing systems that reverse this violence is part of creating a different, equitable, and healed vision of the future.

Commitment to the movement to decolonize design means critically examining a design from an ecological standpoint. This is to say that it is necessary for it to be an approach that not only considers the design of things themselves, but also the systems within which those things exist. One example of how non-systematic approaches fail is through the approach of emotion from the individual rather than the group. But an even older failure of design is its incapacity to address systems of colonization.

The most important presumption of Eurocentric design is the separation between human and non-human things. Woven into this separation is the property relation, the oppression and possession of the non-human by the human. The very constitution of this opposition is what allows the designer to have a field and an identity. In its most visible expressions of violence, the concept of property has justified and underpinned slavery and patriarchy, particularly structuring the ‘inherited’ legacy of racially-based slavery. More subtly, it has justified a depreciation of an indigenous practice and design ethos. This disconnects us from the various forms of non-human others, their constant interactions with us that create not just our lives, but also our lives’ psychosocial richness, depth, and quality.

Scholars such as Donna Haraway have made arguments for an ecofeminist approach to society; one that recognizes not only the active subjectivity of non-human others, but also seeks to begin acknowledging that their exclusion from contemporary notions of living subjects is rooted in oppressive systems such as patriarchy. But even as movements such as ecofeminism seem to lead us towards an understanding of the interrelated nature of various “isms,” and how imperialist patriarchy has created a divorce from nature, they too are not beyond critique. Work in this field can reproduce colonialism through a lack of acknowledgement of the indigenous roots of these concepts or their contemporary resurgence through Black feminist scholarship. Just as decolonizing philosophy necessitates a dismantling of subject/object oppositions, so too does it necessitate the work of dismantling feeling/knowledge and heart/mind dichotomies, like that done by Black feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, and other radical women of color feminists like Gloria Anzaldúa. In the spirit of negating these binary epistemological assumptions — those that separate object from subject, thinking from feeling, outer from inner — I contend that clothing’s political capacity includes a healing potential.

To be clear, I am not claiming that clothing already exists as healing, and I understand why such an idea could be met with skepticism. Beyond the deep investment in the divide between subject and object, and the multiple ways by which contemporary politics would have us believe our experiences are not influenced by the conditions or objects around us, there is validity to such skepticism. The concept of clothing as healing, or clothing as a tool aiming at wellness, has historically been used by capitalism. Clothing, like many other design products, has often been sold with marketing schemes claiming that it will make our lives better, or make us better people. The myth that conspicuous consumption will improve our life experience is rampant in fashion, and is the opposite of what I am advocating for. Nevertheless, the idea of liberation through consumption seems to have reemerged recently.

Recent fast-fashion brands have used the longing for a better, more inclusive world to sell their brands (for example, through representation of plus-size models, dark-skinned models, gender non-conforming models, etc.). These campaigns, however, highlight what the use of clothing as a healing modality is not and ought not to be. Indeed, these campaigns never go beyond simple representation. The growing representation of hijab-ed Muslim women in campaigns by companies like Nike, Sephora, and H&M in recent years serves as a signal example. As political fashion blogger Hoda Katebi points out in her article “No Representation in Sweatshops: Ethical Muslim-Owned Alternatives to Nike’s ‘Pro-Hijab,’” these representations are deceptive promotions of inclusivity. While the companies seek to reap the benefits of promoting their lines as Muslim-friendly, their business and labor practices deeply violate Islamic tenets of justice and equality. Further still, this oppression often is most acutely felt by Muslim laborers in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Clothing cannot be activist, political, or healing through representation alone. Such superficial trends directly oppose healing and are instead trauma-inducing. In Katebi’s words, “the image of the hijab-wearing woman shifted from a brand not many companies wanted to be tainted with to the next hottest trend,” (Hoda Katebi, Joojoo Azad, 2017).

This exploitative commodification of selfhood and identity through imagery is deeply harmful. However, these artificial, representation-limited attempts at identity-positive strides towards healing-promoting wellness teach us through their deep failures what not to do.

A critical look at the elements that keep fashion and clothing embedded in structures of oppression and exploitation, such as the nature of even superficially ‘liberatory’ representation, might make alternatives seem bleak; yet, alternatives exist. Precolonial societies are inspiring references for such alternatives, particularly as examples of pre-capitalist exchange. In my own Yoruba culture, there exist indigenous models of clothing-making focused on cooperative relationships with nature, common ownership and collaboration, and emotionality. Adiré fabrics bear representative symbologies of various cultural principles and proverbs (owé), which can be read as omens and affirmations. The transformation into a ‘speaking object,’ where the object bears a form of subjectivity, may help cleave the subject/object divide and replace the consumption of the object with an awareness of the ‘point of production.’ This is in line with the principles of sustainability — both ecological and personal — called for by slow-fashion advocacy.

Furthermore, I contend that there is something deeper and more reflective about clothing that participates in ecology, including the ecology of meaning, which can create a sense of wellness and belonging in the participant-wearer, who becomes a part of something larger.

Many communities of designers are being created around the principles of clothing with meaning and ethical production ecologies. These alternatives often include plant-based dyed fabrics, eco-fibers, and employment of marginalized and dispossessed populations. What is perhaps not highlighted enough is the potential for these new forms to create positive emotionality and more secure ways of existing physically. Simultaneously, new radical interventions are happening surrounding identity expression in clothing by designers of color who want their voices to be heard. Unfortunately, there are not enough examples of these principles existing together. Although many fair trade NGO-like high fashion iterations come close, it is difficult to reconcile their proximity to historical colonial savior complexes. These issues especially reveal themselves in marketing strategies and the lack of engagement with alternative economies that would make such brands more widely affordable. Like their less indigenously-oriented, sustainable material-focused counterparts, these brands feel the least accessible to those struggling under the brunt of structural violence.

What remains to be seen are interventions that combine the cathartic quality found in Karade’s “Worthy of Humanity” with the active defensive protection of Harvey’s HyperFace hijab, created through an ethical labor system from sustainable materials. And though this might seem like somewhat of an impossibility, I often reference my own indigenous culture for affirmation that such systems can exist. Surely in this society, people have to be mindful of the depletion of the land and the treatment of artisans with special skillsets, have to fear the exploitation of each other and the loss of resources. It is one in which things have meaning, exist with us spiritually and function in our everyday lives, but are also a deep part of a cosmology that allows them to exist beyond being mere objects of possession.