By Anushka Tay
To what extent can a place be experienced, understood or consumed through dress? I recently spent a day in Riga, Latvia, where I made sure to visit Sena Klets – the National Costume Centre. Nestled in the touristy heart of Riga’s Old Town, I was expecting it to be a museum of Latvian traditional dress; so was surprised to discover that it functioned equally as a display of folk costume, organised by region; and a tourist souvenir shop. I was previously aware of Latvia’s famed knitting traditions; but didn’t realise that the patterns were governed by location. The hand-made items on display were presumably created specifically for sale to tourists, and were priced to a reflect some consideration for the labour time (€54 for a pair of mittens). As is so common in tourism, national identity is presented as a commodity for consumption. However, in this case, what is also being sold is the concept of supporting cottage industries, and of promoting a country’s textile heritage.
Is this yet another iteration of what Simona Reinach refers to as the ‘romantic nationalism of the past’? Traditional dress, or folk costume, occupies a strange place within the discourses of fashion in today’s industrialised, increasingly globalised world. In academia, fashion is largely agreed to constitute the system of change, with the individual styles of clothing themselves irrelevant (Kawamura, 2006). The adoption of the Western fashion system has in many ways come to symbolise a marker of progress, and Reinach (2011) demonstrates how with the rise of more and more smaller fashion weeks around the world, the fashion industry is more than simply an arm of commerce, but has come to consecrate national identity and mark countries’ presence as a major player in the global economies. Skov (2011, p.149) further analyses the relationship between fashion designers and folk culture, whereby on the one hand there is ‘the common perception that folk culture is the opposite of fashion— rural, static, backward, and soaked in nationalism’ – yet ‘fashion…has had no qualms about incorporating all kinds of colorful elements from non-Western, including Russian, folk culture. The new demand is that designers engage with their national culture and dress tradition, but in such a way that it can be attractive to outsiders.’
Whilst the mittens and other items in the National Costume Centre weren’t presented as fashion items, I personally found it fascinating to see that colours and patterns often used as references in ‘folk style’ fashions were still being produced. Integral to their production and display was the notion that they were still being worn; a sense of national identity embedded in craftwork, and displayed in a strange contradiction of exhibit and commodity.
Kawamura, Y. (2006) Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies. Oxford and New York: Berg
Reinach, S. S. (2011) “National Identities and International Recognition” in Fashion Theory 15:2, pp.267-272
Skov, L. (2011) “Dreams of Small Nations in a Polycentric Fashion World” in Fashion Theory, 15:2 pp.137-156