Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 160, Dec 2017

Fashion in the bardo

Fashion is in a crisis, and the unsustainable impact of our current mode of consumerism is just one part of it. Yet the present approach of the industry, to patch up the “business as usual” with a bit of eco-friendly materials does not offer much help.

The foremost question for sustainable fashion is never asked: what do we want to sustain in fashion? Do we want to sustain the exclusivity, of limiting public access of a certain aesthetic? Or the distinction between designers and followers? Or the glamour of idols and celebrity culture? Or the “magic” of shapeshifting? Or the play between virtue and sin? If the current incarnation of fashion is to die and reincarnated in a new form, what is kept and what is abandoned? And if fashion loses some of the properties above, what remain of fashion?

But there can be no doubt about it. Fashion needs to rethink itself. Fashion needs to be reborn. We must start to pick apart what we consider to be essential to fashion. But we are so shaped by the current version of the industry we have trouble imagining what fashion should be instead. If fashion is to be reborn, perhaps we should use the opportunity to meditate over its death.

In the famous Tibetan Book of the Dead the “bardo” is presented as intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth – the state of limbo intermediate between two lives on earth where the soul is prepared for rebirth into a new body. Even though bardo usually connotes the gap of death between a life and another, the bardo can also relate to a moment of transition in life, and meditating over such gap or transformation is considered a good opportunity for enlightenment. We could thus imagine that the current crisis in fashion is a form of bardo, and a good opportunity to meditate on what we want fashion to become.

If we imagine that fashion, like the self, holds up an image of its ideal, situated in an ideal world, it serves a fundamental purpose in the lives of people. Yet, this ideal is corrupted by our attachment to this image. Fashion is attached to its imagined selfhood, and the self is attached to fashion as an image of the self. We want fashion to stay as it is, just like we want the self to stay as itself. The fashion industry projects an ideal image of how things are and also pretends it has it together, that things are improving; a little eco cotton here, a bit of recycling there and trace of circular economy in some power-point diagrams. Like in the bardo, we keep postponing our acceptance of the rupture just to sustain the illusion that reality is just as we imagine it should be.

The image of bardo in the Tibetan Book of the Dead is popularly known full of tormenting demons. They are the horrors the deceased self faces as it is stripped from attachment to old illusions. The demons challenge our expectations, kills our clinging to the old life, to our comforts and habits. Thus the demons are our helpers; one cannot be reborn if not everything from the old life is taken away so that only the mind remains.

Similarly, in the bardo of fashion, we strip the phenomenon down from the layers of attachment to the industry, the anchoring in social competitiveness and the idea of us consuming a unique “self” made up of stuff. Cleaned away of its consumerist self, fashion is no longer tainted by capitalism-infused anxiety and the imperative to perform and achieve. It is a fashion that does not need to cling to a promotion of selfhood.

Not unlike the ideas of the bardo in Tibetan Buddhism, what is left is after stripping away illusions of self is presence; the presence that forms the very basics of mind and of interconnected being. What remains of fashion is our attention, a presence manifesting itself between two people. A presence of being; of being with another.

After the cleaning in bardo a new self is born from presence. From this presence we start building a new life, a new fashion. A new fashion that starts from the attention towards another being. Can we drape this experience of togetherness without attachment to unsustainable use of material, energy and labor? What would your fashion be after the bardo?


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