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The Urgent Need to Tackle the Issue of Sustainability

Weekly Fellow: Anneke Smelik

Current Fellow Anneke Smelik talks about about her path in the academic world, her passions and the issue of sustainability in fashion. This Thursday (1 November) she will give a seminar on ways to change the fashion system towards a more sustainable future.

Have you always known you wanted to become an academic?

I was always a very expressive child. I really enjoyed dressing up, and to sing and dance and act. I’ve even dabbled in it up to ten years ago. Secretly, I’ve always desired to be a Great Actress! But alas, not enough talent. However, I also always had an intellectual passion. What really helped me was the inspiration of – the very few! – women professors, such as Mieke Bal. They showed me that, in fact, you can become a scholar as a woman and that you can do scholarship and still sustain that kind of passion. Such role models helped me to combine my feminist activism with academic studies.

Do you feel like you’re combining your hobbies with your job?

Yes, I always feel that I am handsomely paid for what I absolutely love doing. Of course, we do work incredibly hard. I’ve always been at the cutting edge of what is new. Women studies was new and so was media studies; the two disciplines I started working in at an early stage of my career.

How did you get to fashion studies?

About 10 years ago, the fashion college in Arnhem came to me and said ‘’We want to elaborate on theory. Can we work together?’’ I realized that no one was doing academic research on fashion in The Netherlands and that fashion is as much a visual art as film is. As I’ve always been working on issues of the body and on representation of gender, it seemed a natural development for me to move from cinema studies to fashion studies. Being at an innovative edge, we received an NWO grant on Dutch fashion, which resulted in the book Delft Blue to Denim Blue. Contemporary Dutch Fashion. Then we also got a second NWO grant on fashion and technology. I’m finishing that project right now.

While we were working on technology, for example developing solar-operated fashion, one of the issues that came along very quickly was sustainability. There is no point putting solar cells into t-shirts if everybody throws them out. I was quite shocked to find out that fashion is an incredibly unsustainable field of production and consumption. There is an urgent need to tackle the issue of sustainability. Yet it is also very difficult. The approach in the field of fashion so far is very hands-on: there are many isolated solutions. I’m trying to develop a more holistic and theoretical approach. I genuinely think that sustainability is one of the big issues of today and the field of fashion was lagging behind. In a way I am returning to my earlier activist roots: I hope to be able to contribute to a better world, but I also feel a little bit shocked about the glamour part of the fashion world; fashion is in a way indicative of precisely the mode of consumption that we are all in. That is why I would like to go to the deeper source of causes and develop a theoretical approach rather than a hands-on one.

What do you hope to achieve at NIAS?

I have a clear goal: I would like to write an ERC (European Research Council) application. I have wanted to do this for several years, but I’ve never had enough time with the heavy teaching load and all. I also have planned to write two articles on sustainability and fashion. But most of all, I need the time to think. And how wonderful to have that time right now!