Conquest by Consumption: Fashion as a Colonial Agent

Conquest by Consumption: Fashion as a Colonial Agent @Mark O’Connell 2015, no reproduction without permission

“As a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied…. Wants thus come to depend on output. In technical terms, it can no longer be assumed that welfare is greater at an all-round higher level of production than at a lower one. It may be the same. The higher level of production has, merely, a higher level of want creation necessitating a higher level of want satisfaction. There will be frequent occasion to refer to the way wants depend on the process by which they are satisfied. It will be convenient to call it the Dependence Effect.” John Kenneth Galbraith, (The Affluent Society, 1958: 129)

Bechuana Congregation, The London Missionary Society. Pseudonymous, circa 1900.


Exporting and importing product is never a benign practice, there will always be larger cultural and social impacts supplied along with the flow of goods. At times these effects are intentional, as when British colonial missionaries conjoined “cultivation to Christianity” hoping that the introduction of their commercial goods and western garb might recast the modes of consumption for the Tswana people of South Africa. And with it bring along concomitant codes of modesty and conduct. An imperial process supported by the wealthy textile producers back in England who saw the profitability of market expansion conjoined with evangelical will; leading to a situation where it is the manufacturers who actively create a need for these goods, enacting a “civilizing mission encouraged by consumption”. This process can be seen as an example of Galbraith’s “revised sequence”, wherein the desires of the market place are actively cultivated and put in place as a way of supplying an existing manufacturing culture. In many cases dress has been used as a normative colonialist tool, but the selective adoption of the modes of dress can at times also subvert and undermine the principle motivation of religious conversion. The attempts by evangelicals to conjoin capitalism with spirituality sometimes leaves the latter diminished by the exchange, and opens the door to greater demand for wardrobe, and one that highlights individuality and can lead to personal excess. This does not however mitigate the devastating impacts of the introduction and eventual dominance of a local market by a foreign produced commodity, which brings with it cultural and economic imperatives that will radically alter the eventual destination markets of these loaded goods.

(Full paper available upon request)

Comaroff, John L., and Jean Comaroff. “Fashioning the Colonial Subject.” Of Revelation and Revolution 2 (1997): 218-73.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Affluent Society. Houghton Mifflin, 1958.

___. The New Industrial State. Princeton University Press, (1967) 2015.

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  1. […] Fostering nationalist consciousness was the motivation for Gandhi when he introduced the idea of “Khadi”, or homespun textiles in Colonial India. Beginning in 1918 Gandhi encouraged poor villagers to make their own fabric for clothing and all household purposes, thereby fostering an awareness of self-reliance and self-governance through the home spinning and weaving of textiles: “Every village shall plant and harvest its own raw-materials for yarn, every woman and man shall engage in spinning and every village shall weave whatever is needed for its own use.” (Gandhi quote: Gandhi advocated for the end of dependency on the British colonialist manufacturing cycle as: “Raw materials at that time were entirely exported to England and then re-imported as costly finished cloth, depriving the local population of work and profits on it” This force of nationalism was not just a rejection of the normative imposition of British imperialist dress codes, but also a subversion of British textile manufacture and the industrial machine that sought to enact ideological indoctrination and simultaneously create new markets for British manufacturers (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1997: 219). […]