May 10, 2011

The Tribal Trend: "It’d Be Truer To Call It 'Colonial.'"

Ooh girl!

Sarah Nicole Prickett published this article, titled Trending: The safari that never stops, over at the National Post yesterday, and it is an excellent critique of the current Tribal Trend:

When I was a child, the month of May meant my parents would sandwich us into the Volvo and drive to the middle of Nowhere, Ont., for the annual Mennonite Relief Sale. I’d go to the Ten Thousand Villages tent and buy something from Somewhere Else: an Indonesian woven bracelet, say. I knew nothing about the larger world, but I liked to imagine a girl my age making crafts with her mother, as I did, but with different-coloured hands. I also liked the bracelet.

Today — as in right this second — I could go into Urban Outfitters and buy the same thing for a little more money. It’s probably made in Indonesia, too. Village. Sweatshop. Same diff.

The “tribal trend,” as it’s offhandedly called in style-world, is truly trend, not fad. This BS has been proliferating for years. In the mid-’00s, white girls realized moccasins were great shoes to wear to Whole Foods. Later, they’d don feathered, headdress-y things at summer festivals (fight for your right to pool-party, I guess). Meanwhile, ikat and batik prints, colour-copied from some imagined Africa, were getting hype. In 2008, American Apparel cashed in with an “Afrika” collection; Galliano, whose extreme cultural sensitivity had not yet been recognized, designed shoes based on African fertility idols. Ever-savvy, Rachel Zoe declared “ethnic-inspired” things “so hot right now.” Presumably, she wasn’t referring to temperature in countries of origin.

At the time, a New York Times article noted, breezily, the inauthenticity of all this ethnic stuff. Quoth Brian Crumley, a jeweller who gives his collections names like “Nomad” and lives on that free-spirited desert isle of Manhattan: “The enticement of ethnic dress in modern culture is like going on a guided safari. We can wave to the lion from the safety of our SUV.”

The safari’s not stopping. This summer, you can go to the mall and come back from Mexico, with knock-off Missoni headscarves or Mara Hoffman bikinis. Knapsacks are “Navajo;” jewellery is “Native.” Recently I was asked to name next spring’s trends for a fast-fashion brand. One of their ideas was described to me as being not about “authentic pieces” from other places, but more about “what a privileged white person would wear to those places.” Well, I replied, at least you’re being honest now.

The pro of globalization is that you can buy pieces from other places, or with other provenances, and not just at Ten Thousand Villages (which, FYI, celebrates World Fair Trade Day on May 14). Out of Africa, for example, are coming some fresh and excellent things to wear. The designer Max Osterweis lives in New York, but his beautiful label Suno is manufactured ethically in Kenya; it mixes the materials and colours of his native land with North American sportswear influences. Similarly, Duro Olowu has brought Nigerian textures and draping techniques to trendy Londontown, where he’s finding success (and a little Mobama love; she wears it on her upcoming Oprah appearance). And here in Toronto, designer Chinedu Ubakam — also Nigerian, originally — is remixing traditional adire prints in Photoshop, retailoring his identity.

Maybe the difference between African people making African clothes for white people and white people making African clothes for white people seems small, but it’s significant. It can separate the clothes from the costumes.

“There’s quite a big difference between the groups in Africa, so ‘tribal’ doesn’t tell you anything about where a style is from,” Ubakam says. “Might not even be from Africa. Designers label anything with naturalistic elements “African,” but it could be South American, Asian, anywhere outside of the Western world.”

“I don’t even know what ‘tribal’ means anymore,” Toronto-based accessories designer Jenny Bird says. Her new collection was inspired, Bird says, by India although she’s not yet travelled there. Then she laughs. “Aren’t we all part of a tribe?”

Yes. But we Westerners tend to call our tribe “civilization,” while with “tribal,” we imply its earliest definition, “heathen,” or its connotation, “primitive,” or its deeper sociological meaning, “the other.” And when we wear “tribal” as a trend, we’re lifting the style of a people without feeling for their history. It’d be truer to call it “colonial.”

In 1952, Dr. Frederic H. Douglas, a curator at the Denver Art Museum, put on the “Indian Fashion Show:” authentic, ahem, Native American garments, shown on white models. Problematic, but that was then, and his aim was revolutionary: to show that “Indian” women wear art, not war buckets and paint. When I look at Juliette Lewis (2008) and Ke$ha (2010) and Eliza Doolittle at Coachella (2011) wearing, uh, war buckets and paint, I wonder how far we haven’t come. Then I wonder if they’d like a Hudson’s Bay blanket to match. (My annoyance is felt far more sharply by Native girls: see or

Then again: what if they just like the “Indian” feathers or the “African” prints, the way I liked the Indonesian bracelet? If an Indonesian girl buys a pair of blue jeans, Americans aren’t incensed by her ignorance of California working-class history. Well, yeah. That might be ’cause her people have never oppressed theirs. Blue jeans have never been a basis for bigotry. Louboutins aside, white girls haven’t suffered for fashion.

One woman’s trend is another woman’s history; one’s spoils are another’s suffering. You might not be interested in the provenance or the tradition behind the styles you (and I) have borrowed from others. That’s fine. You can always shop in your own village.

(Read the original here)