Ankara – A Nigerian Textile (photo credit)
Yesterday afternoon whilst composing this morning's 'Swimsuit Trends' article I had a realisation that's been simmering on the surface for a long time.
I hate the terms 'Tribal' and 'Ethnic' when used to describe a trend or genre. These are terms we see used a lot in the industry, and in researching the trends for summer earlier in the year they were the obvious adjectives that came to mind in describing what we saw at the fashion weeks last fall. However I didn't feel right using them and tried to avoid it.
Apart from the obvious offense that can be taking by terming anything that isn't from our Westernised, primarily white, culture as 'ethnic' or indeed 'tribal'' and not even touching the highly controversial issue of appropriation, what do these terms even mean? What exactly are they describing?
Nothing…they're a generic non-term used to refer to something we're not used to. They literally have no descriptive value whatsoever. There are tribes in every country all over the world. Africa alone is a continent made up of 47 countries, within those 47 countries are people groups (or tribes) into the 1000's (I read estimations of 3000). So when we say 'Tribal' which tribe exactly are we referring to if one continent alone is home to 3000?
A Man of the Maasai tribe (photo credit)
Zulu Dancers (photo credit)
Continuing with Africa as an example, two of the most famous tribes are the Maasai and the Zulu people. Looking at these two tribes alone (which I'm sure have their own sub-cultures, I'm not an anthropologist just a sideline observer) how can one word be used to describe them? It can't, and to try and label any sartorial inspiration coming from either of these tribes as 'Tribal' is not only defunct and void of any description but insulting to their rich and vibrant cultures not to mention differences between them.
I'm sure (well I hope I am) the designers of these collections that are labeled editorially as 'tribal' or 'ethnic' aren't drawing their inspirations from such a generic pool of ethnicity, so why do we as writers not look a little deeper as to, at the very least, which country or people group is inspiring the trend. For example it didn't take a lot of work for me to discover the prominent influence behind much of the prints, patterns and textures we've seen in these so called 'tribal' trends are actually Nigerian. Hence 'Nigerian Textiles' being the title of the swimsuit trend piece.
The general consensus on Twitter (in my impromptu discussion) was that 'Tribal' and 'Ethnic' were accepted terms within the industry and that I could go ahead and use them, but I strongly feel that this is not something I wish to perpetuate as a fashion writer and whilst I'm sure I'm not about to change the world and I'm certainly not in a position to tell others what to do, hopefully at the very least I've given you something to think about. I feel good about my decision. I just have to work a little harder (as someone who can get lost within the interwebs for hours with a simple Google search this is not an issue) and be a little more creative with my adjectives…but I'm a writer, right?!
I'd love to know your thoughts on my little rant, so go ahead, spill your mind into the comments.
I am so happy I found this post. It’s thoughtful and well-written, and says a lot of what I want to say, but have always been afraid to for fear of alienating my readers. “They’re a generic non-term used to refer to something we’re not used to” is spot on.
Thanks Erin – I’m still seeing it’s use and it’s cring-ey even two years later!
So, what is the correct term to use for these motifs/designs/textiles? :)
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Westernised, primarily white, culture as ‘ethnic’ or indeed ‘tribal” and not even touching the highly controversial issue of appropriation, what do these terms even mean? What exactly are they describing?
Fidnnig this post. It’s just a big piece of luck for me.
It’s posts like this that make surfing so much plaeusre