A quick search on websites like Dresslily, Amazon and Newchic for shirts, dresses and skirts with elaborate patterns and bright colors will often allow customers to find the word “ethnic” in the product description. Products that involved a mix of designs, multiple colors in mixed designs, or that did not have the classic American outdoor look or preppy look are often categorized as “ethnic” or “tribal”.
“Tribal” is often used to describe prints inspired by Central and West African cultures, or to refer to patterns and fabrics that have been inspired or co-opted by various African tribes across the continent, and widely generalizes several cultures. African as they are all monolithic. .
Recently, the fashion industry has been named for its decades of using the word “urban” to describe anything to do with black American culture. Now, diversity advocates in the fashion industry are calling for an end to the use of words like “tribal” and “ethnic”.
A quick Google Shopping search will reveal that various retailers still use the terms “tribal” and “ethnic” to describe various colorful geometric prints. ASOS describes several of their models on its website as “geo-tribal”. However, in an email to The Daily Beast regarding any use of the word ethnic or tribal in its product copy, a representative said, “ASOS does not use this word to describe any of our products, and we have had strict guidelines in place to prevent the use of language like this for many years. “
For generations, the use of the words “tribal” and “ethnic” has persisted in fashion without anyone beating an eye. “’Tribal’ was a word they used at the turn of the 20th century. I would even say that as early as the 1920s the word ‘tribal’ was used to describe fashion, ”said Amanda Hallay Heath, fashion historian and founder of The Ultimate Fashion History Project. “Native” was even more popular. “Ethnic” first appeared in the 1970s. ”The use of these terms, among others that would now be deemed offensive or out of date, persisted without controversy for much of the twentieth century.
“For most of the 20th century, words like ‘primitive’, ‘tribal’ and ‘ethnic’ were used with impunity and without any thought,” said Hallay Heath.
It wasn’t until the last decade that advocates of diversity in the fashion industry began to insist on the use of these terms and call on brands to use them. “Over the past decade, the industry has started to find more appropriate and respectful ways of describing clothing and fashion inspired by other cultures,” said Hallay Heath.
Some fashion designers have watched the industry use these terms for decades and were keenly aware of how dated or generically lumped inspiration from minority cultures under one umbrella.
Fashion designer and member of the Fashion Designers Council of America Kevan Hall has worked in some of America’s biggest design houses, most notably in Halston where he was Creative Director from 1998 to 2000. During his career He saw words like “tribal” and “ethnic” tossed around recklessly with no respect for the cultures that inspired the collections.
“It’s time for people in the fashion industry to think of other words to articulate and describe what seems inspired by other cultures.“
– Kevan Room
“Anytime something isn’t, for lack of a better term, a WASPy look, it’s put in the row of being ‘ethnic’, ‘tribal’ or other than,” he said. “It’s time for people in the fashion industry to think of other words to articulate and describe what seems inspired by other cultures. People want to throw things associated with non-whites into the “ethnic” category. They do it with everything from fashion to food. If you go to an Asian or Ethiopian restaurant, they categorize it as ‘ethnic’, but they don’t with European restaurants. “
Regarding the fashion industry’s use of the word ‘tribal’, Hall said, “This word has been used to express things like accessories that are thick, bold, or that contain various types of pearls. Basically you see it used with anything that involves any type of ornamentation. Anything that beckons to a culture outside of America or Europe is thrown into that “ethnic” or “tribal” pot. “
Hall himself has created collections inspired by African culture, particularly the Maasai tribe in Kenya and northern Tanzania. When he created this collection, a friend brought him items that had been made by these people. Hall incorporated these inspirations into props, and he gave credit to the Maasai tribe and discussed cultural inspiration in his performance notes to educate people.
If fashion companies want to take inspiration from cultures outside of Europe and America, they really need to think about how they use those terms and credit those cultures appropriately.
London-based International Fashion Director Zadrian Smith said: “The industry has to not be culturally appropriate, and if it is to make its own, remember that no idea of fashion is original. It is difficult for designers to come up with original creative concepts that are truly their own. The industry always borrows from other cultures to help and improve collections.
“If designers are to continue doing this, they need to fully learn about these cultures beyond just a surface level. If you want to be inspired by minority communities, you should give back to those communities. Don’t just take their ideas and use them for your business for capital gains. I know this is the nature of capitalism, but the fashion industry is guilty of doing it without shame.
“If the people at these tables come from only one culture, they cannot see how the appropriation of another culture could be seen as problematic.“
– Zadrian Smith
Smith says the lack of diversity behind the scenes in fashion is also to blame for the inappropriate use of words like “tribal” and “ethnic.”
“If the people at these tables are from only one culture, they cannot see how appropriating from another culture could be seen as problematic,” he said. “This is why there are so many mishaps in advertising campaigns because no one is there to tell them that everything is fine.”
Despite this, Smith believes there are times when words like “tribal” and “ethnic” can be used correctly. “If you look at the collection that Maria Grazia Chiuri made for Dior which was presented in Marrakech and which was made in collaboration with real artisans in Marrakech, then it had a real tribal imprint,” Smith said.
“If you take the clothes that are tribal specific, whether it’s a wave, print, or embroidery of their own, I personally think it’s okay to refer to something like that as tribal as long as the story goes. behind it is contextualized. Unfortunately, consumers often don’t have the time or the knowledge to figure out where and why things are coming from. These terms have therefore been misused. “
Other industry activists believe words like “tribal” and “ethnic” are vague and do not sufficiently respect cultures outside the United States and Europe.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see enough white advocates who fight against these terms, and truly understand the erasure that occurs when these ideas are used without the proper participation of the communities they represent.“
– Ash owens
Ash Owens, advocate for diversity in the fashion industry and editor-in-chief of Adapted magazine, said: “For too long important cultural references have been lumped together under words like these. Instead of directly attributing “inspiration”, these vague words take no responsibility for the origin of these ideas and who invented them in the first place.
“Often it’s done in a way that would be considered an appropriation. But at the very least, it is done with little respect for the lineage and origins that created the ideas they refer to.
Although nowadays some industry advocates are speaking out on the use of these terms, but Owens believes that is still not enough.
“The most invested defenders I see are those who protect their culture by standing up against these colonial words and practices,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see enough white advocates fighting against these terms and truly understanding the erasure that occurs when these ideas are used without the proper participation of the communities they represent. What I find most effective is education around those conversations where we can really eliminate the colonial mindset that we have inherited.
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