Saturday, May 29, 2010

The "Tribal Trend" Trend

I'm at the beach. Well, I am in close proximity to the beach, but today was too cloudy to actually work on my tan and look confident in my bikini, so I decided to spend the day doing what every Seventeen reader, except me, does best-- shopping. The Atlantic City Outlets are about 5 miles from my grandpa's house, or a half hour bike ride. I ride to school in dresses pretty frequently, but that's less than a mile. I assume that Seventeen doesn't expect its readers to sacrifice their hobbies in the name of fashion (are Seventeen readers even expected to have hobbies?), so I didn't, and I rode the 5 miles in this outfit, which was actually not a big deal at all. I have yet to find an outfit that I can't ride in, heels not excluded.

I've been consciously avoiding trying this trend though, which Seventeen calls "Bright Prints," because to me it seems like a thinly veiled variation on the "tribal" trend. Actually, its not even veiled at all. The blurb describing the look explains, "These tribal patterns have an 'I picked this up on vacation' feel, so you can look like you traveled the world--without leaving your backyard!"

Besides the obvious absurdity of trying to use clothes as a substitute for actual travel experiences, I'm not okay with this editorial because I'm uncomfortable getting behind a trend that seems to lump all non-Western cultures together under the homogenous, inaccurate, and offensive moniker of "tribal." It takes fashion's habit of cultural appropriation one step further by saying, "Not only are we going to mark elements of your culture as passing trends, but we are going to marginalize them by packaging them together with elements from other unrelated cultures as well." Simply put, the whole thing sends a message that says, "Look how adooorable (and marketable) other cultures are!" It reeks of colonialism to me. I'm not opposed to designers taking fashion inspiration from artifacts of other cultures, but I'm opposed to this practice being insensitively marketed as tribal. It creates a distinct "us" and "them" dichotomy.

The "tribal trend" is a trend within itself. Every so often this sort of thing pops up in a magazine or in a designer's line, and the online community is quick to draw attention to it. Dodai at Jezebel touched on this issue a few years ago in her piece about American Apparel's "Afrika" print. Over at Sociological Images they have collected a huge number of examples of appropriation of Native American icons in style.

When it came down to it, though, I wore the outfit on my shopping trip, and nobody seemed to notice or care about which cultures I did or did not appropriate. In fact, plenty of stores stocked things that fit perfectly within this trend, which is at least an indicator that Seventeen is successful at highlighting current trends. I would be concerned if they weren't, though, since this is basically the only direct redeeming quality about the publication that I have been able to ascertain up until this point.
Some tanks in line with the "Bright Prints" trend at Old Navy:

To go with my "Bright Prints" look, I also got my nails done to follow the "Bright Colors" trend that Danielle, age 15, from Minneapolis speaks so highly of. She writes, "Whenever I'm feeling down, I can just look at my nails and feel peppy!" This is bleak. I wish Seventeen would suggest a hobby for Danielle so she didn't have to look to idle nail-gazing as her only source of joy.

Hopefully tomorrow will be warmer so that I can go to the beach!


  1. As an aspiring scholar of Japanese Studies, I have given issues of Orientalism, representations of other cultures, and the like a lot of thought, and I have come to the following conclusion.

    There is a separation, a distinction, in this world between fantasy versions of a culture and real versions of a culture, and that's okay.

    These so-called "tribal" prints exist. They're real, they're attractive, fashionable, and popular (at least among some people), and they're not really directly connected to any accusations of any particular culture being primitive or the like; they're not really connection to simplifications and conflations of actual other cultures, and in my opinion they're alright.

    Sure, if one were to take issue with the idea that shamisen, gamelan, erhu, didgeridoo, and the like are "world music" and French horn and jazz guitar are not, or that the cuisines of Asia and Africa are "ethnic food" while foods from European cultures are not.

    But I think we can have an abstract notion of tribal patterns without assuming it to be a negative comment on any one particular culture. It's like a fantasy, a separate thing. It's like having clothes inspired by a fantasy novel, a movie or a folktale. Sure, those novels, movies, and folktales are themselves grounded in specific cultures of the world, but I think we can have an abstract concept of "tribal" or "Oriental" just as much as we can have an abstract concept of "wizardly" or "futuristic" or something like that, without it being a comment on any real actual culture, even if that abstract aesthetic concept derives from a particular culture.

    1. Actually it's directly related to colonialism and your defense of it as "ok" is pretty shitty.

  2. gah! i know the guy who drew out the "afrika" print for american apparel. i dont think he named it, or intended it as such either. he also did the water color tights. his art is just sort of abstract...i think AA is responsible for the complete ruin of an actually nicely drawn pattern. a) the name and b) deciding that it needs to be printed on almost every type of garment.

    hes a good guy. but i would like to ask and get his opinion on the whole matter now!

  3. LOL ahh this blog is genius, it never fails to make me laugh
    (I'm tumbling it by the way:

  4. This is a great post and blog :) Looking forward to reading more of it.

  5. I've read all of your posts to date, and I'm continually impressed. Its refreshing to read your criticisms of the ridiculous self-imposed stereotyping of teenage girls today, and people like you give me hope for our generation.

  6. I just discovered your blog via IHeartDaily and am really impressed with your thoughtful (and hilarious) dissection of the media and Seventeen Magazine's advice for its readers in particular. I don't often LOL but your posts make me LOL...a lot. Well done.

  7. I just found your blog (you've been making headlines in Canada like MAD lately!) and I love it. You're hilarious and genius, and your parents must just be crazy proud of you. And if not, they should be, they did an excellent job raising someone smart and funny and self-aware. I just love it.

  8. Great post! I think you might enjoy this commentary by Rafael Casal on the commercialization of culture and how it effects youth. It's very funny, moving, and gets to the heart of what you are saying here:

  9. This blog is fantastic. I'm a rising sophomore in college studying a lot of the same issues you've discussed in this blog - and, in fact, "Simply put, the whole thing sends a message that says, "Look how adooorable (and marketable) other cultures are!"" could very well sum up my term paper for one of my classes first semester. The process of Otherization through marketing is something I find absolutely fascinating. (Also, I very nearly went to UChicago! They'll be lucky to have you.)

  10. I don't know about mainstream fashion here in the UK (I avoid it), but to me "tribal" also includes Celtic art, and excludes anything "civilised" (anything more complicated than a cave painting, body painting, tattoo or stylised animal/swirl pattern).

  11. I have read every post going backwards until this one, after seeing a blurb about your blog on BoingBoing this morning. Lordy, do I wish I had had your grace in language at your age. Your use of words that I still don't come across that often makes this blog stimulating and a very good read. But I would really love to know why you forget to use an apostrophe in IT'S every time you use the word. I doubt Seventeen would condone such a decidedly 'different' stylistic choice, and I also doubt that your honors English teachers wouldn't have corrected you on papers before now. What's up with that?

  12. This blog is wonderful. I really enjoy reading it. You are a very smart woman.

    As far as your comments on the "tribal" trend. I would like to say, as a designer.... the appropriation of other ideas and inspirations is a fairly common thing. Most creative ideas have to come from some inspiration and grow, because complete originality in design is really an unrealistic concept or goal overall (due to available materials, commerce, timing, communication etc.)

    You can regard this appropriation in two ways......either as a shallow "copy" mentality. Or as a celebratory and explorational take on culture and ideas. I prefer the later.

    Designers are a funny and somewhat misunderstood breed (especially now with all the ridic. reality tv.). We are usually very culturally aware, and focused on society and ideas and how to move concepts forward as well as being fascinated with the past. Basically, you seasonally make emotional attachments to ideas, as well as items. (whether it's a print, a shoe, a fabric, a book, a place, a proportion, a mood, etc.) Sometimes we can be misunderstood when ideas are too forward or unusual, or when they are marketed to the wrong people (and some are just bad). Marc Jacob's Grunge collection is a good example here - Perry Ellis fired him for basically showing the biggest trend of the 90s....but it was too new for them. Other COMPLETELY misunderstood collections as examples would be Gaultier's Hasidic collection, and most of what Rei of Comme Des Garcons has done - people mistake positively exploring new ideas and theories as making fun or stealing. Instead of viewing these ideas as a way to break barriers, and open up new thoughts and ways of understanding that which we did not understand before. Essentially good fashion designers take ideas, inspirations, and emotions to create a visual dialogue.

    My point being that the theme of tribal to me is a positive idea. It expresses interest in the world outside your door and seeks to inform and create emotional attachments to the ideas of other cultures. It also sort of represents the beauty in simplicity without being cold or minimalist. It is fantasy and meant to be inspirational and positive.

  13. LOVE the "idle nail-gazing" comment and your sense of humor!

  14. as a fellow teenage intellectual, i sympathize with your observations on teen- and fashion-culture, and the absurdity of seventeen magazine (yet its unexplainable appeal). i also happen to be very very interested in fashion, though, and one of my favorite trends would be the "tribal" trend. i never thought of it as insulting before reading your blog or the articles that you linked to as well. do you think it would be possible to still wear this trend without being insulting? especially if the item purchased comes directly from the country of origon, e.g. a tribal mask decoration from south america or a woven backpack from mexico. and do you think that it still be insulting to use the word "cultural" in the place of "tribal"? to me, "cultural" seems more accurate and isn't as quite profiling as "tribal".

  15. you had me until you took a dig at 15 yr old danielle ... she doesn't imply looking at her nails is her "only source of joy" ... and her sentiment is has some truth behind it ... bright colors are anti-melancholy :P


  16. First off I would like to say that I enjoy your blog very much, and I think you are a very smart girl. But I believe you may be reading too much into the "tribal" trend. Fashion designers do take inspiration from, and pay homage to, other cultures and time periods and their inspiration is often quite specific. Anonymous on June 15 conveyed this thought better than I could, so I will leave it at this: Fashion is a celebration, not marginalization, of other cultures, and just because Seventeen in particular doesn't do a very good job of it doesn't take away from that fact.

    You also take issue with the "us vs. them" dichotomy created by wearing anything with a non-Western flare. However, other cultures also often lump all "Westerners" together, especially when it comes to beauty and fashion. Not that either is a particularly great occurrence, but it is definitely not just a 'white' thing.

    I do agree with the connotation attributed to using the word "tribal" to describe this look. Words like "tribal" and "exotic," while not explicitly negative terms themselves, tend to take on a paternalistic tone when describing other cultures. Perhaps the problem is not with the look itself, but with its description.

  17. Emily from BostonAugust 1, 2010 at 9:31 PM

    Your blog is so awesome. Your writing is funny, witty, and critically spot-on. I'm a few months behind in finding it, but I'm truly enjoying reading it from the beginning.

    I'll be checking your website often to keep up with your pursuits - Great to see you'll be studying sociology... I hope you post about your research and conclusions! Think about writing a book someday too.

    Best of luck to you!!!

  18. Yes Jemie you are right, the tribal printed clothings are the latest fashion trend in present time. The steampunk clothing, the funky clothing, tribal accessories are also a high demand by fashion conscious people. Making or creating tribal pattern fashion clothing is not an easy affair for all designers. It needs experience, mind power, creativity.