Cruel (Tribal) Summer

This image from the most recent New York-based Pixie Market email features a thin, presumably white model with a hipster headdress and a "tribal" bathing suit called "The Eagle Has Landed," in a print dubbed "Tigerlily," I'm going to guess named after the British author J.M. Barrie's "Indian princess" from Peter Pan. The graphic patterns that surround her appear to reference ikat dyed or African wax print fabrics, which have their own transnational circuits of circulation and consumption under the shadow of colonialism.

This image from the most recent New York-based Pixie Market email features a thin, presumably white model with a hipster headdress and a "tribal" bathing suit called "The Eagle Has Landed," in a print dubbed "Tigerlily." The graphic patterns that surround her appear to reference ikat dyed or African wax print fabrics, which trace another transnational circuit of production and consumption under the shadow of colonialism. (Having originated in Indonesia, the material was exported to England and the Netherlands, then exported again to West Africa, in the shortest version of the story.)

Calling Native Appropriations and My Culture Is Not a Trend! It’s 2:30 a.m. and as I’m sleepily-anxiously editing a section of one of my chapters, I received this in my inbox. I’m going to come back to this later when I’m more coherent (I probably shouldn’t be editing my manuscript in this condition), but for now, let us again consider how the term “tribal” is both referentially empty (there is no “there,” no truth to be found in this collage and its lumping together of distinct peoples under the “tribal”) and at the same time overflowing with multiple forms of alienation that often forcibly estrange a people from themselves, from history, from life. To be made “tribal” via these forms of alienation is far too often to be “out of time,”* uncivilized, antimodern, backwards, dead or might-as-well-be-dead.

What does it mean to take note of these “minor” events –a presumably white girl in a most certainly kitschy headdress, for instance– that normalize these histories of estrangement, these forms of alienation? It is not simply to refuse contact or cultural and monetary exchange (though sometimes it is important to do so), but instead, to recall that these histories and forms, as well as their effects, are still alive, and still devastating.

* Having looked at the Pixie Market site this morning, only to discover that the description for the bathing suit names the print “Tigerlily,” the notion that “Indians” are understood as “out of time” is particularly resonant. Peter Pan‘s British author J.M. Barrie located his “Indian princess,” Tiger Lily, in Never Never Land, a no-zone of both temporal distance and arguably infantile stasis. (Though I’m working with my vague memory of the Disney animated film here!) As a commenter pointed out, this combination of “tribal” elements would appear unique to “America,” but it is also a “transnational America,” implicating interconnected webs of unequal exchange.



29 responses to “Cruel (Tribal) Summer

  1. gin

    I half agree, half don’t. It’s interestng how clothing/ads/other cultural products can be so distinctively Amerian, even when they try not to be.

    I live in the not-USA. The ad looks like a very specific USA mixture of 2 cultural groupings (I don’t know enough to be more specific than that): Native American and African. It’s a combination I have rarely/never seen here (in Australia). As such, the term “tribal” appears to have quite a specific connotation, very tied to USA history.

    I agree with you the ad is painting those cultures as uncivilised/anti-modern/dead.

    • You’re absolutely right! Thanks for pointing this out. The combination is very United Statesy, though I might extend this a bit more to encompass the UK — with festival season coming up there, I’m predicting at least a few hipster headdresses, and I’ve seen both Native American and similar wax fabric-patterned gear in British mags for sure. Does “tribal” not circulate as a fashion term to Australia, or does it reference other histories or peoples? It doesn’t get used to describe the indigenous peoples of Australia or New Zealand, right?

      EDITED TO ADD: I just looked at the actual website, and while the bathing suit is called “The Eagle Has Landed,” the print is named “Tigerlily,” which I can only imagine is a reference to British author J.M. Barrie’s “Indian princess” from Peter Pan. So there’s another layer of circulation –transnational, cross-Atlantic– there too (the figure of the “Indian princess” having circulated to the UK and back again to the US).

      • “Tribal” is referenced in Australia in body modification (i.e: “tribal” tattoos) but I haven’t seen a great deal of head dress wearing hipsters around – indeed my exposure to the phenomenon has been online via your blog and through the writings of others in opposition! We seem to pick up trends a year or even two years late, so it could be that we see an barrage of Native American/ African American cultural appropriation in the next few summers to come.

        I wonder if there’s a way we can jam this particular “trend” before it comes down here?

        • I should add that “tribal” is rarely, if ever, used to refer to Indigenous Australian cultures. It’s definitely an empty word used to lump lots of others into.

        • I have also only seen these headdress-wearing hipsters in magazines and the interwebs! I live in a part of the United States where the ones wearing headdresses aren’t necessarily hipsters but drunk college students (and their alumni parents) pissed that their university mascot is banned (not due to any soul searching on the part of the administration, but because the national college athletics association threatened to exclude teams that had “native” mascots from the big tournament games).

          • a side note here that i am not 100% sure on, but judging based on the accent of the woman i see working/seeming like an owner/manager at pixie market (i used to live across the street) — i do not think they are american, the one woman i see very often i THINK is french. (however i’m sure someone on their branding/marketing/email development team must be american, and their market is here as well.)

            but it’s interesting how the culture/country of origin changes how/why we see things as offensive — granted france is pretty guilty of colonialism and whatnot too, and i still can’t stomach the “oh but we’re french!” excuse for lara stone in blackface a few months back. but it’s something that’s come up a few times recently — the cultural context of the society doing the appropriation, that is, and whether that makes them “more guilty” or “less guilty” or whether that even matters… i’m thinking of this one post at contexts that i can’t find now involving an advertisement for fried chicken involving dark-skinned people that probably didn’t have the same racist connotations it did in the states. totally different, but somehow the issues are similar.

  2. I think I’m going to barf. I was at Forever 21 not too long ago and I saw something that was definitely taken from the the sarape and I screamed “oh no, they’re coming after my culture next!”

    How long is it going to take people to get this? Should we just continue to try and create a discourse until it actually makes sense to those creating these ridiculous images?

    • Girl, they’ve come for it before, and they’ll be back again!

      It’s going to take ages, frankly. Western art movements have been drawing upon static and certainly imperial notions of exotic and out-of-time racial Others for a long time — there are of course contemporaneous critiques of these movements for imagining “Africa” through a primitivist lens, for instance, but this has not stopped the circulation of these notions. Fashion in this sense is absolutely related to art, inasmuch as it often performs the same operations of alienation and aestheticization that not only evacuate histories of violence, but actively dismiss these histories as meaningful or relevant in the present, as well as willfully reiterate the backwardsness, tribalism, deadness or might-as-well-be-deadness of Others.

      That said, yes, it’s absolutely essential that we insist that big-F Fashion include critical discourse. Too often the “excuse” to exclude critical discourse is either “Fashion is art!” or “Fashion is just fun!” But art is of course subject to both context and critique (as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with art history would know); so is the production and consumption of goods but also leisure as commodities for commercial sale. Why shouldn’t fashion be subject to it too?

  3. Someone

    While, once again, featuring females as “exotic,” alien, unintelligible, silent, subhuman prey for sexual tourist consumption, posing like a themed stripper. Something we all aspire to, naturally.

    Just wonderfully unconscious patriarchal collaboration, wouldn’t you say?

  4. wow. how completely enraging. (i must say i absolutely adore the tag “so over this tedious crap”)

    i am, indeed, also so over this tedious crap, but am starting to feel… exhausted by it.

    i’m just wondering how/when this trend will end. will it just be like most fashion trends, and simply fall out of favour over the course of time? or can we nip it in the bud, as natalie suggests, before it spreads elsewhere?

    should we just keep talking about how we see these issues as racist and fucked up (online and in face to face interactions), in hopes that people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily question this as problematic might not buy these things? should we be writing letters to people like pixie market, urban outfitters and any other company that sells these clothes? to the people who designed them? should i stop people in the street who are wearing this kind of shit, and ask them where they got it, and/or challenge them? or a combination of all of the above…

  5. kips

    Can someone give an example of correct terms and usage for clothes/patterns made in/inspired by other cultures?

    • Ikat, batik, African (sometimes Dutch) wax print fabric, Pochampalli weaving, et cetera — being specific, rather than general, helps. Recognizing the skilled laborers that create these fabrics as being designers and artisans instead of simply “raw” resources, rather than claiming to have “discovered” or “collected” these fabrics due to one’s own world-traveling or cosmopolitanism, also helps.

  6. b_y

    i haven’t had an opportunity to follow all the posts on this blog from the beginning, but i wonder if there have been posts that shed light on contemporary styles that might represent an immanent critique?

    this is perhaps a roundabout way to ask this question. i am distrustful of any sense of style that is communicated as one’s singular and authentic expression of their personality, and am much more attracted to style that is relational and attentive to a history in which cultural forms circulate not always under conditions of one’s choosing. which is to say that originary acts of violence can be traced to nearly all cultural forms that are effectively consolidated under any “ethnic” category, no matter how particular, whether imposed by the western gaze or by the violent subordination of difference in nation (or ‘community’) – building strategies.

    with that in mind, do you have specific examples of style in mind that represent an effective critical appropriation of cultural materials that may originate ‘elswhere’? and if so, given a legacy of violent dislocation and dispossession resulting from imperialism, do you think it’s possible for white people to responsibly engage in these practices too?

    • i am distrustful of any sense of style that is communicated as one’s singular and authentic expression of their personality, and am much more attracted to style that is relational and attentive to a history in which cultural forms circulate not always under conditions of one’s choosing.

      I am totally with you on this! Much of my beef is with the stories told about these garments or fabrics or cuts, whether through visual or other cues, that flatten out their histories. (And we do have blog posts about this.) As for specific examples that do “relational and attentive” well, Yinka Shonibare MBE and his installation and film/video work, as well as the performer MIA, spring immediately to mind. One of the things I like about MIA is how her style tells just that “history in which cultural forms circulate not always under conditions of one’s choosing,” as well as other histories of contact between colonized populations.

      Here’s a good (if somewhat old, 1995) essay by Kobena Mercer about Shonibare’s work at Frieze:

      Far from revealing an essential self, the hilarious irony wrought by his costume shows that excess depends on others. ‘In order to have aristocratic freedom to indulge, others need to be colonised. Fine art is excess par excellence. It is not going to emancipate you in any direct way. Even though the upper class is supposed to be dead, multinationals are based on those colonial trading structures. Rather than making overtly political work, I actually become part of the framework by using African fabrics as surrogates of aristocratic trappings. Corporations use the fabric for advertising Western goods, such as footballs and radios, that the natives can aspire to own and the print becomes a surrogate for the commodity.’ The fabric serves as the sign that ignites desire – in Africa it has the allure of imported goods, in Europe it evokes exotica – but it is when our conversation turns to its appropriation as an emblem of political nationalism among blacks in the Diaspora that Shonibare reveals just what a marvellously pliable found object he has alighted upon. ‘To show an affinity with Africa, young black British use these fabrics for headwraps, robes and shirts. But the essentialism they associate with the fabrics is actually a myth because their origins are already questioned. At the shop in Brixton Market, they are never quite sure of the origins.’

      ‘Postmodernism made it fashionable to take things from here, there and everywhere,’ he remarks, bringing to mind Katherine Hamnett’s comment on 80s textiles trends – ‘Ethnic, ethnic everywhere.’ But what happens when ethnics appropriate others’ appropriations of ethnicity? In recent years, ceremonial kente cloth, originally woven in Ashanti in Ghana, has found its way, via prints manufactured in Korea, into sweatshirts and baseball caps worn by African-Americans to signify Afrocentric allegiances. Aware of the ambiguities, Shonibare questions kente’s iconic status. ‘Although it’s a strong, defiant statement for an African-American to wear kente, the very reason I don’t wear things like that is that I will not play the exotic for anyone. The wax-prints are surrogates that are out there for anyone to use. What interests me is that area of not quite knowing whether I’m celebrating difference or building a critique.’

      In this way Shonibare offers an interesting response to the question posed by Anglo-Ghanaian philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, as to whether the ‘post’ in postmodernism is the ‘post’ in postcoloniaIism. 2 Yes, no and maybe. By playing with the metonymic link between the origins of the cloth, and his own origins amongst a transnational generation of hyphenated hybrids, he disinters modernism’s tired equations in which the high serious gesture culminating in Clement Greenberg’s doctrine of formalist purity required a subordinate set of negatives: If colour-field = abstract = heroic, then fabric = decorative = frivolous. Shonibare’s strategy is about representation, but it is not figurative. It is about abstraction, but it is not expressive. It is about what he calls, ‘purloined seduction or pretend authenticity,’ in which the polarities of masculine, Western high art and feminine, non-Western craft are sent packing by means of his elegantly simple substitutive ploy. Hence his current work, consisting of Victorian dresses made over in African fabrics, showing as part of Africa 95. As ideologies of otherness exhaust themselves in an era of increasingly global interdependence, Shonibare has fun making a mockery of the artifice of authenticity: ‘Actually, I’m not angry. I have no authentic expression to offer.’

      There are also designers whose incorporation of these materials I think works well, but I can’t remember their names off the top of my head (I’m thinking smaller designers), though many of them I learned about (though clearly not well enough) via Style Bubble. I’ve also seen some magazine editorials that also manage this mix without loaded associations (I’m thinking of a particular Teen Vogue spread). And yes, I do absolutely think it’s possible for all persons to responsibly engage in these practices too. Julia at a l’allure garcionierre, for instance, wrote this “critical fashion lover’s (basic) guide to cultural appropriation,” which offers some basics for anyone interested in thinking through their choices.

      • b_y

        ah, thanks! i was thinking earlier about Yinka Shonibare exhibit i saw at MassMoCA, but couldn’t recall the artist’s name. as problematic as i feel MIA’s politics are, i’m inclined to agree that what’s particularly interesting about her work is that it renders those points of contact especially visible or palpable, and that they are themselves problems that don’t necessarily require reconciliation.

        i think i might not have been clear about my question, perhaps because i’m pretty confused about it too. but i guess i was wondering if there are examples that you can think of white persons engaging in acts of appropriation (as designers or clotheshorse) as immanent critique – but not necessarily within a framework of “conscientious consumerism”? i think i’m thinking about this in terms of sample-based music or improvising traditions that involve citation almost as a performative archive – and how white persons are increasingly becoming not only involved in, but even lamented as the potential torchbearers of these modes of cultural production. though i’m terminally un-stylish, i’m interested in what kind of stakes these questions have for fashion.

      • b_y

        also, i love this quote:
        “What interests me is that area of not quite knowing whether I’m celebrating difference or building a critique.”

  7. elegantfaker

    Just spotted this, and thought it might be of interest.

    Um, yes. That’s so “tribal.”

    • i regret following that link, and commenting there. total shitstorm.

      • I’m afraid to look, but I am completely not surprised. The university I work at had a “Chief” mascot up until the National College Athletics Association banned schools with racist mascots from participating in Bowl games. Since then, students and alumni have been incredibly vicious in their possessiveness over what they perceive as rightfully “theirs” — that is, the “Chief,” with his (fake) regalia and ridiculous halftime dance. It’s as cultural studies scholar George Lipsitz wrote about the “possessive investment in whiteness:” “Whiteness is invested in, like property, but it is also a means of accumulating property and keeping it from others.”

      • Keely

        It’s really wearying having your legitimate, reasoned concerns just undercut by people going “I’m not going to get into it but you’re wrong”, isn’t it? I bowed out early on because I can’t argue from a position of rhetorical strength that I’m not a white person who has no idea, but I also wanted to reference the points made in this Threadbared post citing Coco Fusco about only Westerners being allowed to own creativity.

  8. I’m so glad you did a post about this. When I got this in my inbox last night I cringed and was about to hit the forward button to Native Appropriations. Pixie Market’s been riding the tribal wave for some time now (they even renamed one of Mary Meyer’s pieces from “chevron circle tee” to “native tank”) but never so completely brazen as this. Of course what does it say that this made me totally frustrated, but I was able to sort of sigh and shrug off the headdress in the styling of that Something Else shirt from a few weeks back?

    • I think that the sheer number of “tribal” and “Indian-y” editorials and photographs and inspiration boards and snapshots from festivals and so on, has totally snowballed in the sort of borg consciousness of the fashion blogosphere in the last few weeks. It’s become a “thing” in a way that it wasn’t even just a few months ago!

  9. I live in New Mexico, so being caucasian, I’m a minority here. Most of the population is Spanish and native American…and believe me, nobody who isn’t Native would get away with wearing this….uh…outfit you have pictured here! A pole-dancer, maybe. *haha!* Non-natives can show love and respect for american indian culture with wearing native-made clothing and jewelry, supporting the locals who design and make it, and enjoying it for the distinct beauty and fashion that appeals naturally to the viewer/wearer…items like a headdress would be seen to have specific social and/or spiritual significance, and a white person couldn’t really even get her hands on (a genuine) one, unless she were to make it herself. I’d think it would be the same with other cultures….nobody’s mad if you want to wear a kimono, as long as you’re not calling yourself a geisha….right? If you have a vintage Russian hat or some Chinese pearls, wear them with love and respect!

    Here’s what I find distasteful:
    wearing “the military look” when we are actually at war. nothing playful or fashionable about that to me…
    * : (

  10. lilia

    late to the discussion, but the ‘tribal’ trend is here in Australia, from the hideous Guatemalan-inspired print Sass and Bide baggy pants on the halfyear clearance sale at David Jones to the Native American maiden+suncatcher tote bags sold at Cotton On last year. The difference is that it’s not marketed as intensively, and is not necessarily being worn. At the same time, there’s a fancy-dress party Indian in a chocolate bar ad, white Australian children playing cowboys and Indians in print ads for a bank, and a really gross set of dolls in the window of an upscale baby boutique near my bus stop. Knowing better only goes so far, so I’d venture that Native American references are so foreign that there is no naughty thrill of transgression/mastery for the wearer here?

  11. kips

    This thread is incredibly exciting. I am not really educated in this area and I’ve always had a very difficult time explaining, even to myself, why these types of appropriations (for so long I didn’t even have a word for them) made me uncomfortable at best, furious at worst. Would you believe that in the early 90’s art history professors were still thinking Picasso was some bad-ass genius for incorporating random vague African-esque features into his paintings, saying they stood for the subconscious? Am I oversimplifying? Anyway, try telling a 60-year-old Ph.D, “Picasso was an asshole!” and not being able to explain yourself. Embarrassing!
    Thanks, guys, for this article and your comments.

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