Not a Mere Ornament: Tradition, Modernity, and Colonialism in Kenyan and Western Clothing

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When writers on Western fashion have claimed it as the paradigm of "modernity," they have tended to cast "traditional dress" as the undifferentiated foil. "Tradition" becomes the secondary negative term of an opposition which smothers in homogeneity the diversity of other clothing systems as "non-fashion" or "ethnic dress." This analysis of Kikuyu pre-colonial dress presents a case study for the necessity of approaching the dress of every society as a complex symbolic system in its own right. In forcing the Kikuyu to abandon their mode of dress, British colonialists in Kenya destroyed a central symbolic system that enmeshed the people in structures of time, space, social relations, personal identity and aesthetic creativity. While fashion is associated with individuality and "traditional dress" with conformity and stasis, the British used Western dress to repress the exuberant creativity and sexual display of Kikuyu dress and impose regimentation. Exploring this process of sartorial destruction and its effects on connected cultural and social structures provides insight into theories of the function and operation of dress and fashion. Using methods of ethnography, history, semiotics and psychoanalysis, the essay compares the different processes by which meaning is produced and exchanged in Kikuyu and Western dress systems.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 1997

More about this publication?
  • Fashion Theory takes as its starting point a definition of “fashion” as the cultural construction of the embodied identity. The importance of studying the body as a site for the deployment of discourses has been well established in a number of disciplines. Until Fashion Theorys launch in 1997 the dressed body had suffered from a lack of critical analysis. Increasingly scholars have recognized the cultural significance of self-fashioning, including not only clothing but also such body alterations as tattooing and piercing.

    Fashion Theory provides an international and interdisciplinary forum for the rigorous analysis of cultural phenomena. Its peer-reviewed articles range from foot-binding to fashion advertising.
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