Culture in fashion: the ideologies we wear

Think about a crowd in a market place, or a town square. Now imagine the same crowd in an African marketplace, or waiting on an Indian railway platform, or by Beijing’s National centre for Performing Arts. If we think back, we might have imagined each place and each crowd differently. From race, height, physical features, and more importantly clothing.  Of the many trends in the world, fashion has been one of the most consistently related to culture and ideology.

Now fashion isn’t simply related to the brand of clothes one wears. It runs deeper. Skin deep. Culture deep. Its rooted in our minds. The use of clothing and style has changed over centuries and as civilizations developed and cultures were formed, clothing became a code to identify gender, age, marital status, and social or military status among many other minute forms of stratification. Fashion transformed into more than just woven material, accessories, or hair designed to cover (or reveal) one’s body.

When codes are incorporated into fashion, not only do we notice how those within our cultures are dressed, we also notice representatives of other cultures. As human nature and socialization goes, we tend to notice the non-conformists first.

But what is a non-conformist in the broader sense?

Judging by the number of men and women who wear western clothing for casual and formal wear, we associate the norm to be Eurocentric; where men and women wear similar types of clothing despite being from different parts of the world. However, the idea that this is acceptable across cultures is misplaced. The norms of clothing between the Muslim and Indian cultures differ significantly for example.  As expected from a patriarchal society, both cultures place restrictions on what and how women wear clothing: skin is not something to display, and certainly not so for an older woman especially when she is married. So the clothing designed in these cultures ensures that women still look and feel beautiful while conforming to cultural norms.

Non-conformists exist in all cultures, and they also come in all forms of political and social ideologies. Clothing, style, and accessories have become serious forms of expression and they enjoy a space in society that is far superior to that of mere words. Clothing is a statement of the strongest kind. Something everyone can see. Nothing has to be said to be understood, it only has to be worn in public, and based on the stereotypes we encounter and are channelled into by mainstream media we grow accustomed to noticing which ideology is being represented.

One of the most popular dystopian films, V for Vendetta poignantly depicts just how politically and socially rooted one mask can be. Closer to home, the increase in the number of women in South Africa opting to wear a traditional headscarf or “doek” has been phenomenal. The headscarf had also become the symbol for the “inferiror” African woman during Apartheid in South Africa. It was seen as a form of oppression, where social standing between races and class was starkly marked and detested by those who grew up during these times of constant political and cultural struggle for independence and identity. Although many African women seemed to be in two minds about the presence of the doek in modern South Africa, young black women professionals have now redefined the ancient meaning of the headscarf. What was originally meant to be worn by married women as a mark of respect for their in-laws has now transformed into something more personal. It has become their way of expressing their African heritage, the love for their culture, and their pride at being in full ownership of their identity.

Fashion is more than just clothes. More than ordinary expression of social standing. It is an expression of identity, and the stronger the expression is the more people will begin to notice the tremendous range of ideologies that we are surrounded by. So the next time someone looks different, think about what they are trying to get others to understand.

Even Death has stylish surprises. Image source:


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