The Primacy of Culture in Fashion
by Acho Orabuchi
Some years back, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at a public school in Dallas holding its International Cultural/Fashion Carnival. At this particular school, many countries were represented, including Nigeria. The school resembled a model United Nations.
Here are the excerpts of my address:
Parents, teachers, students, and community leaders: Good evening! Thank you for coming. On the very morning I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the event, my immediate reaction was what am I going to speak on to capture the essence of the occasion and still add value to the activities. When I decided to do it, my next question was what would I draw from my repertoire of knowledge to share in ten to 20 minutes to help my audience learn about my Nigerian culture? After a few minutes, I settled for the title, “The Primacy of Culture in the Fashion World”.
Another issue I had to grapple with was how deep I would go without raising some unsettling issues? However, I made a conscious decision to stay out of religion, which is not really within the purview of this speech. I resolved that whatever I say, I must ensure that it adds substance to the event.
In any case, I feel honored to stand before you this evening to give you my cultural perspective as it relates to fashion. In fact, I find solace in talking about culture because it gives me the impetus to educate others about my rich heritage. Most often, but inadvertently, we tend to misinterpret or ignore cultural signals, thereby creating an environment for a cultural clash.
The poser then becomes, what is culture? There is no standard definition of culture. In the same token, theories of culture as they relate to various realms of life abound. Simply, culture is a system of shared mores, values, symbols, beliefs, customs, etc. that have been transmitted from generation to generation, which a group uses to operate within and sometimes outside its environment. It is simply a way of life of a people.
Culture is learned; it is best learned in its original environment. Also, culture could be exported. However, it is the relic of culture that is exported for the most part. In some cases, the mainstream culture could be borrowed. The origins of some foods we eat in this country are typical examples of borrowed culture.
Culture also gives us an insight about people in a specific group. While individual behavior provides a framework in which a culture could be observed, people’s actions provide the context in which culture could be abstracted.
Scientifically, while DNA or one’s genetic makeup controls one’s physical characteristics called traits; culture and ecological factors are the determinants of behavioral tendencies of individuals within a group. This is why what is good or bad is culturally relative. Nevertheless, there are certain variables that are culturally universal. The acquisition of knowledge is culturally universal. Every culture values success.
Interestingly, culture of a place is most appreciated with the knowledge of the gamut of elements associated with it. Culture of a society could not be fully understood without its elements, which have their individual roles and communicative meaning. Some of the elements of culture are symbol, language, cultural traits, religion, music, dance, food, fashion (clothing), and a host of others.
One of the elements of culture has to do with beauty and fashion. The clothing people wear in various societies have a communicative symbol. What one wears in some societies is a reflection of one’s activity and status in that society. There are different types of attires for different occasions. For instance, in an African traditional wedding or chieftaincy coronation, the celebrants are expected to wear elegant lace material or royal regalia. These attires are unique to the tribe. The garb I’m wearing now is mundane in Igbo culture. Igbo is one of the three major tribes in Nigeria.
Fashion is derived from culture. In other words, culture, including environmental factors, dictates what people in a specific group wear. In the past, we rarely knew how people dressed except through pictures or when we could afford to visit the culture. Much of the information we acquire about other cultures came from cultural anthropologists who invested resources studying various cultures.
However, due to globalization and advances in cutting edge technology, we are much more exposed to other cultures, including the attires of various cultures.
No other industry could one find more mosaic culture than in the food and fashion industries. The fashion industry seems to capture the tapestry of global culture.
One could fairly say that the fashion industry is the medley of culture epitomized. What is contemporary fashion cannot be without the elegant looks of the models and the electronic media? Besides the looks, cultural diversity seems to be reflected in the fashion world. Obviously, other cultures have influenced the fashion industry today.
Gaining cultural traction at a rapid pace, the fashion world is replete with faces of models from around the world. Next time you go to or watch a fashion show, I encourage you to discern various cultures inherent in that show.
You would find out that there is no fashion without culture. The primacy of culture is very much evident in every fashion. Culture is truly a window through which we could see a people.
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