Theresa Lutge-Smith for Imaginet
Clothing is not only a necessity to provide warmth and protection; it’s also an expression of culture, region, customs, beliefs, climate, and gender. For instance, a billowing white toga is generally associated with the Roman Empire; a brilliantly colored, ornate kimono is most often associated with Japan; and an elegant embroidered silk sari is associated with India. What we wear on our body ultimately shows the world who we are and the persona we choose to exemplify. As Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” While this observation succeeds in illustrating the ‘conservative’ diversity of fashion, it’s an eclectic style of how clothes from different cultures or sources are combined that either creates timeless glamour or utter bewilderment that jolts the senses.
As humans we communicate a great deal about ourselves through our personal dress style; the terms “fashionable” and “unfashionable” describe whether someone fits in with the currently popular mode of expression. For a broad cross-cultural look at clothing and its place in society, fashion can suggest status within a social group; however, while many people reject social pressure to slavishly follow the allure of fashion trends there is a rapidly growing entourage that is awestruck by outrageous fashion trends that exemplify self-expression. Because keeping ‘in fashion’ is often expensive, fashion can be used as a display of wealth and social mobility. Conversely, a person who presents a fashion style that deliberately opposes the current trend may have an advantage in joining a social group of like-minded individuals. Since the notion of fashion depends on subjectivity fashion can operate differently depending on gender or it can promote homogeneity as in unisex styles.
The kimono — an ageless symbol of Japanese culture — is today challenged by Harajuku, a form of flamboyant self-expression fashion-style adopted by pre-teens, teenagers and young adults; popular trends include Decora, Goth-Loli, Cyber-Punk, Cos-Play, Milk and Pretty, and Mori Girl. The outfits, make-up, colour-dyed hair, shoes and accessories are derivative of Victorian-era clothing as well as costumes from the Rococo period; an ‘original’ outfit may comprise a knee length skirt or dress with a “cupcake” shape assisted by petticoats, and could expand into various types of garments including corsets and floor length skirts. Blouses, platform shoes and boots, knee high socks or colourful ornate stockings and headdresses complete the look. It’s a unisex fashion trend that is further influenced by Anime characters. Harajuku fashion is ‘freedom of expression’ in its purest form; the cool kids shave off their eyebrows while others embellish a vintage kimono with faux fur shawls and silk flower headdresses.
The Middle East also presents an interesting canvas of elegant Islamic clothing; the traditional Jilbab (embroidered, button-down dress worn with long pants) is imported from Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere within the Middle East. Another stylish garment is the Hajj or Ummrah garment, which comprises a full-length classic pleated jilbab, matching waist length khimar and long pants. The Takchita is a Moroccan traditional caftan composed of two pieces; a dress as a first layer, often of fine but not ornately decorated fabric, and a more elaborate second layer or over-dress that often buttons up the front using the traditional sfifa and akaad closures. The upper layer is often richly adorned with embroidery, beading or sequins.
South African fashionista’s exude a sense of cosmopolitan through a new subculture called Ukukhothana, which is loosely translated as “lick”; it’s the latest trend to come out of Johannesburg and its surrounding areas. Youngsters form izikhothane (cliques) and engage in swag battles to show off who has the dopest (most awesome and expensive) wardrobe, the fattest bank account, and the most all-around style. Izikhothane go to extremes to show off their swag (slang for being very cool, smooth, looking good, dressing nice), anything from burning a pair of brand new designer shoes or wads of cash. The reward is prominence in the izikhothane culture. Boasting and showing off has long been part of human nature, and apparently Ukukhothana is similar to another South African tradition called Swenking. To put this current phenomenon in context you need to look back to the Swenkas, a group of working-class Zulu men who took part in amateur competitions that were part-fashion show part-choreography, with the purpose of “displaying ones style and sense of attitude”. The similarities between Swenking and Ubkhothane are remarkable. Like Swenking, Ukukhothana involves performance and dance, and in both cultures flashy clothing is one of the main symbols of distinction. Ukukhothana includes dance battles, matching outfits, and outright flaunting. However, some find this growing fashion obsession disturbing; many poor youth in the townships are taking part in Ukukhothana using their parents’ money to keep up with the expensive lifestyle; one young man even committed suicide because he could no longer afford to participate in the battles.
On a more sober note, many people are turning their attention to fashion and clothing options that are more environmentally friendly. Denim has been a fashion staple since the 17th Century; the denim industry has a phenomenal impact on the environment. Traditional cotton jeans carry a substantial carbon footprint with each single pair requiring 42 liters of water, along with up to 15 dyeing vats full of harmful chemicals to produce. A less destructive alternative is denim material made from sustainably sourced wood pulp (Tencel); spun into a cotton-like fabric, the wooden jeans require only one fifth of the water, energy, and chemicals of their conventional counterparts. Other eco-friendly clothing materials include organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, recycled polyester, or Tencel (made from wood pulp).