Style, Individualism, and the Tribe
Here we are. Post Labor Day. The slightest nip of fall is in the air. And for many kids (and some adults) yesterday was the first day of school (to which I say, yay or yikes depending on whether firsts excite you or make you queasy). I’m very much in the latter camp but no matter the case, millions of kids made their annual debut in carefully chosen outfits and whether they were conscious of it or not—they made a statement about themselves through what they were wearing, that is, if they weren't wearing a uniform. All of this inevitable classroom cat walking got me thinking: especially when we’re impressionable school kids, but even into our more sure-of-ourselves adulthood, do we use our personal style to stand out or to fit in?
Dressing in the tribe
The way in which tribal and ethnic groups around the world adorn themselves is fascinating. In the context of a tribe, our dress can be a powerful signifier of belonging.
Below, women from the Ouled Naïl tribe, indigenous to what is now Algeria, adorned in distinctive headdresses, coined jewelry, ample bracelets and necklaces, and long, flowing caftan-like cloth.
The Dropka, who inhabit the Ladakh region between India and Pakistan, wear flowers on their head, white fur-trimmed coats, and layers of jewelry.
Photographs by Jimmy Nelson via Before They
The Maasai, an ethnic group in the region spanning southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, wrap themselves in a shuka, which is often red, but can be other colors, and commonly has a checkered or striped pattern. Women adorn themselves with intricate beadwork, especially large collared necklaces.
Style in the age of the individual
Across much of the world, the notion of belonging by birth or by virtue of geography is becoming more and more obsolete as our world becomes increasingly interconnected and our borders, physical and otherwise, become more permeable to movement. So, what happens when we lose the tribe? When we ditch the idea of a preconceived identity based on who we were born to or where we were born for the freedom that comes with determining who we are for ourselves? And, most importantly (for our purposes) how do we use our dress to signify this new found freedom?
Thinking about this question brought up a passage in Steven Pressfield's gem of a book The War of Art:
“Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? At more primitive stages of evolution, humanity didn’t have to deal with such questions. In the states of savagery, of barbarism, in nomadic culture, medieval society, in the tribe and the clan, one’s position was fixed by the commandments of the community. It was only with the advent of modernity (starting with the ancient Greeks), with the birth of freedom and of the individual, that such matters ascended to the fore. These are not easy questions. Who am I? Why am I here? They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to function as an individual. We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group. Our psyches are programmed by millions of years of hunter-gatherer evolution. We know what the clan is; we know how to fit into the band and the tribe. What we don’t know is how to be alone. We don’t know how to be free individuals.”
- Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
When it comes to what we wear, perhaps it is this group hard-wiring that explains trends, or it-bags, or any similarly identifiable shoe of the moment (i.e. Gucci fur loafers, Chanel slingbacks, Valentino Rockstud shoes) in which people with different personal styles and a clear sense of their individual identity end up wearing the same thing.
Yet, perhaps individuality and tribalism aren't mutually exclusive constructs. We can desire to be individuals within a tribe. We can want to look like ourselves and also to look like we fit in with those around us, or those who we feel understand us. Maybe then, the benefit of living in an era where we can really find who we are on our own terms is that we can experiment with our sense of belonging. We can be individuals, or we can find a tribe that feels like home. If our clothing helps us on that journey, all the better.
As for me, I'm still very much discovering where I stand on this. I tend not to buy into trends, but I am undoubtedly influenced by them. And I can't deny that pull. I do know that Iris Apfel, one of my guiding lights when it comes to dressing for oneself, has said "When you don't dress like everyone else, you don't have to think like everyone else." That sounds like my kind of tribe.