Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Trade and Fashion

In my studies and experiences, I have always found individual groups of people and other beings to be quite boring. I am not interested in the slow and steady evolution process of any given species or culture. Instead, I would rather see what happens when different groups collide and eventually assimilate or diverge. I suppose what I have always found interesting is trade – and not just the exchange of services or shiny things. What is truly fascinating is the exchange of ideas, aesthetics, technique, and technology.

The frustrating part of examining trade through archaeology is the fact that there is no way of knowing the full extent to which certain ideas were traded and why. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what kind of fashion concepts ancient people traded or why travelling merchants brought some items with them and not others? We have to rely on depictions of people and educated guesses to understand what they looked like every day. Of course, knowing everything about ancient people simply is not feasible; even fifty years from now, we will neither remember nor be able to look up exactly what we are currently like. No one is going to remember when, why, or how it could possibly be fashionable for a woman to pull the waistband of her thong underpants up, out, and over the waistband of her jeans. And I think many of us (with the exception of a few holdouts) have already forgotten about the oral jewelry piece made of precious metal and perhaps even gem-encrusted, known as the “grill.” Similarly, even people who devote their lives to the study of contemporary cultures will never know everything there is to know about all of the cultures on this planet. Asking to know all of the details and cultural nuances of a people, especially of an ancient people, and, even more particularly, of how this ancient people interacted with another ancient people is a ludicrous request.

Impossibility aside, however, I do wish for just a little more information perhaps on large trends that were fairly long-lived and possibly reincarnated every so often. For example, if I were from the future and looking back on us, I would be interested in things like the Mohawk. I would be interested in why it became popular after the group that invented it was essentially destroyed and why it was so popular given the tense relationships between the Mohawk nation and the first European colonies.

(Above: Flag of the Mohawk Nation demonstrating the now popular hairstyle)

I would also wonder how anyone even found out about the Mohawk considering the common insistence by Europeans that the people of the places they colonize adopt European fashions instead of the reverse.

(Above: Pushmataha, a chief of the Choctaw alliance wearing European clothing)

(Left: Zebra print rug)

In relatively recent and well-documented history, we can see African influence in European and Western fashion. It seems that some of the most popular animal prints to wear or otherwise display are those of African animals. For example, one of the most popular animal prints is of the Zebra, which is native only to Africa.

I recently read the article “Colonialism’s Clothing: Africa, France, and the Deployment of Fashion,” which complicates the issue of trade. Victoria L. Rovine says essentially that the exchange of aesthetics is not as clear-cut as animal print coming from Africa. She shows how prints that we generally regard as African traditional are manufactured using a “wax-resist” technique that originated in Indonesia. Apparently, its road to Africa was long and winding, and it is still hazy because of all the possible ways the technique could have travelled. In addition to Indonesia, both Brittain and Holland have claimed it as their own. Rovine explains that fashion is not the “game of telephone” we imagine it to be but a complex network of interactions and influences. This article provided me with insight into trade and sort of defended archaeology to me (not that I was blaming it for its limits) by showing that even if I had the receipts from all the exchanges that happened between two or more peoples, trends would be hard to follow.

While I agree with Rovine’s article, I do estimate that fashion transactions from the period about which she writes are more complicated than the transactions of, say, Ancient Egypt and Ancient Nubia; the world was simply not as connected in 5000 B.C.E. as it was during the heights of the French Colonial Empire. While to trace the route of wax-resist from Indonesia to various parts of Africa is a huge undertaking, the first thousand years of the conversation between Egypt and Nubia is probably easier to follow. It is sites like Kerma – not the huge hubs but the somewhat isolated partnerships – that, if we had more information about them, could possibly teach us the basics and origins of human aesthetic trade.

1 comment:

  1. nice post ali - interesting that you chose to compare Rovine's account of 20th century intersections in fashion with Ancient Egypt. It might be interesting to think about it in the context of the trade networks of the Sahara and Indian ocean a few hundred years earlier. What possible research questions might that comparison prompt? By the way, I loved your examples of the thong and the grill! zoe