I've bit my tongue in the comments and passed over the blog posts, but today I'd like to talk about something that's been bothering me for some time: the growing use of the terms "tribal" and "ethnic" to describe fabric and prints.
I'm addressing it here not because I want to point fingers at a particular person, but rather challenge the way that we as a community use the term and talk about the clothes that we make. From cute summer dresses to geometric leggings, the word "tribal" has been popping up everywhere lately. But the problem is that it's not very helpful, kind, or accurate. Here are a few of my reasons for avoiding the phrase:
It doesn't give credit where it is due. By calling everything that we're not familiar with "tribal," we aren't acknowledging the contributions of various cultures to our styles and designs. Words like "tribal" and "ethnic" obscure the origins of a creation, while saying that you made a Tapa print dress recognizes the item's Pacific Island origins. Furthermore, if you truly understand the origins of the designs you are using, you could avoid potentially offensive uses of another culture's items, such as mistakenly incorporating the print from a prayer shawl into your bikini, or wearing a headdress to a concert.
It exotifies and commodifies other cultures. To take my previous point a bit further, generic terms not only de-identify a culture's patterns and art, but also lump everything into one big (non-white) "other" category. This "other" is often taken advantage of by the dominant white culture, which freely borrows and profits from its art and traditions. An example of this can be found in Urban Outfitters, who was recently sued by the Navajo nation for selling a line using their name and prints without their permission. Similarly, the generic "ethnic" prints sold at Jo-Ann Fabrics freely borrow and commodify parts of exotic "other" cultures without deference or thought to their origins. (For further reading, check out this article.)
The take-away. My point is not that you should all stop wearing Ganado prints or Indonesian batik. Instead, blogger Justina Blakeny suggests we research the origins of the things we buy in order to learn more about their true meaning and history. And instead of buying generic prints from big box stores, seek out more authentic versions of our favorite styles.
If you're looking for places to start researching what your "tribal" prints really are, Refinery21 has a handy little pattern dictionary to get you started. Or, learn more about regional fabrics such as Middle Eastern weaving styles or the history of African wax prints. You will be a better-educated sewist and a more intelligent-sounding blogger for it.