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1 Indigenous Fashion: Embroidery and Innovation in Mali

Victoria L. Rovine Indiana University Press ePub

You come from afar, you have brought lots of clothes, everyone sings your praises, the best clothes come from Accra, and the person who wears them is the best.

—Dogon song, documented by Isaie Dougnon

A tilbi is more than a boubou.

—Baba Djitteye, embroiderer, Timbuktu, 23 July 2008

In a single region in Mali, two styles of men’s dress embody diverse forms of social status, attitudes toward innovation and perpetuation of past practices, and sources of stylistic inspiration. These styles, known as “Ghana boy” and “tilbi,” have in common a reliance on embroidery as a means of embodying messages, histories, and identities. Yet, these embroidered garments represent quite distinct approaches to style change, the hallmark of fashion. Neither of these sartorial innovations participates in the global fashion system, which is rooted in Western styles and methods. Instead, they offer insights into different fashion worlds, with their own histories, economies, and precedents from which they draw inspiration. Furthermore, these styles contain traces of local as well as global networks of commodities and cultures, literally made legible in the embroidered patterns and figures that adorn the garments.

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5 Litigating the Revolution

Jo B. Paoletti Indiana University Press ePub

Fashion has had a legal side for centuries. Powerful rulers once set limits on who could or could not wear certain finery and decreed that colors, badges, or hats be used to set certain groups of people apart as “others”—Jews, for example, who were required to wear yellow badges or pointed hats in parts of thirteenth-century Europe.1 The umbrella term for these edicts is “sumptuary laws”; one of my favorites, from medieval Spain, begins with “the king may wear anything he wishes.” Sumptuary laws reveal a great deal about a society—for example, which goods are highly valued (and therefore reserved for the élites) and also which groups may be considered a threat to the status quo. Amid the social turbulence of the Renaissance, wealthy merchants and their wives were often singled out as needing to be reminded of their inferiority to their high-born betters. Economist Thorstein Veblen observed in 1899 that in modern capitalism, wealth could be freely displayed by nearly everyone who has it, as a sign of socioeconomic superiority. But we still face restrictions in the form of dress codes, usually in schools or in the workplace, that attempt to enforce a uniform appearance or suppress potentially disruptive elements. These modern regulations have elements of social class (public schools with uniform dress codes tend to be in poorer districts), race (local ordinances against “saggy pants”), or gender (laws against cross-dressing and public indecency, dress codes that enforce gender stereotypes). Sumptuary laws don’t come from out of the blue: they are a reaction by the powerful to undesirable behavior from their “inferiors.” The rampant and dramatic changes in gender expression that emerged in the 1960s met with just such resistance, leading in some cases to the courtroom and sometimes even to prison. The litigious heat generated by long hair, short skirts, and women in pants is strong evidence that these were far from trivial issues for the parties involved. The fact that we are still arguing about the same principles, though in different clothing, is part of the ongoing legacy of the 1960s.

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11. Neelam Chaturvedi

Pravina Shukla Indiana University Press ePub

WHEN I FIRST TALKED to Neelam Chaturvedi in the spring of 1996, she was an art teacher in the Sunbeam private school in Banaras. Unlike Nina, a Sindhi living in a Sindhi household, Neelam is a Punjabi married into a Brahmin family from Banaras. Being born in India to Punjabi parents who were displaced from their native Pakistan, Neelam has developed an adaptive personal style. Constant adjustment to different contexts is a main theme of her choices in life and adornment, a pattern evident in our interviews. My main tape-recorded conversations with her, which lasted several hours, took place in Neelam’s bedroom, upstairs in her mother-in-law’s house a few blocks from the vast red temple dedicated to Durga in Banaras.1

When she was growing up in Banaras, Neelam spoke Punjabi at home with her parents, yet she was exposed to Hindi at school and to the local Bhojpuri dialect of the servants. Neelam learned Hindi and Bhojpuri, and, though she was scolded for speaking these ill-regarded languages in the presence of her parents, she grew up speaking what she calls a “mix” of languages. Her shifting between Punjabi and Hindi, choosing one or the other in different contexts, is like the double-coding used by immigrant children who grow up in America, adapting and conforming to two cultures simultaneously.

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6. Making Jewelry

Pravina Shukla Indiana University Press ePub

INDIAN WOMEN GENERALLY view their jewelry as the central component of their personal adornment; something to hold, possess, and treasure as well as to wear, it is more important than their clothing. Clothes are used daily to convey multiple messages; they are changed and bought with frequency, but a woman’s jewelry is special for many reasons. Its cost is higher, its materials are precious, and its permanence provides a powerful sense of ownership and enables it to be passed down as an heirloom, building connections between the generations. Items of jewelry—like the brocaded saris of Banaras—are carefully chosen by the wearers for their beauty and symbolic value, and, like the saris, jewelry embodies the aesthetic choices made by a series of men—the suppliers of materials, the talented craftsmen, and the wily merchants. The production of jewelry involves complex negotiations of the kind found in the production of cloth. In both cases, the artists, the middlemen, and the sellers are men of different castes, ethnic groups, and religions. In both cases, the products—woven cloth or gold jewelry—can be imported from elsewhere in India or locally produced by desi artisans.

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9. Assembling Bangle Sets

Pravina Shukla Indiana University Press ePub

BANGLESWORN on the wrists as a sign of the married estate—are the most common item of ornamentation in India. One of the best-known examples of ancient Indian art is a small bronze statue of a “dancing girl” from Mohenjodaro (2200–1800 BC); she is naked except for a necklace and twenty-nine bangles.1 Women often cite this metal statue to illustrate the continual importance of bangles among Indian people. Banaras is, along with Jaipur and Calcutta, famous for the wide variety of bangles available for sale, mostly in the Vishvanath Gali. The sellers of bangles are more like the sellers of imitation jewelry than they are like purveyors of expensive silver and gold. Bangles are cheap, ephemeral items frequently bought “for fashion.” But as this chapter will demonstrate, there is a special skill to the selling of bangles. Bangles are generally bought in combinations or sets that are assembled by talented salesmen. The art of bangle selling involves combining bangles of different widths, styles, colors, and materials into a coherent and dazzling unit.

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