The elimination of the traditional clothing of Native peoples by their colonizers is an important way by which the colonizers worked to strip Natives of their cultures and identities and impose new ones in their place. Traditional clothing was seen as something to be replaced by more ‘civilized’, European style clothing, along with language, customs and spiritual beliefs. In this paper, I will examine this aspect by which colonizers served to smother the identities of Natives, especially the connection between colonization and traditional clothing. I am interested in the ways in which traditional clothing encompasses spiritual and social meanings for colonized peoples and the effects that enforced European clothing and the desecration of cultural and spiritual clothing has had on Native peoples all over the world.
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Dress and fashion can be used not only to symbolize culture, religion or spirituality, but it can also be used as a tool of oppression as well as liberation. For many people, dress is an expression of personality, faith, choice and identity. It can also deeply affect one’s spiritual self and help connect the wearer to her inward self. Marco Pallis describes the significance and meaningfulness between dress and spiritual identity and how, according to him, clothing ranks among the most important but least analyzed sites of colonization. He is particularly interested analysing clothing as a component of spirituality. He writes that ‘of the many things a person puts to use in the pursuit of her earthly vocation there are none, perhaps, which are so intimately bound up with her whole personality as the clothes she wears (Pallis, p.9). The first thing that Pallis notes is how clothing greatly modifies the appearance of a person and even his/her facial
expressions and thoughts. The impression that clothing makes on the wearer is marked in that it affects how one feels, thinks, speaks and interacts with others. For Pallis, one’s choice of clothing, within the actual limits of the resources that are available to her, is indicative of three things. It demonstrates what she views as compatible with a normal human state and normal human dignity. It also shows how she likes herself to see and be seen and what type of attributes she prefers to exhibit. He also notes that the person’s choice of clothing will be affected by the view that she wants her neighbours to create of her. This social consideration and the previous aspect of self respect are very closely bound up and continually intersect (p.12). For Pallis, all of the political tyrannies that have occurred historically with deliberate aims to undermine traditional peoples and replace their way of life with the way of the West have one thing in common: the elimination of traditional dress and, with it, the elimination of the spiritual self and identity of traditional peoples. This is one of the starting points of colonization, which aims at usurping the cultural/spiritual self identification of indigenous population. From a psychoanalytic framework, Fanon envisages any sort of cultural usurpation – traditional clothing, racial profiling, etc – as corollary to the creation of a new meaning/identity for the colonized person (Fanon, p.13). As a medium between the self and the body, traditional garments represented yet another fertile site of colonization and dominance; precisely because they confer meaning upon the indigenous cultural, religious, spiritual identity.
Now, we can see how these realities were translated within a colonial context. French colonialism in Africa created an environment for cultural exchange under conditions of social and economic inequality, dependent upon France’s clear distinction between the motherland and the colony. The interactions between France and its African colonies were mainly distinguished
by the assertion of the superiority of all things French and the presumed eagerness of African cultures towards this European ideal. This power imbalance between France and the African colonies was visibly enacted in styles of dress. Clothing styles were employed in Africa as measures of cultural growth in a progression from ‘primitive’ to ‘civilized’ states (Rovine, 2009, p.50). The metropole was presumed to be in possession of every ‘desirable’ and ‘civilized’ element, while the colonies were deemed to be culturally regressive in virtue of their traditional roots. For the white man and woman, traditional roots meant ‘primitive’ stages of human development. Thus the colonial becomes something distant and far removed from the Western ideal. The significance of dress as a symbol of Africa’s location during colonization, temporally and spatially remote from the ever-changing French clothing trends, is seen in a 1914 illustrated commentary on French dress entitled ‘Le Vrai et Le Faux Chic.’ The illustration used Africa’s lack of fashion and stubborn traditional dress as a foil for criticism of French fashion of the day. Written and illustrated by the prominent cartoonist Sem, Le Vrai et Le Faux Chic lampoons what Sem considered to be the dangerous and exotic fashions that were becoming trendy at the time. He portrays a fable, introducing a Frenchman who spent a decade in Africa where he was “completely isolated from the civilized world â€¦ completely ignorant of the evolution of modern life.” Sem created lively caricatures to portray his colonial and highly racialized descriptions of these visions, “â€¦ savage women adorned with gris-gris â€¦ Kanaks (an ethnic group from New Caledonia) wearing colorful mops, troglodytes covered with dangling animal skins â€¦” and, most frightful of all “â€¦ a fuzzy-haired cannibal â€¦ wearing a bone through her nose (p.52). This narrative demonstrates the colonial attitudes of the French toward the traditional and spiritual clothing of its colonized countries in Africa. Here we are seeing a mockery of traditional African
dress, in addition to the portrayal of it as savage, lower in stature than French dress and in need of ‘civilizing’. This would require a provisional shift of classifications of clothing from ‘traditional’-the African dress-to the ‘civilized’-the French style of dress. In a postcolonial era, these stereotypical and belligerent depictions of African traditional dress are underclothed within a ‘politically correct’ language. In her Burqua In Vogue: Fashioning Afghanistan, Ellen McLarney shows how the demonization of the burqa, or the Muslim, veil, by Western nations became is a new form of imperial policies in a postcolonial era. These political initiatives, claiming the liberation of Muslim women from their traditional dress are too familiar to evoke the old colonial mission of ‘white man’s burden’. In the current French legislative policies, she states that “the French continue to battle the veil at the governmental and legislative levels, seeing it as an obstacle to assimilation, to secularism, and to women’s sexual availability” (McLarney, 2009, p. 14). These postcolonial attitudes inevitably stemmed from the historical dynamic of the between colonizer and colonized, as well as the typical colonial attitude towards eradicating traditional cultures, which include dress, and replacing them with the culture of the metropole. This was also clearly exhibited in a 1931 French Arts and Cultures exposition in Paris: ‘The first window display represented a barely clothed African student before the African teacher; the second display featured the same student, this time wearing a pagne (loincloth) at a French primary school; the third depicted the student wearing a boubou (robe) at a technical training school; and in the fourth and final display, the African pupil was transformed, dressed in pants and shirt, at a college-level technical school’ (Rovine, p.54). Clearly, we can see back then that in official representations of Africa, the betterment of the Natives was demarcated by progress toward Western-style dress- the renunciation of traditional attire was viewed as an achievement and elevation for African colonies. This representation clearly sought to depict the deplorable backwardness of the African colonies, punctuated by the progressive inclination toward French values, from clothing and dress and finally to education.
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For many Indigenous civilizations, dress and self-adornment is covered with spiritual and metaphysical emblems and significance, and its wearers derive different forms of spiritual nourishment and power from donning the clothing. Some tribal costumes and dress entail nudity which was also used as a catalyst for the elimination of the clothing under moral grounds. Christian colonizers focused on the eradication of traditional clothing of the Indigenous peoples since they had a significant meaning to the latter. Consequently, eradicating their traditional dress was meant to undermine the spiritual, emotional, and physical bond sustaining through these garments (Pallis, p.20). Behind the widespread eradication of Indigenous dress and customs during colonization, there is undoubtedly a deep-seated loss of spirituality that corresponds to loss of personal dignity and communal dignity. Once indigenous dress was outlawed by the colonizers, then came easily the eradication of their languages, customs, and lifestyle. One example of this in Canada occurred during the Residential School system, which continued from the 1840s up until the last one closed in 1989. This situation particularly demonstrates a direct forced eradication of traditional clothing, rather than a more passive progression of colonial attitudes of French dress and lifestyle as superior and more ‘civilized’ than traditional African dress.
In the church-run, government-funded Residential School system in Canada, the main idea was to ‘prepare’ Native children to live in White society, not to mention forced conversion as means to erase their personal identities as Indigenous. Between the late 19th Century and the late 1970s, about 150,000 Aboriginal children across Canada were taken from their homes and forcibly sent to boarding schools, known as Residential Schools. (Haig-Brown, 1988, p.33). The main aim was to assimilate Indigenous peoples and to eradicate their ways of life in favour of more ‘Western’ lifestyles. A large percentage of children suffered from physical, sexual and emotional abuse perpetrated by the Christian clergy. From 1920, attendance was compulsory for seven- to 15-year-olds, although many former students say they were taken at a much younger age. While some parents wanted their children to get an education and felt it was necessary to integrate into Canadian society, many children were taken from their families and communities by force and families were threatened with prison if they did not willingly let go of their children (Haig-Brown, p.33).
The curriculum and practices of Residential Schools were direct attacks on Aboriginal culture. The children were forbidden to speak their languages and practice their customs and traditional ceremonies, and strict European-style school uniforms were enforced. This restrictive type of dress was a far cry from what the children had been used to – every child wore the same outfit every day and there was no personal or spiritual expression present in the attire. Aboriginal children were required to do daily readings and studying of the Bible, and the children were indoctrinated to believe that everything their parents taught them was wrong and their worldviews invalid. Another way that cultural inferiority was engrained in the children was through the dress code. Children had their braids cut and were provided with new, non-Aboriginal clothing. The school officials took before-and-after pictures, and these pictures were used as proof of their success in the cultural assimilation of the Aboriginals. We can see that the elimination of Indigenous clothing was seen as a clear affirmation of the success of colonization, which is in its essence, the eradication of one culture by another. Clothing played an important role in the ways in which Indigenous peoples were viewed, as traditional Indigenous clothing was a visual, symbolic marker of their spirituality and culture, the very thing the colonizers wanted to get rid of (Jaine, 1993, p.41).
The adoption of the colonizers’ style of dress symbolized the affirmation of a new identity – an identity inevitably tied to the colonizers. These colonial-superior attitudes also seeped into the minds of the colonized, so much that in the early twentieth century in urban Tanganyika, East Africa, considerable differences arose in clothes worn by long-standing urban residents, who were considered as gentlemen, and those worn by newcomers from rural areas, scornfully referred to as barbarians and savages (Suriano, p. 98). Although the identities of most of the urban residents were inextricably linked to the rural ones, in the 1920s and 1930s many urban Africans outwardly expressed their sense of belonging to the cities. Through clothing, these townsmen and townswomen tried to show their disparity from newcomers who resided in rural areas. In the 1940s, many youths and young adults found the attraction of city life because to them, a city was a modern, Westernized place – a place more appealing than their rural homes. It is clear that through these deferential attitudes between city and rural dwellers, those who adopted a new fashion associated with the French colonizers did so with the aim to be seen as modern, as opposed to traditional (p.99).
To conclude, the relationship between traditional clothing of Indigenous peoples at the time of colonization and the colonizers’ attitudes towards it offers insights into the cultural construction of the colonized ‘other’ and the significance of clothing as a tool for negotiating shifting control over the power to define identities and traditions. The ways in which colonization worked to eliminate traditional clothing of the colonized as an important point in the colonial process are still require further research, in my opinion. In the post colonial era, we can at least witness a new kind of imperialism deeply rooted in the colonial mindset; the difference lying on the implicit political, cultural, ideological insinuation disguise in mass media and the new ideology of ‘ bringing democracy and liberation’ to women and men of the third world. The fact that traditional clothing are still the object of racial profiling, intimidation, and ‘otherness’ should trigger postcolonial theorists’ intention to their utmost significance.
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