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Interpreting the Influence of Diverse Cultures on Fashion

By Winter, Metta | Human Ecology, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Interpreting the Influence of Diverse Cultures on Fashion


Winter, Metta, Human Ecology


Adecade ago when Van Dyke Lewis, assistant professor in the Department of Textiles and Apparel, began to study the nature of fashion, he followed what were then the accepted scholarly definitions. Those definitions no longer hold true, he says.

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"As we move toward being one society, we also keep alive categories of people--defined in racial or subcultural terms--whose needs, tastes, and wants are different from each other's," says Lewis. With the goal of better understanding the phenomenon of fashion per se, Lewis divides his research between documenting black fashion expression and examining the mainstream cultural forces that influence the way individuals wear clothes.

Lewis's interest in fashion began in his teens. He is now considered an expert in the Black African Diaspora, a cultural group with a particular way of wearing clothes. In his international research, Lewis focuses on creating an ethnographic model of fashion, especially in London, New York City, and Kingston, Jamaica; these cities are the most trendsetting among the English-speaking Diaspora in which emigrating black Africans predominantly have settled. His publications focus on the issues of fashionability, consumer relationships, and the impact of trends upon fashion's material culture.

Lewis's Ph.D. research, through the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design in England, took him to the streets of London, New York City, and Kingston, where he photographed passersby (but did not speak to them). Through in-depth analysis of their clothing and accessories, Lewis was able to pinpoint the places from which the wearers came, down to the exact New York City neighborhood or the specific strata of Kingston's high society.

The temptation among scholars of fashion is to consider black fashion expression as homogeneous. To expose this misconception, Lewis turned to the work of noted psychologist William E. Cross, a professor at the City University of New York. In 1979 Cross described a psychological model of development comprising four transformative stages through which an individual's identity as a black evolves. In his recent presentation to the Midwest Sociological Association--"Fashion, Blackness, and Self: A Retreat from through which to critique how black men and women dress, as well as the symbolic significances of how they choose to present themselves.

"Applying this psychological model allows us to cut through prescriptions such as that dashikis, large-hooped earrings, and kinky hair represent dressing in 'the black way,'" Lewis says. "In the end we find that 'blackness' is not about the totemic wearing of clothes but rather about how individuals have developed confidence in their own concept of blackness as a means of self-improvement."

Lewis compared the types of clothing typically chosen in each of the four stages of the development of this self-identity. Apparel worn in the first stage, called pre-encounter/discovery, often reflects Hollywood images, such as those of a street hustler or pimp. In the second stage, called encounter, individuals; often in their teens, first begin to think of themselves as separate from the mainstream. Apparel worn in this stage is typically Afrocentric--turbans, kente cloth, and wrapped, as opposed to sewn and cut, apparel. In the third phase, called immersion/emersion, individuals use fashion to present themselves according to the roles they have as contributing members of society.

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"Regardless of racial category, there are other groups we all belong to," says Lewis. "In our everyday lives we bring with us codes and dress rules from the other roles we perform."

Within those roles there is a certain latitude in adherence to dress codes. Lewis uses the example of a "hip-hop" fashion wearer who also works as a manager in an office where a suit is the appropriate dress. "The important question for many young black men then becomes: Do I wear a baggy cut that looks a little 'street,' or a well-tailored suit?

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