Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Dress and Ethnic Identity in Irian Jaya

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Dress and Ethnic Identity in Irian Jaya

Article excerpt

After decades of neglect, studies of dress have come back into vogue among academics in recent years. While past (largely pre-World War II) studies were largely concerned with technical aspects of textiles (sometimes in relation to evolutionary or diffusionist questions), current studies are more interested in the cultural context of dress, especially in relation to rapid change and the contemporary forces of globalization. Most of the recent literature on dress, however, has been decidedly inward-looking, relating dress to such things as hierarchy and gender within particular societies. To the extent that a broader context is addressed, this has tended to entail a look at perceived negative aspects of globalization on local fashions.

While contemporary writings on dress frequently associate certain styles of dress with some ethnic group, as noted by Eicher (1995b, p. 1), there has been a marked neglect of analysis of this relationship between dress and ethnic identity among academics. Thus, although it is possible to point to a handful of recent case studies concerning dress and ethnic identity,(1) virtually the only general post-war work on ethnicity to discuss the role of dress as an ethnic marker is Manning Nash's The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World (1989). Nash categorizes dress as one of the "surface pointers" which "make recognition at a distance, or a fleeting instance, possible, and as such are in themselves often barriers to more intimate contact" (p. 11). He then remarks that these surface pointers are significant only when linked to "core features of group differences" (p. 12). The latter, he states, include: kinship ("presumed biological and descent unity"), commensality ("the propriety of eating together"), and common cult ("a value system beyond time and empirical circumstance") (pp. 10-11).

While Nash approaches the question of dress and identity largely from the perspective of the group with an emphasis on continuity, it has become increasingly popular in recent years to examine identity in a more dynamic way with attention to the various identities that an individual may have in different contexts and the choices that people must make. Although not specifically concerned with questions of ethnic identity, Emma Tarlo's (1996) work on dress in India adopts such an approach. Tarlo focuses on the choices that a person makes in selecting what to wear in a variety of contexts -- the clothing dilemmas that people face -- in a rapidly changing world. Tarlo points to the multiple nature of people's identities in modern India and the often conflicting choices that they must make in deciding what to wear. While perhaps less relevant to the more closed and tradition-bound communities of the past, personal choice of dress as it relates to ethnic and other forms of identity is certainly of considerable relevance to all societies today.

Such works as those by Nash and Tarlo present us with a starting point by which to explore the interrelationship between dress and ethnic identity in both general and particular contexts. The particular context of the present article is the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. The discussion that follows begins with a brief survey of writing on dress and ethnic identity in Southeast Asia, with a focus on Indonesia. This is followed by an overview of Irianese societies and dress prior to the advent of sustained external influence during the latter part of the nineteenth and into the mid-twentieth centuries. Next is an examination of acculturative influences during the period of Dutch rule and under Indonesian rule until the past few years. Finally, there will be a look at developments over the past few years in regard to acculturative pressures and the contemporary use of items of dress associated with Irianese identity.

Dress and Ethnic Identity in Southeast Asia

One particularly striking feature of the purportedly more theoretical writing on dress in recent years is the virtual absence of Southeast Asian material from the discussion. …

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