Warning: file_put_contents(/home/content/06/5020706/html/historyoffashiondesign/wp-content/uploads/custom_styles/dynamic.css) [function.file-put-contents]: failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/content/06/5020706/html/historyoffashiondesign/wp-content/themes/kleo/kleo-framework/lib/function-core.php on line 564
Imperialism and Traditional Dress Lesson 9 | History of Fashion Design

Imperialism and Traditional Dress Lesson 9

Imperialism and Traditional Dress

Step 1:  

Read the online “lecture” on Imperialism and Traditional Dress below.


Western Fashion

Western fashion, with it’s emphasis on consumerism and temporal change has a profound influence on all cultures it contacts.  Western fashion fuels industrial production, and assists individuals and groups in the process of social assimilation and class climbing.  During the 16th through 20th Centuries it was consciously used by governments, missionaries and others to promote social agendas as varied as the following:

Slave owners in North and South America used Westernized dress to force Africans and Native Americans to at least appear to accept their new identity both as property and as Christian converts.

Tsar Peter I of Russia around 1700,  Emperor Mejii of Japan around 1890, and Sultan Mahmut II (1820’s) and President Atatürk (1920’s) of Turkey  ordered  nobles and military to adopt Western dress as part of successful campaigns to incorporate modern Western technology (and subsequent power) into their respective countries.

Christian Missionaries throughout the globe encouraged or enforced Western clothing standards on native converts to their religions, so as to have them identify with their coreligionists rather than their original tribes or nationalities.

Eskimo fish skin boots in the Sheldon Jackson Museum, AK

Government agencies in the US and Canada illegally confiscated Native American garments, masks and other artworks, forbade tribal gatherings and forced young Native Americans into Western dress in state-run boarding schools in an effort to replace the indigenous Northern American culture with an imported Western culture.

Tlingkit Beaded tunic in the Sheldon Jackson Museum, AK

After a pair of unsuccessful rebellions against British authority by Scots and Irish nationalists in the 18th Century, traditional Highland and traditional Irish dress were each banned briefly in order to discourage future rebellions.  Ironically, while this policy effectively wiped out the already dying tradition of  Irish dress, it served to poise Highland dress for one of the more amazing Traditional dress revivals in history during the 19th Century. A revival happily embraced by the English as a new “fashion”!

Athabaskan Beadwork is one of many attractions at the UAF Museum in Fairbanks.

Traditional Dress

Despite these and other pressures to adopt Western fashions, many people throughout the world have either maintained or readopted Traditional dress in everyday use, or for selected occasions.  Very often Traditional dress has gone through a conversion process from everyday attire, to a fixed formal dress for weddings, government functions, traditional dance, or religious celebrations.  Many styles of Traditional dress throughout the world also were, and are, assimilated into Western fashions.  Traditional dress is enjoying a “comeback” in some areas of the world, (for example in many Moslem countries) even while losing ground in others.  However, numerous examples of Traditional dress have survived into the 21st Century either in their original form, or in modified versions

The reasons for preserving Traditional dress are as various as the reasons for abandoning it.  Traditional dress tends to be durable and slow to change, so it discourages consumerism and a need for constant new clothing.  Traditional dress reinforces the values that the originating culture holds towards the body and gender, and therefore, is usually consistent with the indigenous religion’s teachings on that subject.

Traditional dress reinforces tribal or national identity, and may demonstrate a deliberate visual separation from the values of Western culture, or the political agenda Western powers (political or corporate) are seen to be pursuing in the region.  Traditional dress is often understood to be a protest against the encroachment of  international capitalism, foreign religions or political invaders, and even the idea of change in general.  Tribal sub-groups within a nation also use it to preserve a separate identity:

“The Kuna rebellion that led to the legal recognition of Kuna Yala as a semi-autonomous territory by the government of Panama was initiated when the government tried to prevent Kuna women from wearing their traditional mola costume. ” -Molas From Panama

Traditional dress is used, even in Western culture, when a statement needs to be made about what the culture regards as unchanging values.  This is why traditional dress is used in coronations, investitures, graduations,  weddings, funerals, social and religious rites, and why even minor changes to items of dress in these cases can cause serious controversy. See Catholic Splinter Group: Pre-Vatican II Separatists a Proctor from Costume of the Various Orders in the University of Cambridge.

Traditional dress also usually emphasizes the Aesthetic of a particular culture, and tends to best fit and flatter the typical body types of people of that ethnic heritage. Western fashions typically are designed to flatter usual European body types, and often look clunky on people who have different proportions.  Traditional dress is also, often, designed for practical use in the climate and conditions of it’s area, and may be retained by locals, or even adopted by visiting Westerners because of it’s obvious comfort or utility. Ruth Grant And Evelyn Alexander in Athabaskan dress as the Storytellers in Naam, Theatre UAF.

Lack of a traditional dress leaves members of a group wishing that they had one.  See Search For A National Dress (Kenya)

Step 2:Choose a nationality or tribal group to research (anywhere in the world) and report on it.  Here are some pages of links to help you:

  • “Ethnic” Clothing Links (Traditional Dress)
  • Asian Costume Links
  • Russian/Soviet Costume Links
  • Polar Regions Traditional Dress Page
  • Religious Costume
  • Occasion Specific Dress

From your researches attempt to find out as much of the following as can reasonably be accomplished in the time frame you have to devote to this, (depending on the group chosen you may be able to find out a lot or a little in the time frame so don’t panic if you can’t get this all):

  1. What was the group’s traditional dress before being contacted by or assimilated into “Western” culture?
  2. What changes have been incorporated after contact?
  3. What traditional styles, if any remain?
  4. What pressures facilitated change or preserved tradition?

Report to the group on your findings (including links) to the message board or your site by the weekend.


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.


Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?