Tribal dress - Beyond ikat and ethnicity

Image via Buzz Feed

On Sunday I was reading through The New York Times when I came across an article in the style section regarding the unspoken dress codes in clubs. These dress codes have long determined whether people are accepted into clubs, or are destined for an evening spent languishing on the couch. According to Iam Parms, an owner of the club Mulberry Project: “There’s nothing that dresses a room like a crowd. The ambiance of the experience is the people around you, so it’s important for us to keep those people fashion-forward and eclectic and interesting and engaging.”

Examples of NYC's unspoken club dress code were numerous. According to the Times, the ultra hip Provocateur club in Hotel Gansevoot suggests men avoid stripes and plaids, and women stick to a "minimum five-inch heel," preferably on a pair of Loubotain's, Christian Dior or Jimmy Choo's.  In contrast, the preppy, old-money crowd at the South Pointe dance club in Southampton, NY adheres to a dress code of "tapered jeans, dress shoes, colored button-downs, and elegant sundresses." The hipster-populated bars on the Lower East Side prefer "skinny denim on boys and girls, draping fabrics and muted colors." And the Meatpacking district encourages "party dresses, five-inch heels, and designer bags."

Anne Hollander, a fashion historian and author of “Seeing Through Clothes”, was quoted in the Times article saying that “Today, people dress in costume. We wear what we wish to be seen as,” be it a bohemian, a glamazon, or an old-money socialite.

As I read through the article, one statement jumped out at me.
Melissa Cosenza, a make-up artist who visits NYC clubs four to five nights a week, mentioned that “different neighborhoods reflect different tribes." A tribe is, by definition, a group of people connected to an idea, connected to a leader, and connected to each other. We tend to think of tribes in the traditional context of kinship and descent groups, such as a community of people comprised of related families, clans or generations. But in the modern sense, a tribe can be any group of people who support, inspire, and share similar behaviors as you

Seth Godin, author of the book "Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us" wrote: "People are turned into a tribe by "a shared interest" and "a way to communicate" (leader to tribe, tribe to leader, tribe member to tribe member, and tribe member to outsider.") A leader increases effectiveness for the people by transforming the shared interest into a passionate goal and desire for change; providing tools to allow members to tighten their communications; and leveraging the tribe to allow it to grow and gain new members."

Human beings are social animals and need some form of community. Since the time our ancestors gathered together in caves for protection and food, we have formed tribes and exhibit tribal behavior. As civilization advanced the tribes got more numerous and specific, developed into institutions, communities and countries. The predominant characteristic of tribes throughout time is the need to communicate. And one of the ways through which we communicate is through costume.

In the case of Manhattan's club culture, owners, promoters, and even influential club devotees are the leaders of those tribes. Beyond Manhattan, though, there are distinct tribes evident by their choice of costume. Here in my suburban Texas neighborhood, tribal dress in the form of designer denim, logo-covered handbags and Nike Tempo shirts prevails. In districts within downtown Dallas, tattoos, skinny denim, and vintage clothes are prized.

My own appearance illustrates elements of belonging to certain tribes. My tattoos and vintage clothing might profile me as a hipster. My beauty habits (frequent manicures and artfully applied cosmetics) group me in the suburban mom tribe. My penchant for thrifted apparel, bright red hair and habit for mixing prints might also classify me as a fashion blogger.

With so many tribes in existence, it makes me wonder whether it is truly possible to be an individual anymore. Most people would proclaim that the creative elements of dressing are what keeps them passionate about fashion, and that these elements allow them to express their individuality. But how individual can fashion be when it so easily classifies according to tribe? 

What are your thoughts regarding tribal dress and modern culture? Are we fooling ourselves into thinking we're being unique by choosing specific dress, or are were merely trying to stand out within our desired tribe?


  1. This is where I bristle and want to run out and buy 30 different outfits ranging from preppy to hipster to artsy to punk! I hate nothing more than someone or something wanting to pigeonhole us into tribes. I guess I'm lucky that I came of age in the Midwest where labels and looks aren't as important. I wouldn't have survived club culture in a big city! In my rural mom tribe now we have a bohemian, preppy athletic type, artistic mom, and me who fits somewhere in the middle of that:). Or course, this morning I look more like the tribe of "stays in bed all day in husbands tshirt reading blogs while nick jr is on tv" :)!!

  2. That is a very loose interpretation of tribal/tribe. Tribes by there very nature are typically cut off from other groups of humans and interaction is minimal. Even Seth Godin from your quote isn't saying what your saying. He's talking about a tribal nature like a religion lets say pentacostal. The women are expected to wear no make up and dress modestly. If you dress like a punk rocker you will be shunned by the tribe. The tribe EXPECTS you to conform to their rules and regulations. Because without the rules there is no tribe. Your not going to be shunned in Dallas for being glam. Now within community which is what your talking about. No, there is no unique. But I'd rather have the options to be whatever I want to be than be dictated by a tribe what I HAVE to be. Seth's modern tribe scares the heck out of me and I want no part of it. I think we need a world view a broad scope that lets us all grasp we are part of a world community. And thats why I get a kick out of fashion blogs. I love that you all understand world fashion, a very BIG community is super cool. You're hopefully a new generation that will continue to evolve until it infiltrates how we view not only fashion but everything.

  3. This really gets me thinking. Back in the old days you couldn't choose what tribe you were in. Rather, you were born into that tribe and had to conform to their rules, or be ejected from the tribe. Now we can "choose" which tribe we are in. Furthermore, if one day we wake up and don't want to be in that tribe anymore, we can choose to leave it, and become part of a different one. This makes me think that the whole idea and definition of a tribe in modern first world countries has completely changed. Or rather, first world countries used to not have tribes (which were primarily reserved for second and third world countries), but we have now adopted them and found a way to incorporate them into society.

  4. This is interesting - the picture you have reminded me of this post I read today over at Sociological Images that talks about dress codes for establishments being specifically coded to keep out unwanted ethnicities. I know that wasn't the point of your article, but I just thought it was an interesting other take on the club dress code issue!

  5. First, this is an outstanding post I really enjoyed, my dear neighbor slightly to northeast. Fair warning to other readers, this is going to get pretty specific to where Elissa and I live...

    Honestly, I find Collin County to be pretty culturally deficient, and I always have. Growing up in Frisco was pretty painful, even more so because unlike now, there wasn't anything to do except cow-tipping. You want to go shopping? You went to Plano.

    Likewise, I would say from a fashion and style standpoint, there's honestly not a whole lot of variance. I rarely, walking around Stonebriar Centre, notice anyone doing something unique. Those my age or younger are usually in Hollister/Abercrombie plastered shirt, plaid shorts (but not madras, and they wouldn't understand the term if you mentioned it), and sneakers. The amount of sweatpants, trackpants, and flip flops I see are absolutely atrocious. Sometimes, I see women older than me who are really put together, and generally men forty or older seem to at least wear polo shirts tucked into khakis, although I usually quibble about their shoe decisions.

    Oh and coach bags everywhere. Now, I like Coach, they actually make some really solid products, but the bags are everywhere. They're too loud to be seen as a "staple" and they're too common to be seen as a "luxury." At this point, they're just played out.

    Honestly, when it comes to our area, if there is a fashion or style tribe, it is best defined as "inappropriate." No sense of understanding about what to wear which is dependent on time, location, company, and activity. Everyone wears the same things no matter where they are or what they are doing. It's extremely frustrating.

  6. I can't help but smile after reading this post. Clan mentality has been the primary focus of my graduate thesis and I've spent the past two years deciphering honor culture of the early medieval England. To have the NYC clubbing dress code labelled as clan behaviour only tells me that we are not so very different from the cave people or the Anglo-Saxons.
    To that extent I wanted to clarify that a clan need not be based on family members, a clan is a gathering of relatives as well as friends; people to whom we pledge our loyalty and faith and the assurance of mutual protection. Clans ensured the protection and survival of their members, without a clan to fall back on an individual had no chance of survival (outcast!). To apply this philosophy to NYC clubbing scene is not difficult at all, without a clan to fall back on I presume these people face social exclusion which is a form of dying.


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