Rapid changes in the way we communicate across the world have brought about significant changes in the last two decades. As an individual or as a professional, one can see and experience the effect of this globalization in our lives everywhere. Food, culture, art and fashion provide outlets for the reflection of a variety of cultures in a single setting. As a fashion designer, one has to be conscious of these influences that emanate from all parts of the world. As the world grows closer together, cultural influences from one or more parts of the world are likely to make an impact on the global environment (Kermi in Crawford, 2002). Nowhere is this truer than in the case of fashion.
Origins of Culture and its influence on fashion
Schaefer (234) defines culture as “the totality of learned, socially transmitted customs, knowledge, material objects and behavior, including the ideas, value, customs and artifacts of a group of people”. Culture is essentially the sum total of a pattern of activities that make up a way of living in a particular community, region or tribe. Fashion is one of the most visible expressions of culture prevalent in any society. Fashion in various forms expresses its cultural origins – the Indian sari, the Japanese kimono and the Scottish kilt are all overt expressions of their respective cultures. Several forms of fashion culture may travel across miles and take root elsewhere. The paisley pattern is a traditional Indian design, adapted and modified by the English, while tie-dye though made popular by the Hippie culture of the 70s in the US, originates from Japan and India. Fashion trends are strongly influenced by social-cultural changes, and the interplay between various societal changes and their expression in fashion defines the trends that take place. A good designer will connect and translate the changes in the cultural environment to determine what fashion trends are likely to emerge (Murek, 2010). To determine the impact on fashion, designers must study three kinds of culture. High culture is concerned with the nuances of art, painting and other higher art forms. Pop culture concerns itself with what happens among the larger audience. Low culture is the street level culture that affects the daily lives of the lower strata. Examples of low culture include hip-hop music and graffiti art.
The impact of regional cultures on international fashion has always been interesting. One example of this is the increasing influence of African motifs and styles on global fashion. Where Gucci has used zebra stripes, Burberry Prorsum adopted the wax print dress. Other designers have not been far behind, with many like Roberto Cavalli and Balenciaga coming out with their own interpretations. Through the use of bold batik prints, animal stripes or spots, fashion has en masse adopted Africa as its theme. The rise of Africa on the Western fashion scene began in 2011, and the adoption of the trend has continued apace (Afromeetseuro, 1). Designers are falling over themselves to incorporate the beaded, feathery and kaleidoscopic designs of tribal culture in their respective collections, and customers are more than willing to buy the bright vibrant creations as expressions of Africa. However, few understand the nuances of African fashion, and neither are designers willing to elaborate what part of African culture they emulate through their work (Pool, 1).
Just as international fashion trends are influenced by regional cultures, regional fashion is also influenced by global culture. With increasing interaction between people across the globe and the free flow of information, fashion in the regional pockets like Africa and the Middle East is also drawing inspiration from global design trends. To understand how these two are influencing one another, the following section outlines some of the fashion trends taking place across various regions in the world.
Fashion Trends across Regions
South Africa – South Africa is one of the most diverse countries on the continent, with cultural influences that span from tribal to colonial. Some of the African influences that have imprinted themselves on international fashion today include animal prints, tribal prints, beadwork and (fake) fangs, claws and feathers of various animals as embellishments (Source: Afrocosmopolitan, 1). With the increasing interaction between Africa and the rest of the world, thanks to the 2010 Football World Cup and other events, international influences are now making their presence felt in African fashion.
Nigeria - As a shipping port of entry into West Africa, Nigeria has a significant amount of interaction with Western culture. Nigerian fashion has grown overtime in the past few years, and new designers are making their presence felt. The trend in the current season is a judicious mix of Western cuts and drapes mixed with the vibrant Ankara styles. The Ankara styles are vibrant versions of tribal motifs and prints originating with various tribes within the country. These are now getting mixed and matched with pastels on garments that have significant flare as compared to the traditional straight cuts. Nigeria has access to the Central and South American regions as well as to Europe. It merges its own penchant for bright colors with the flare of South American styles and the pastel tones of European traditional fashion to create a unique form that is difficult to find anywhere else. Thanks to its interaction with Europe, many European fabrics like satin, chiffon, Chantilly lace and velvet are slowly getting incorporated into Nigerian fashion designs. Styles such as baby doll dresses, jump suits, layered dresses and maxis are showing up on Nigerian ramps as well. Some of the recent trends in Nigerian fashion include the combination of Ankara and Lace, of Velvet and sequins as well as the unique trend of peplum trousers.
Kenya - What Nigeria is to West Africa, Kenya is fast becoming for the Eastern part of the continent. Traditionally the country has enjoyed good interaction and trade with the Middle East and Asia, mainly countries like India and Sri Lanka, besides the European traffic coming from the Suez Canal. Known for long as a tourist destination, the country is economically stable and is taking advantage of the recent focus on Africa to build itself up as a destination of note. Fashion influences out of Kenya have a mix of Asian and Arabic in them, just as Nigeria reflects strains of South America in its fashion. The country’s fascination for sports is also seen in the craze for sports jersey dresses, loose denims and bold prints. Recently, flower printed leggings have made a significant impact, with women pairing them with everything from the above mentioned sports jerseys to elaborate cut tops and jackets. As a combination, sports chic is a broad categorization that is being given to this new fashion wave, and it is fast catching on mainly among younger shoppers who are more fashion conscious.
Ghana - Located on the west coast of Africa near Nigeria, Ghana is another country with a lot of promise in influencing design trends. It shares a common culture with Nigeria in its choice of bright bold prints of the Ankara designs, but has greater degree of adoption of loose fabrics and lacy embellishments in the recent seasons. The use of wax print fabric and variations of tie-dye are unique factors of this country, which have found their way into international fashion. The love for color graphics printing and dyeing is evident in the extensive visibility of Kente (traditional handwoven fabric in which strips are again weaved together), Adinkra (traditional hand printed / block printed fabric), Fanti cloth or Akunintama (embroidered and appliqued cloth), Machine printed wax prints and Batiks.
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - For a change, an African country is recognized here for its dedication to men’s fashion. While the Congolese share a similar love for bold prints among its women, the unique feature of the Congo is its devotion to Sapology, the elaborate style of wearing Western wear among men. The country has turned the art of wearing western wear among men to something beyond an art, and into a subculture itself. Being a Sapeur is much more than just wearing the latest fashion. For most, it is a way of life, a code, even going as far to say a religion. Just as with all religions, in order to be considered a true Sapeur, one must adhere to a certain set of rules, conventions and ideologies. Subtrends within this segment dictate fashion rules. For example, while the Brazzaville Sapeur will wear no more than three colors (excluding white), and have a pocket square tucked into the upper pocket without folding, the Kinhasa Sapeur believes in creating a rainbow of colors wherever he goes. For him, the more colors the better. If by some miracle they all manage to clash with one another, he has achieved the heights of fashion etiquette in the eyes of his peers. Sapeurs also like to show off their shoes, which are usually made of high end leather. Flashing one’s clothing labels is also considered the norm in fashion confrontations. African/Congolese prints can be found in stores such as H&M, Topshop, ASOS.com, RiverIsland and even Primark, which have all drawn their inspiration from this unique trend of Sapology.
Turkey - Turkey is the meeting point of the Western / European cultures with the Middle East. A melting pot of cultures, Turkey is a contrast in itself, with the hijab (head covering worn by Muslim women) existing side by side with dresses and miniskirts. Variations of the hijab have also found their way into many of the African states where Islam is a dominant religion, such as Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The long black flowing robes deemed appropriate for Muslim women in the Middle East have given way to a more liberal version, with colors, patterns and embellishments making their way onto the conservative garments. Thanks to its European heritage and cold winters, Turkey has a tradition of woolen garments and thick coats and multi-layered garments abound here in winter.
Saudi Arabia - One of the richest countries in the world due to its vast reserves of oil, Saudi Arabia is a conservative society. Women have to follow strict norms of dress, and are expected to be veiled and covered at all times when outside. Nonetheless, women have seen some elements of change, with the adoption of applique, embroidery and discreet embellishments on the outer clothing worn by them, mainly around the sleeves, headpiece and hems. However, the use of Western clothing in public is strictly prohibited, although a significant number of women do wear it under the compulsory covering.
Dubai - Dubai is the largest population center for expats in the Middle East. A city more known for its European and American population, the city is a melting pot for all nations. Dress codes are Western and in spite of being an Islamic city, norms are relaxed enough for women to wear Western outfits outside the home. Due to its large Western population, cocktail dresses, semi-sheer silhouettes and fabrics like silk are abundantly seen. Other trends include long-sleeved, body-hugging lace dresses with hand-crafted embellishments, drawing inspiration from Muslim culture.
Japan - A country known for its fanatical adoption of Western dress and style, Japan still retains elements of its cultural heritage. The silk hand painted kimono is Japan’s gift to the world of international fashion. However, recent years have seen a drastic shift from traditional garments to street fashion in a big way. Tattoo tights and sheer as well as mesh fabric panel skirts, frill cut dresses are very much in vogue, as are gingham checks.
China - China has emerged as a major fashion market with many of the top brands already establishing their presence in the country. The use of 3D printing technology on variety of garments ranging from Casual wear to lingerie is one of the key emerging trends here, along with digital prints in Floral and Geometric motifs. Satin and silk semi-sheer silhouettes with pleats and ruffles, drawn from Western influences are very much visible. The social superhero look is a trend that is taking off in China and may find its way to international ramps.
India - Another fast-emerging fashion market in Asia, the Indian fashion scene is dominated by fusion of local and Western fashion trends. Traditional dyeing and printing techniques are coupled with Western styles to create new and exciting designs. The local short tops called kurtis are paired with denims, harem pants, embroidered belts and stilettos. Denim jackets paired over a maxi dress or palazzo pants, and the effective use of color blocking are some of the current trends in Indian fashion.
Mexico - Mexico thrives on its Latin American and Spanish heritage, showcasing a vibrant culture interspersed with local traditions. Colorful prints, vibrant flared cuts and elaborate embroidery dominate the fashion trends in Mexico. Off-shoulder dresses, high-slit skirts and bold colors combined with traditional prints & textures are a staple of Mexican fashion.
Regional cultures are making their presence felt in the international fashion arena, and in turn drawing from international fashion trends in their own fashion markets. Each country has a mix of local culture mixed with international trends, and some of these local designs, patterns and styles are making their presence felt in international ramps. Keeping track of the various influences on international fashion is complex, and requires deep study of cultures and what trends are likely to emerge. This mixing of trends makes for unique combinations and will generate a set of new designs every year, as regional designers too start making their mark on the world of Western fashion. Not only women’s fashion, but men’s fashion too is being influenced in a big way by regional trends, and this is likely to continue. A good designer therefore must track culture trends at all three levels – high, pop and low, in order to get a good idea of what is likely to work in coming seasons.
Afrocosmopolitan “African Influences In Fashion” Afrocosmopolitan, 2013, web. Last accessed 24 November 2014.
Afromeetseuro, “Ethnic & Tribal Fashion Inspiration 2013” 19 February 2013, web. Last accessed 24 November 2014.
Kermi “Growing fast” ASID, February 5, 2002, web mentioned in Crawford, R “The Global Influence on Interior Design and the Impact on a Family and Consumer Sciences Professional” 2002, Web. Last accessed 24 November 2014
Murek, Diana “Cultural Influences On Trend Forecasting” Into The Fashion, January 6, 2010, Web. Last accessed 24 November 2014
Pool, Hannah “African fashion is about more than zebra print” The Guardian Fashion Blog 20 March 2012, web. Last accessed 24 November 2014.
Schaefer, R.T. “Sociology: A brief introduction”. 2002, 4th edition. Boston: McGraw Hill.