Fashion Rant: Tribal Prints

I was perusing the early summer pattern catalog at and came across one of my fashion pet peeves: Tribal Prints.

This category of fabrics bother me for a few reasons.

1) it lumps all “tribes” into one category. Even distilling down to African print or Native American print grossly glosses over the vast cultural diversity on each of those continents.

2) It detaches patterns from their original cultural meanings. Patterns are diluted into something distant, foreign, and cute.

This particular catalog page infuriated me because the patterns are very generic. It shows a disregard for the “other” cultures in our world. Zig-zag lines = “tribal”?! To me that says, “all we know (and care) about those far away cultures is that they were fabrics with bold patterns.”

“Tribal prints” as a fashion trend feels exotic. And when we live in a world of concrete, traffic jams, and conference calls, we want to get away and feel exotic. Who hasn’t donned a Hawaiian shirt and felt like they were on a beach with a piña colada in hand?

There are some beautiful fabrics and clothing designs all over the world. I cannot fault fashion designers for being inspired. But if a designer truly is taking inspiration from a specific group, let’s give credit where credit is due and identify the culture or geographic region. And I realize that SOME designers do this.

As an anthropologist I have to ask, what does that image or pattern mean to the people who originally used it. Cultures have specific patterns and visual motifs in their clothing for a reason. Are we plastering a religiously significant design on our disposal clubbing fashions?


I have no problem with the particular fabrics shown above, but can we please call them something else? These look like “geometric prints” to me.

What are your thoughts? What fashion trends or terms rub you the wrong way?

3 thoughts on “Fashion Rant: Tribal Prints

  1. I totally agree here. Whenever I see fashions with “tribal” prints, I feel torn because I like ethnic prints, but I don’t feel comfortable with how they are appropriated sometimes.

    On a related note, I found an African printed shift at Goodwill, similar to ones my aunt would wear to events with her African friends. I’m tempted to refashion it into a dress, but I’m worried I would also be guilty of appropriation.

    1. I would argue that wearing something that evokes fond memories of your Aunt is a better reason to wear something than simply “because it is trendy.”

      I vote that you refashion it into a dress. As long as you know your reason for wearing it, you shouldn’t feel guilty.

      I have a hand-knit hat with Peruvian designs (and llamas) that I bought when I was in Peru. I wish I knew more about the designs themselves, but the hat reminds me of an amazing adventure on the Inca Trail hike.

  2. I hadn’t really thought about this (living in my own science-y bubble I guess), but I can definitely see where you’re coming from. “Tribal” is a pretty broad term. As a society, we’re pretty infamous for taking important religious/symbolic aspects of other cultures and diluting them. Kind of like the Inukshuk standing beside a random pub that I pass every day on the way to school.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s