I consider myself a reasonably fluent speaker of Fashionspeak, a dialect distinguished by peculiar adjectives ("statement" necklace, "boyfriend" jacket), enigmatic abbreviations (boho, bodycon, cami), and a bullying use of the imperative mood ("must-have," "dos and don'ts"). Nevertheless, I sometimes find myself staring in puzzlement at a fashion headline, trying to decode an unlikely usage of a word I thought I knew. This season, that word is "tribal."
An email earlier this month from online retailer Piperlime, a division of Gap Inc., is what gave me pause — and not only because of the terrible pun:
Let's see: geometric designs, a floral print, some colorful embroidery, and some woven "synthetic vachetta." I do know what "synthetic vachetta" means: it's fake leather. But I don't know what makes it "tribal." Nor can I explain the other shoes: to which tribe, or tribes, do they claim allegiance? North American? African? New Guinean?
What does "tribal" mean, anyway?
Dictionaries don't help much here. A tribe, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "a group of people forming a community and claiming descent from a common ancestor." It was originally spelled "tribu," and when it came into English, in the 13th century, it referred specifically to the 12 divisions of ancient Israel, each descended from one of the 12 sons of the patriarch Jacob. (Two of them, the "lost tribes," disappeared from history. One fanciful theory maintains that those lost tribes crossed a couple of oceans and became Native Americans; it isn't true, but director Mel Brooks had some fun with the notion in his 1974 film Blazing Saddles, which featured Brooks himself as a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief.)
But none of that clarifies "tribal" in the Piperlime ad, or in the recent Guardian (UK) headline that proclaimed "Tribal Fashion Grows Up." (The accompanying photo depicts a model wearing a black military-style jacket, roomy trousers, a leopard-print belt, and multicolored hip pouches trimmed in cowrie shells.)
Let's turn to anthropology, which tells us the tribe is a non-nation-state form of social organization in which leadership is temporary and non-hereditary. The term is applied loosely and often erroneously: Native American tribes in the United States, for example, are actually sovereign nations. All the same, Native Americans do come together at self-described tribal gatherings, and many Native peoples govern through tribal councils.
"Tribe" is problematic on the African continent as well. The website Africa Action notes that the word "has no coherent meaning," "promotes a myth of primitive African timelessness," and "substitutes a generalized illusion for detailed analysis of particular situations."
"Generalized illusion" gets us closer to fashionspeak's "tribal." In past decades "tribal" styles might have been called "exotic," "primitive," "ethnic," or "multicultural" — adjectives that now seem patronizing. "Tribe" and "tribal," on the other hand, have gained status and hipness in the educated First World. Joel Kotkin's 1994 book Tribes: How Race, Religion, and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy paved the way by positing that "tribe" could be a modern, urban construct. (Kotkin's thesis is that Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and British people are sophisticated "tribes" whose shared identity, rather than politics, contributes to their economic success.) In 2008 the influential marketing writer Seth Godin published Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, which told readers that thanks to the Internet, a tribe is any connected group of people.
The upshot: tribes are now cool. So cool that at least four marketing agencies in the US call themselves Tribe, and Tribal DDB is the name of "a digitally centric global advertising agency" that's part of the huge DDB network.
This gradual acceptance of cultural "tribal" may have softened us up for fashion "tribal" and made it unnecessary to ask the questions I asked at the beginning of this column. In fashionspeak, it turns out, "tribal" doesn't need a precise definition: it's an I-know-it-when-I-see-it label. It's the opposite of the urban black-on-black uniform — it's colorful, textured, and "organic." It suggests traditional self-adornment without requiring traditional beliefs.
Lately, the new, rootless "tribal fashion" has even become trendy in the place where tribes originated: Africa. Since 2009, Nairobi's "most glamorous annual event" has been a fashion show called Tribal Chic. The fashions are elegant and modern. The venue? The Tribe Hotel.