As I was analyzing the exhibit Powerful Bodies Zulu Arts of Personal Adornment, I could not help but compare the Zulu culture to the American culture.
According to the Fowler Museum, “During the nineteenth century, a period of intense transformation and cross-cultural exchange, the arts of personal adornment flowered among the Zulu.” Due to influences from Europe, the Zulu had access to new materials such as brass, imported textiles, and European beads. Eventhough the Zulus started using new materials from Europe, they did not disregard their own culture. Their personal items still expressed their identity. And as they wear these beadworks, they could still feel a connection to their ancestors. I found this very similar to that of Americans because our fashion is often influenced by other cultures. Like the Zulu people, we borrow other culture’s fashion and make it into our own. For example, in 2007, designer Elie Saab presented his Japanese-inspired collection at Paris Fashion Week.
What fascinated me the most about the exhibit was that the Zulu objects were all intricately made and therefore every single object is one of a kind. For example, the beadwork on fabric panels is filled with amazing colors and designs. Elaborate geometric designs such as diamonds and triangles were often included in the beadwork of fabric panels like the one shown below. This is unlike Americans because we rarely make our own clothes or accessories. As said in The Modern Western Fashion Pattern, It’s Functions and Relationship to Identity, fashion is important in modern world because it emerged the same time as “first modern consumer society.” (10). Therefore, because we live in a consumers’ society, we often go out and buy things instead of making it ourselves. And because Americans go to the mall to buy clothes, the things we wear are very similar to one another and therefore lack originality.
Furthermore, Zulu’s personal items highly expressed their status and identity. For instance, different regions of the Zulu people wore objects such as Beaded Belts and Panels in their own “color combinations.” These colors identified which region they were from. For example, the Loin Covering shown below is made of pink bead fringes, indicating that the wearer is from southern Zulu territory. In contrast, the body and dress is no longer crucial to identity in America. According to The Dressed Body, “It seems almost cliché to insist that…the body and dress are now a crucial arena for the performance and articulation of identities” (37). In America, color does not really identify your identity. Anyone can wear a certain color without being identified as from a certain region.
Moreover, Zulu people wore beadwork in order to show their status. Thus, wealthy Zulu women might wear as much as ten pounds of beadwork at a time. On the other hand, in America, the dress does not express one’s status like it does in the Zulu Kingdom. As explained in Colin Campbells’ reading, nowadays one’s style doesn’t relate to their social standing (15). For instance, Americans who carry expensive handbags such as Louis Vuitton are not necessary wealthy. Many people of middle class status or working class can save up to buy these handbags. Thus, you can’t really tell a person’s status just by looking at the way they dress.