Globel Economics of Fashion- Alethea and Chelsey

Global Economies of Fashion

The value and emphasis placed on fashion vary from culture to culture and these weeks readings on the global economies of fashion reiterate that very phenomenon. Wilson, Ko and Gondola all provided incredible insight in regards to fashion and the impact a garment, brand or style of dress has on a community. It’s necessary to consider in learning about the politics of fashion that what may be seen one way in one particular culture may not be seen the same as it is in a different culture and that ambiguity plays a huge role in the politics of fashion.

The author Verity Wilson discusses the Chinese textiles from 1850 to the present.  She stresses how the dragon robe is an ambiguous garment. The garment is ambiguous because of the multiple meanings it has acquired throughout history. In the eighteenth century it was worn solely by men and was a way to identify a man of power who was not to be trusted. The robe was also worn be bridegrooms before their wedding. The Catholic missionaries wore the robe as a formal garment. It was not a required article of clothing so it transitioned into elaborate wear.  Wilson also investigates how the production method of the robe played a major influence on its value and worth. The customer seemed to be more pleased if they knew the garment had been hand made.  In the present dragon robes are souvenirs. This garment is a way for non-native individuals to take a piece of what they feel represents the Chinese culture home.

What are some other garments/items that have multiple meanings?


Dorothy Ko examines how high heels, platforms and lotus shoes function in society. She begins with an example from the classic Chinese film Wild Rose from 1932. A young girl has to impress a bourgeois family to gain permission to stay in their mansion. She does a complete makeover and is wearing heels. She is so frustrated with the clothing, shoes and almost falling on her face that she lifts her skirt up in a room full of graceful guests. The young girl is thrown out of the house for her actions and the camera zooms in on the high heels she discards on the floor.  This film is mentioned to show “the class division in the China’s foreign and domestic relations” (Ko, 141). High heels present both a positive and negative relationship between modern femininity and historical time.    

What role does shoes play in your daily dress? Are they extremely important or are they the least significant part of your outfit? What do high heels represent?


The final reading titled Dream and Drama: The Search for Elegance among Congolese Youth by Ch. Didier Gondola gave incredible insight on the lifestyles of the mikilistes or Sapeurs of Congo. The La SAPE represents a way of life; La SAPE stands for “La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes”(society of atmosphere setters and elegant people) and through sape, fashion presides over everything. They are Congolese males who usually have humble occupations as carpenters, drivers, servants, and some are unemployed. Sapeurs also live troublesome lives as thieves, squatters, and other illegal occupations. However, despite their environment and circumstances, the Sapeurs aspire to live the “European dream” that is unattainable in Africa. Their ultimate goal is to reach a Europe because it consummates their entrance into adulthood. The European city represents a utopia to the Congolese.

“The mikiliste is an individual who first experiences Europe, his Europe, in Africa” (Didier, 28).

The clothing these men of the Congo wear provides an escape from their social circumstances and their image and they way they are perceived is extremely important to them. The Sapeurs (mikilistes) use their bodies as a “social metaphor” in which they portray themselves how they want to be seen by others, which is as grand and, essentially, more than what they are. According to Gondola, the mikiliste possess a psychological attachment to clothing because they will acquire griffe (labels) at any cost in order to fulfill his aspiration to live the “European dream”; if it means skipping a rent payment or if they have to sell drugs to afford the designer suit, they will do it. They are fueled by their desires to obtain expensive European labels because the aesthetic is more desirable and they want to be admired. While they can never fully escape who they are through sape, they are determined to provide an illusion.

What do you all make of the mentality held by the Sapeurs of the Congo? Is it superficial? Misleading? Or should it not matter what/why they choose to spend the money they do on their clothing? What’s your opinion of their obsession of European labels? Could it be seen as their abandonment of their heritage or do you see it as their culture? Is this type of consumption problematic (generally speaking)? Do you know of any other cultures, groups, etc., that possess a superficial mentality? What role does colonization have in all of this? Do you see that impact as negative or positive? What is your opinion on Gondola’s synopsis of the Sapeurs?


12 thoughts on “Globel Economics of Fashion- Alethea and Chelsey

  1. The situation of the Congolese men is quite interesting because I have never heard of a group before that would go to such extremes to wear the best clothing, especially when it is clothing from another culture. I think that the Congolese men are buying too much into what the dominant society perceives as an important marker of power. At the same time, however, even though they are idolizing European ideals of fashion and taste, it could be argued that they are in some ways challenging what it means to wear these expensive brands of clothing. They have taken away what wealthy Europeans thought was exclusive to them. In a sense, the fact that these Congolese men are able to claim the right to wear these types of clothing changes the meaning of the clothing. It sort of relates back to what we were talking about earlier this semester about how low-income people buy knock-off brands to create an illusion of buying power, except the Congolese men actually buy the real thing. This may all be superficial, but I think it’s important to look more deeply into what it actually means. A comparable example of another group of people that has placed a heavy importance on appearance is the Asian community, whom has made the double eyelid surgery such a necessity. By going under the knife, on the other hand, I believe they are going to even greater extremes than the Congolese to adopt a European ideal of beauty, something that may or not be a conscious act.

  2. I definitely agree with the above comment and this is a synopsis of the argument i presented in class. I understand how to some, the sapeur men may seem foolish because they adhere to dominant culture fashion and forsake their financial burdens in pursuit of textile happiness, but on the other hand , to them this is a movement, A political manifestation of their inwardly desires and rebellion. From our cultural stance, we cannot assume that we are fully capable of understanding the logic behind this act and the pursuit of material goods as a means of statement. Therefore, I do not think anyone outside of their cultural sphere should dismiss their actions so adamantly as being foolish ( not that anyone has 🙂 ) Looking at the exquisite fashion of these men gives me much joy and while I cannot fully understand their pursuit, I appreciate the colorful addition they add to such a bleak and dismal world.

    I was also going to discuss shoes, but shoes and I have a love/hate relationship and I am positive that my shoes size changes with season. When it regulates, then perhaps I will have more of a loving relationship with these things, and be able to further expound on their importance in my life 🙂

  3. What are some other garments/items that have multiple meanings?What role does shoes play in your daily dress? Are they extremely important or are they the least significant part of your outfit? What do high heels represent?

    It’s interesting how garments have changed over time in other countries such as the ones talked about above. It made me try to think about the United States and what garments may have many meanings just in our own culture.
    I feel like a staple of America are jeans. Although jeans are purposely made in different styles and cuts certain ones have various meanings however when it comes down to it they are still jeans.

  4. After reading about the various garments that have different meanings in other cultures, it dawned upon me that I wasn’t sure if the United States had quite a specific garment that has changed over time as uniquely as these have.

    The first item I thought of were jeans and how although different styles are purposely made, different groups still identity and wear them in a certain manner. There are mom jeans or how people who are presented in an urban mannor wear them. Jeans are something that everyone in America wears and knows. Once they were a workers uniform and have transformed into a casual piece of clothing most of us wear today.

    When I realized jeans were not exactly the most specific I decided to take a look around the internet and search various phrases like”popular garments in America,” “fashion in American,” etc. I found a website that breaks down a few different stereotypes of people. Although bandanas were in the “urban” category it made me think about how those pieces of fabric are always associated with farming. I took a look at bandana history. I assumed it came about in the times of the 1930’s of the Great Dustbowl however it actually came about in 1776 when the Washington’s were celebrating their anniversary and they received a bandana with the General’s portrait on it. To keep this short I learned that they were used for marketing and advertising during WWII, various products and then transformed into ways to print music icon faces on and what not. I guess in general there is way more to the bandana than I ever could have imagined.

    When it comes to shoes I would say they play a big part of my daily life. I always need ones on I find comfortable and match my outfit. However when it comes to high heels I can’t really say they play a big part right now. I feel like i outgrew being in pain the first year of college and I’ll wait until I have to wear them next year!

  5. The missionaries’ use of the Chinese traditional garb as formal clothing wear reminds me of a scenario from the play “Death and the King’s Horsemen.” The play tells the story of life in a British colony in a country in Africa (forget which one) in the 1800’s. The antagonist and his wife dress in an outfit reserved by the locals only for recalling dead spirits to wear as a costume to a masquerade ball. This severely shocks the natives, and many won’t even speak to the antagonist directly. The antagonist and his wife brush them off, scoffing that the outfit (which they themselves confiscated) was only clothing, and meant nothing. The clothing symbolized the imperialism imposed upon the Africans, and carried intense meaning in the play, despite being “just an outfit.”

  6. Weirdly, I read your question about shoes immediately after one of my coworkers complimented me on the ones I’m wearing. They’re leopard print calf hair platform wedges, and they measure just under 6 inches. She told me they were “the most exciting shoes she’d ever seen someone wear in real life, or not on a runway.” I’m wearing them because one of my professors and I were discussing my eccentric shoe collection, and she asked me to wear them to our last lecture.
    The back story here is that I am almost never in flats anymore. Last winter, I found a pair of lase up ankle boots with incredibly good traction and a chunky 3-4 inch heel on them. Because they proved to be safer for walking across ice than my Uggs, I started wearing them every day. After the snow finally, finally melted here (last winter was awful) I found out that it had started to feel weird to wear flats. From there, I started expanding my collection of heels and wearing them as often as possible. My arches and ankles got a lot stronger after winter, so switching between heel heights was easier than ever.
    High heels have kind of become my signature, to the point that even my close friends don’t know my real height anymore…I’m just under 5’7″ but the minimum guess I get now is 5’9″. We discussed in class how height influences people’s opinion of you, and to some extent I’ve found this to be true. I feel more powerful than people who are shorter than I am, regardless as to whether I would be taller than them without my heels on.
    I’ve also noticed that some other females seem weirdly envious of the ability to walk in heels. I think this has something to do with how femininity is constructed in America. High heels have become a symbol of femininity, and therefore I feel like some girls feel slightly inadequate when they cannot walk comfortably in the heels they have on. Does anyone else feel like walking in heels is something we “need” to know how to do?
    I’ve already noticed within the past year that though my ankles are stronger, my knees hurt sometimes, and wearing the same heel height two days in a row can be painful. After graduation I’ll have to start wearing more sensible shoes, and after awhile I probably won’t be able to move in the 6 inch ones anymore. I want to be ok with that, but I do take pride in being able to run around in crazy shoes all day, every day. I’ve gotten really used to basing my outfits around them, so it’ll be a transition to start wearing flats or sensible heels for work. To me, the higher the heel (assuming I can walk in it) the more powerful I feel.

  7. What is an example of a garment that can have multiple meanings:

    I think that a suit can have multiple meanings. It can represent someone being of the middle/upper-class because there is the assumption that the individual is employed at a job that requires a suit, thus being a high-paying job. However, items of a suit can be worn very differently, as well. For example, many celebrities or musical artists wear suits as a form of self-expression, usually in a way that is “sticking it to the man”. Avril Lavigne is a great example of someone who made her own personal style out of articles of a clothing that normally make up a man’s suit. She wore the tie around her neck and often times wore ripped suit jackets. Avril wearing these articles of clothing obviously has a different meaning than a man on the train wearing a suit to work.

    Another example is different types of scarves. In the media we often see images of women in different African countries wearing scarves around their heads. These scarves are part of the culture in certain African countries, and are often times worn to keep their heads out of the sunlight. However, in the United States if you see a college student wearing a scarf around her head it means something completely different. A college student wearing a scarf is a marker of a type of style, usually being bohemian. There are other examples of clothing items that are culturally significant in other countries, or worn for functionality that are worn in America as a sort of youthful style.

  8. High heels definitely represent a sense of strong femininity. A woman looks up to another than can do anything in heels, let alone walk in them. Personally, my friends and I always comment on celebrities such a Beyonce who are able to practically live their lives in the highest of heels out there. Though I probably wouldn’t have said this a few years ago, heels can also represent a sense of power as well. You hear all of the time that men don’t like their women to be taller than them and vice versa. If that includes a date night out with your boyfriend with heels on and your taller them, most women try to avoid that. This is interesting because I feel as though this plays into gender roles…why is it that the man must be taller? In our society, it is looked upon highly if the man is the “head of the household” or the “bread winner”…interesting to think about how height may play into this. When you think tall, you think more men than women. In conclusion, yes, I think many cultures especially within America possess a superficial mentality. We always tend to equate clothes with some type of meaning whether that be positive or negative.

  9. Reflecting on your question about clothing items that have changed meaning over time, I started thinking about my own wardrobe, and what clothes might be interpreted differently on different people and in different contexts. The first thing I thought of was shoes (which is interesting because one of the other main questions for this post was about shoes). I feel like my shoe collection almost entirely consists of sneakers (“kicks”) and boots. I thought this was funny because pretty much all of the shoes I own for fashion or whatever were originally for a totally different purpose. For example, all of my kicks were probably originally the style of shoe that was invented to use for sports (high tops for basketball, DC/Etnies for skating or whatever). Also, my cowboy boots and combat boots, I realized, were originally – obviously – types of shoes that were invented for totally different purposes than I use them for (obviously) too. Combat boots are especially interesting because they’ve had varous types of ideas attached to them over time – like, they’ve even been a staple of the punk scene wardrobe. Anyway, sorry if this comment is too much of a digression from the original post. I just found these thoughts interesting, as they were incited by this discussion.

  10. I think these kids should be able to spend there money however they please. Fashion is a form of expression and I don’t think that they are straying from their culture by participating in buying these things. In America we borrow from other cultures to change our fashion, so I think it should be ok for them to do the same. I think it is funny when people talk about cultures changing because there perceptions of different cultures are viewed to still wearing traditional wear. For me its like Americans perceived as still wearing petticoats.

  11. If I could wear heels everyday, I just might because of the power it projects. I’m 5’8 1/2 and yes I understand I’m taller than the average American woman, but so what! I look at heels as a platform to display my confidence. It something about the way the heel reshapes an untoned leg, or forces you walk like a model on the catwalk. Maybe I’m thinking to deep, but this type of shoe commands attention when a woman steps into a room. High heels represents a powerful skill because not everyone can pull if off because it may be difficult for someone walk, but most importantly it can help weed out the bad apples aka men. Why is it that men are intimately by women who are taller than them? Do they feel less of a man because their lady maybe a few inches taller? What is the root of this insecurity? So to answer your question: the heel plays a “nightly”role in my life. Still trying to build my collection as a college student. They are significant part of my outfits because it’s the concluding or “make or break” piece to my ensemble.

  12. I think it is interesting that la Sape is positioned by Gondola as a means for authentication and validation among Congolese youth. Also interesting is that sapeurs see themselves as coming from a legacy directly tied to colonialism, and a ‘proper education’. This meaning is significant because it speaks to the way clothing may hold many different signs, or work within multiple systems of meaning. While young Congolese ‘dandies’ may be going to extremes to obtain fashions directly linked to white colonials, but I can also read those fashions as a giant “f you!” to those same colonials who might see the right to elegant fashions as a clear, true marker of (colonial) power.

    Although this isn’t necessarily clothing, I feel that tattoos have multiple meanings (and not just because they are often personal!) in that they are read in conjunction with the body that they adorn. I think this is particularly interesting where class is concerned- I have often overheard the critique of tattooing as a practice directly tied to ‘rebellion’ in middle-class kids…yet, I see my tattoos in response to those of all of my totally working-class uncles (i have quite a few) and my own dad, most of whom have some kind of silly ‘badass’ tattoo. My dad, although now estranged ,even once offered to go with me to the shop when i got my first tattoo (he had already assumed i would get one, I now realize)…and that feels pretty far off from a bratty notion of ‘rebelling’ against my (not so) middle-class parents.

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