Why Anthropology Matters to Fashion and Retail

Fashion is far from frivolous. The location of dress on the borders of the body, facing both inwards and outwards, makes it something decidedly interesting and important. Its capacity to shape the body even as it is detachable from it, its portability and its distribution and consumption have made it a rich medium for studying the symbolic and material dimensions of self-formation, cultural interaction, human-object relations and globalization.  Fashion tells us about how we construct our place in the world, how we conceive of tools in various contexts and how we interact.  For retailers, those are pretty significant things that go well beyond price points and sales.

Anthropological studies of global fashion circuits demonstrate the many ways ideas of tradition and fashion are articulated and reworked. They trace how apparently traditional dress and textiles such as Scottish tartans or Indian home-spun cottons emerged at particular historical junctures as ‘”invented traditions”, redefining regional and national identities and ushering in social and political change. That means they come to demonstrate the strategic implementation of the classification ‘”traditional” by local groups as they adapt regional dress to suit cosmopolitan tastes for the indigenous, the exotic and the ethnic.

Using Asia as an example, fashion traces the multidirectional flow of ideas as designers in the West incorporate elements of Eastern fashions, contributing to the re-popularization of Japanese kimonos, Indian Salwar kamizes and Vietamese ao dais amongst Asians back home and in diaspora, some of whom also participate as designers and producers of Asian chic. In a postmodern world, where boundaries are blurred they tell us about how power is shifting and “culture” is a commodity. Some anthropologists interpret this as a form of self-Orientalism by which cultural differences become reduced to a performative fashion statement of Asianness; others see it as a sign that previously marginalized communities have become significant actors in the global economy by creating, wearing and marketing new hybrid Asian-inspired designs.

And from a business perspective, it means that there are opportunities and challenges that go well beyond the spreadsheet and distribution model.  It means that understanding the complex interplay between history, politics and culture factor into any good marketing plan and launch strategy. As retailers look for new markets and expand into new regions they need to be aware of how fashion represents identity or suffer financial setbacks.  China is more inclined to adopt Westerns brands as symbols of modernity and status, while India is more likely to stick with traditional dress.  While that may change, being aware of the reasons behind the current state and the probability of change are important if you plan to open shop abroad.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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