DRESS CULTURE AND NATIONAL INTEGRATION
A forthnight ago, the Nigerian Institute of Cultural Orientation, under the committed leadership of its Executive Secretary, Barclays Ayakoroma held its sixth Roundtable on Dress Culture. At the previous year's edition,
I gave a keynote address under the above title. Offer excepts of that talk to readers of this column, in two parts for this week and the next.
Let me preamble this talk with a few epigrams which are germane to the discourse that follows:
Cloth only wears, it does not die'
This is a Bunu saying which stresses the power of cloth as a symbol of continuing social relations and identities in the face of uncertainty and death.
A child may have more clothes than the elder, but he does not have as many rags as he does
This is a popular Yoruba idiom.
A hood does not make a monk
To which I add; A hood makes known a monk
May your garment be made of changeable taffeta?
For thy mind is very opal
(William Shakespeare; Twelfth Night.)
As this essay will adopt the rhetorical strategy of digressive anecdote, the above statements shall be brought in recurrently to expound the subject of dress, its codes, its culture and its essence as a force of identity, social cohesion and integration. It will be quite informal indeed, but it is hoped that it will sufficiently whet our appetite for this menu.
I do not intend here to delve extensively into definitional, conceptual issues of the key constituents of this Workshop theme—which are, culture, dress, nation and integration. All culture workers, intellectuals and consumers, have become very familiar with what culture means and ramifies for any civilization. We know that it adds up to connote and denote the way we produce, distribute and exchange our lives in both material and intangible senses. We also know that culture summarizes, reflects, and refracts life's very essence—economy, politics, sociology—its productivity and superstructure. What about nation, nationhood, the nation-state and the struggle for actualization of national essence through nationalism?
Integration implies meshing into whole, disparate and diverse matters—ideas, peoples, cultures and so on. It is about fusing diffuse issues, ideas, notions and groups. And, of course, dress—the outcome of 'damages, recreation and re-making of clothes, to cover and uncover our bodies—to give shape, aesthetic pleasure, value, sense, form and meaning to clothes that we put on to protect and cover ourselves, hide our outer selves or indeed project our inner beings. Dress is also about attracting attention to ourselves and distracting from ourselves for appreciation and for depreciation. When we take all these together, we can then have a working definition of our theme.
It is the study of the ways in which dress is use in particular and universal contexts over time to bring people together in consciousness, identities and realities for improved living, and for socio-economic developmental terms. In other words how does the culture of dress harmonize, unite and integrate a people?
Let us begin to ask the basic and fundamental questions of this workshop.
How do dress codes, dress cultures and dress phenomenon help define us -our character, our essence, particularities and disparities?; How far does the dress culture of an Indian identify him or set him apart from a Pakistani or an Arab? ; How does the dress culture of a Yoruba distinguish him from a Fulani?; How do national identities emerge from dress cultures and how do those identities help unite, integrate or harmonize a people?; How do dress mark out vocations, professions and engagements?; To what extent does a hood make a monk? Or does not make a monk?; Can we still recognize a monk outside his hood? To what extent does his appearance define and reflect our personality, our character, abilities, competences?; Can we distinguish between a monk and a teacher or even a lawyer if he does non put on his monk? and to what extent can our dress culture integrate us? In other words, how can we make our dress culture function as an instrument of national integration?
These then are some of the critical questions that we need to raise towards advancing adequate understanding and apprehension strategies for this topic.
Let us begin with dress as a code of various forms of identity. My attention has recently been drawn to a perception of self, nation, economic situation and essence through what could be regarded as mere inscriptions on dress—in this instance, a T-shirt. This came from the opening paragraph of E.C. Osondu's short story, 'Waiting', which won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2009. Our attention was drawn to this opening paragraph by the frontline African scholar-poet, Tanure Ojaide, in a keynote Address he gave at the Olu Obafemi International Conference (Ilorin; 2010). It is worth quoting in full to illustrate the relationship between a dress, its inscription and ideology or self-perception in a given, deprived, dehumanized, refugee, socio-economic context: My name is Orlando Zaki. Orlando Zaki is taken from Orlando, Florida, which is written on the t-shirt given to me by the Red Cross. Zaki is the name of the town where I was found and from where I was brought to the refugee camp.
My friends in the camp are known by the inscriptions written on their t-shirts. Acapulco wears a t-shirt with the inscription, Acapulco. Sexy's t-shirt has the inscription Tell me I'm Sexy. Pari's t-shirt says See Paris and die. When she is coming toward me I close my eyes because I don't want to die. Even when one gets a new t-shirt, your old name stays with you… There was a girl in the camp once whose t-shirt said Got Milk? She threw the t-shirt away because some of the boys in the camp were always pressing her breasts forcefully to see if they had milk. You cannot know what will be written on your t-shirt. We struggle and fight for them and count ourselves lucky that we got anything at all. Take Lousy for instance; his t-shirt says My Dad Went To Yellowstone And Got Me This Lousy T-shirt.
He cannot fight, so he's not been able to get another one and has been wearing the same t-shirt since he came to the camp. Though what is written on it is now faded, the name has stuck. Some people are lucky: London had a t-shirt that said London and is now in London. He's been adopted by a family over there. Maybe I will find a family in Orlando, Florida, that will adopt me.
Inscriptions on a dress carry the identity(ies) of a community of refugees united by their common poverty, the anonymity of the status of dis-inherited-ness. Just look at our streets and army of youths, even nowadays elders, university dons and members of the monied elite who wear t-shirts with inscriptions and colours of football teams in Europe—Arsenal, Man U, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barco—and so on. Our nationals are integrated, through their jersey dresses, to their teams in other lands. We do not carry the dress with name codes and tags of our nation and can thus not be integrated by it, alas! The point I am trying to make, by extended inference, is that dress cultures can and have been found to be appropriated for national integration, elsewhere, even of a misplaced patrimony like ours, who kill ourselves for the sweat merchants and clubs of nations other than our own. Dresses have served foreign integration interest. On our land, we yawn and yearn for culture, any culture dress or nay, to provide focus for our national integration.
Next, let us examine the various uses of cloths. I am going to concentrate on particularistic, ethno-national, historico-traditional worldview of cloths as veritable material for the production of dress culture and contextualize its national import in the firm belief that, as I have severally argued, national cultures grow out of the assemblage and ultimate integration of geo-ethnic cultures. This is particularly true of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria where several hundreds of cultures have converged to produce a nation-state in the undying, often unedifying, throes of combat. In the Nigerian contexts, each major polity is marked out, identified, and best perceived through the uses it makes of clothes and the meaning it invests in clothes—and its ultimate product—dresses. Rennie P. Elisha, who embarked on a very important and original study of Bunu clothes with the title Cloth That Does Not Die, quoted Emile Durkheim who clarified the 'benefits of society for the individual' by 'observing the importance of material things in conveying specific ideas and sentiments. With particular regard for cloths, he observed that 'things exhibit a certain dialectical quality in that they are invested with meaning but may themselves be integral to the reproduction of ideas as they contribute to group unity in time and space. Elisha further contends the social cohesion value of cloths—indeed old cloths— thus:
Old cloths kept and handed down from ancestors are associated with past beliefs and practices. Their value is derived from this connection with the past and with the number of individuals previously associated with those cloths. They harbour 'inalienable wealth', to use the coinage of Weiner (1985) as they form basis upon which individual and group identities rest. In Bunuland where I come from, cloths carry ancestral and spiritual values and are thus preserved and regarded with ultimate veneration. Cloths have ceremonial relevance for the occasions of 'birth and rebirth, representing 'beginning of social and spiritual identity for individuals' Elisha (p.5) At birth, a child born naked is 'swaddled, covered and carried with special cloths' to provide a 'womb-like security and social identity'.
When a person dies, he or she is also covered with plenty of cloths, to, in the cultural worldview of that society, support them on their journeys to the next world. When people, in fad or fashion, especially in this modern age, dress skimpily or scantily, revealing much of the parts of the body that ought to be covered, there is a sense of scorn or indeed spite. Fashion-bound dresses such as miniskirts, bikinis, see-through and so on are frowned at by the older generation and religious bodies.