10 Cultural Universals: Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements

Last week, we talked about the dignity of food culture with tips from Anthony Bourdain.

This week, we’ll discuss another topic within the same theme of cultural fundamentals: clothing.

Grouped together with food, shelter, and transport, clothing is one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

It’s easy to understand why.

Clothing viscerally represents culture in a way that’s often traditional, fashionable, and practical, all at once.

Clothing tradition also evolves with the times, as we’ll discuss in the section below, entitled “Cultural Clothing Movements.”

Tradition

In many parts of the world, traditional clothing has gone by the wayside, traded in for modern Western clothing.

Or, in some cases, traditional dress is worn only for special occasions, like births, weddings, funerals, or other big life events.

In some parts of the world, however, traditional clothing is still everyday wear.

For instance, it is not uncommon to see the Newar people of Nepal wearing traditional woven clothing in everyday life.

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Women’s dress is called Kurta Suruwal and includes a patterned blouse, covered by a draped scarf, and loose pants cinched around the ankles.

If married, women also wear Tika – a red powder – on the browline of their forehead.

Fashion

Many Nepali men, on the other hand, have transitioned to Western wear. It’s more common to see men wearing jeans and t-shirts or button-ups than it is to see them in traditional garb.

In this way, some part of Nepali culture has moved away from the traditional to what might be considered modern fashion.

Cultural Clothing Movements

Sometimes, culture evolves as social freedoms do. Often, it takes a movement to progress these changes.

For instance, in the case of forced hijab in Iran.

For nearly forty years, Iranian social codes have obliged women to wear the hijab in public. This has been Iranian law since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

But recently, with the help of social media, widespread protest of forced hijab has compelled some to shed or revolt against this cultural tradition.

This protest is not a complete rejection of the tradition or the hijab, itself. Rather, many believe it should be a woman’s right to choose whether she wears the hijab or not.

Masih Alinejad is one of the advocates driving this movement for social change. Alinejad started a Facebook page in 2014 called My Stealthy Freedom, in which she posts pics of Iranian women out in public, removing their hijabs.

While the regime has cracked down on the revolt, the campaign for freeing women of forced hijab is going strong and may just result in a cultural clothing revolution.

This is how clothing traditions evolve and how culture, inevitably, changes.

When Cultures Collide: A Profound Conflict of Values

We’ve talked about what can happen when physical or time limitations prevent full cross cultural integration. We’ve talked about what can happen when your own discomfort with another culture’s norms gets in the way of adapting.

But what happens when there are certain behaviors and norms you don’t want to adapt to due to your own deep-seated cultural values?

This is where cross cultural issues can cause some real friction.

The Headscarf

One example is, of course, the cultural norm of wearing a headscarf.

In some Muslim countries, it is not government mandated for women to wear a headscarf (hijab). Unless you’re visiting a mosque, it’s an optional behavior, for native people and for tourists.

However, if you visit or work in a Muslim country where women must wear a headscarf by law, like Saudi Arabia, then you are faced with a norm rooted in cultural values that directly contradict your own.

While wearing a headscarf is easy enough to do, it’s the values that the headscarf symbolize that many Westerners reject. Freedom of choice is the foundation of Western culture.

If you refuse to adapt to the practice in a country for which it is law to wear the headscarf, or in a country which, more or less, abides by the religious practice, you may not ever fully integrate into the culture, and you may face legal punishment.

What do you do in this case?

To Adapt or Not to Adapt

To adapt or not to adapt, that is the question.

If you are someone who is living and working abroad, and you’re interested in fully integrating into the culture (and I’m guessing you are, if you’re reading this blog), then when facing conflicts like this one, where you feel you will betray your own values by adapting to another’s, you have two choices:

  1. Avoid the situation, altogether; or,
  2. Explain your rationale

In choosing #1, you would refrain from travel to countries where hijabs or burkas are required.

The latter choice is more of a gamble. You must explain your rationale in a way that does not diminish your foreign counterparts’ cultural norm or tradition.

And no matter how diplomatic you are about it, you’re assuming that your foreign counterpart will respect your rationale…which won’t always be the case. 

Not Optional

Some adaptions may not be optional. Awareness and acceptance won’t be enough in situations where cultural values and norms run deep.

So, when living and working in a foreign culture, do your homework beforehand and come prepared to adapt your behavior regarding strict norms and values, whether they fall in line with yours or not.