A “Tribal” Look: What Does That Really Mean?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were talking about a new player in our role-playing game (RPG) server I frequent. They described the character the new player had as interesting. I did not argue against it. I heard the character of interest worshiped Pharaonic gods from older times in Egypt. Okay. Cool.

Then I saw what their character wore.

Skimpy clothes.

I told my friend I thought the person may have been interesting, and only was befuddled by the chosen clothing. My friend said the person was trying to go for a “tribal” look. This gave me pause.

To be clear: I have no issue with little clothing on characters, and I am not interested in “slut-shaming” anyone, real or imagined. My pause has nothing to do with that here. I also am not saying the character in question does not have value, either. However, scant-clad clothing styles as an attempt to look “tribal” invites scrutiny for several reasons.

One, the term “tribal” at best paints a very broad stroke. It often is used for describing indigenous (or even analog indigenous) people, or people who are at the margins. There are myriad tribes around the world. Below are some examples of wear among tribes and indigenous peoples in Việt Nam.

H'Hen Niê in traditional garments from the Ede Community. https://e.vnexpress.net/news/travel-life/beauty-queen-to-focus-on-preserving-ethnic-minority-traditions-3866609.html
H’Hen Niê in traditional garments from the Ede Community. VNExpress.Net. (13, January 2019). Retrieved from https://e.vnexpress.net/news/travel-life/beauty-queen-to-focus-on-preserving-ethnic-minority-traditions-3866609.html
Cham women performing a traditional dance in Nha Trang, Việt Nam. Original image information: Danses Cham, by Jeremy Couture. (Unknown Date). Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/29175897@N08/2830426715
Cham women as presented in the article titled, “Vietnamese Ethnic Traditional Clothing.” They are wearing one of the variations of the áo dài, a garment borrowed from Cham culture. (Date Unknown). Retrieved from https://www.vietnamvisa-easy.com/blog/vietnamese-ethnic-traditional-female-costumes/

So “tribal” can mean many traits, and at best, is an ambiguous term. Above are three different photographs of women in traditional wear from their respective communities, in “tribal” or indigenous war. Nowhere here do people see the “bra and loincloth” look. These examples do not even touch the diversity found in the Native American or African communities, other regions of Asia, or even Việt Nam for that matter.

Secondly, despite what I have said, I had an “idea” of what was meant by the term “tribal” according to the person choosing the scant-clad wear. The irony does not evade me. This, unfortunately, comes from how I have seen the monolithic, often problematic portrayal of “tribal” clothing in mainstream American culture, especially on women considered from a tribe. Walt Disney’s Pocahontas is but one example, the number of people who appropriate Native wear at festivals is another. It has become a stereotype written and painted in literature, art, and really, media as a whole. Even in some of my favorite past times and hobbies, I have not been immune to seeing these stereotypes and had to learn later that these imaginings are, indeed, problematic stereotypes.

This outcome – the outcome but not “intention” – from having these perpetuations of the stereotype are we have people who really believe this is how “tribal” clothes look.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

Even in the cases of “less” clothing being accurate (spoiler: it often is not) for specific niches, the assumption still remains faulty. Acting on the assumption by creating artwork, written or painted, with that look for tribal or indigenous peoples feeds into these stereotypes. I want to believe there is more to a character with this sort of wear, that they are a character versus a caricature. There is no denying this style of clothing selected by the creator of the character of interest is a result of a lack of understanding of “tribal” wear historically, a limited sense of cultural competency (of which we can all do better having).

At worse, the person is willfully feeding into imagery that has been used to dehumanize indigenous people, especially their women. Similar stereotypes, though not the same, regarding clothing wear have been applied toward a number of women of color in history, especially when depicting them in art and literature. None need to go further than the artwork used for the display picture of Edward Said’s famous book, Orientalism, where the author criticizes the Othering of people, especially natives to North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

First edition image of Orientalism, by Edward Said.
First edition cover for the work, “Orientalism,” by Edward Said. This cover uses part of the work called “The Snake Charmer” (1880), an Orientalist painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). Retrieved from the book cover of the work.

I want to invite the person in question to have a conversation about this. Unfortunately, I have evidence-based reason to believe the said person may not receive it well from me. So I write this, hoping my friends with a better relationship or proximity to the person can have that conversation in place. I hope people can re-think why they might pick clothing styles they do for their characters.

Said with love,


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