Polyvalency and the ironies of cultural identity.pdf

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See discussions, stats, and author profiles for this publication at: The predicament of dress: Polyvalency and the ironies of cultural identity Article in American Ethnologist · May 1999 DOI: 10.1525/ae.1999.26.2.389 CITATIONS 35 READS 230 1 author: Some of the authors of this publication are also working on these related projects: In Press: Elusive Adulthoods: The Anthropology of New Maturities, ed. Deborah Durham and Jacqueline Solway (Indiana University Press, 2017 - probably October) View project Deborah Durham Longwood University 17 PUBLICATIONS 454 CITATIONS SEE PROFILE All content following this page was uploaded by Deborah Durham on 21 January 2016. The user has requested enhancement of the downloaded file.
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the predicament of dress: polyvalency and the ironies of cultural identity DEBORAH DURHAM— Sweet Briar College Tswana with whom I spoke in Botswana often "exposed" the sweeping and cumbrous Herero long dresses as a fraud. These dresses are of Western origin, they would tell me; they were copied from the white missionaries. Like anthropologists, these interpreters of cultural practice also tried to pinpoint a "true meaning" for the dress. In doing so, they effectively strip Herero women of colorful but superficial investitures to disclose the real people—universal human- ity—underneath. In Botswana, only Herero women routinely wear "traditional ethnic" clothing. Divesting them of any implied ethnic purity, these Tswana comments assimilated Herero into the broader population of citizens of Botswana, who wear more contemporary Western-style dress. When I asked government officials about the ethnic composition of the broader popula- tion, they would always answer, "We are all Batswana here." By this, they meant that ethnic identity does not differentiate citizenship, that they are all citizens of the Botswana state. But they used the Tswana language term Batswana (Tswana people) instead of the more neutral batho ba Botswana (people of Botswana). Herero, too, recognized Tswana hegemony over the terms of everyday life and citizenship in their own term for unmarked, Western-style dress (ozombanda otjitjawana, Tswana-style clothing). 1 Following the lead of my Tswana interlocutors, in this article I, too, look critically at the Herero dress—not to uncover the universal and naked humanity underneath, but to examine the multiple layers of underskirts that support the outfit. Instead of reducing its meaning, I hope to retain the color of the dress, the sense of wearing it, the uncertainty and the ironic sensibility it provoked in Herero women in Mahalapye, Botswana, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the period of my fieldwork. Herero often use the dress as an unambiguous, straightforward icon of Herero identity—for example, a woman in the dress figured centrally in all logos debated over the years for the Herero Youth Association (see Durham 1995a). Similarly, the ethnic label "Herero" was rarely, if ever, questioned for its validity. But the full meaning of both the dress and the label was much less assured. The very women who proposed the logo—women who
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