Fashion as Activism: Fusing Indigenous Textiles with the Modern World

Credit: Jeffrey Warner
Why you need to know

A blend of high fashion and tradition is helping some Taiwan indigenous groups reinvigorate and restore their millennia-old cultural heritage.

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Tefi Takanu, an elder of the indigenous Amis tribe and professional clothing designer, sat gratified and empowered. She had just finished watching the S’uraw Atayal Fashion Show featuring her son, who along with several other indigenous youth, had strutted his stuff in a catwalk fashion show.

The models, an eight-person “family of brothers and sisters,” were showing off a unique fusion of colorful, multi-patterned indigenous clothing and modern fashion during an event at the Taipei International Travel Fair (TITF). The fair was held Oct. 27-30 at the World Trade Center to promote tourism and cultural exchange.

“The designers are trying to blend traditional indigenous clothing styles with modern clothing concepts to promote the culture of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples,” said Takanu, 56, who has 30 years of indigenous clothing design experience and has participated in fashion shows for a decade.

“The goal is to have modern people know more about Taiwan’s indigenous peoples' cultures.”

Paljaljim Galuvu (a.k.a. Yupin Sean), one of the indigenous models, said: “Indigenous clothing is very special. Indigenous people in Taiwan are also very special. Not many people know about our indigenous ways. We want people to know us.”

The fabric of ‘indigenous’ soft power activism

The S’uraw Atayal Fashion Show and other modern-day indigenous clothing initiatives are designed to promote activism by fusing fashion and heritage. This, for these indigenous people, is a form of soft power in a country where they have been historically oppressed.

The catwalk display at (TITF) was the latest of many that have run since a first event held in 2010. The most recent large-scale show was in October 2015, in Taiwan’s Shei-Pa National Park.

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Credit: Jeffrey Warner
To make this elaborate dance happen requires seamless teamwork. ... Here, Elle New, an organizer and makeup artist for the "S’uraw Atayal Fashion Show," worked diligently to spruce up the models — helping them look and feel their best. Meanwhile, other team members did their parts.


The “S'uraw” organizers and clothing designers are part of the “Miaoli County Indigenous Arts and Crafts Association,” located among the Mepuwal tribe in Tai’an Township, Miaoli County, western Taiwan. According to the organization, its founder, Yuma Taru, has scoured museums around the globe for two decades in a bid to find and retrieve Taiwan’s totems the sacred totems belonging to Taiwan indigenous peoples.

Yuma also founded a school for ethnic indigenous culture integration that focuses on youth education and, according to the organization, retrieving cultural elements related to “the souls of our ancestors,” and “sacred clothing.”

S’uraw is a mountainous area located in central Taiwan. "Sear" in the Gearsya Atayal language means “dye” and "uraw" means “land.” This region is where many of Taiwan’s indigenous people from different tribes used to gather for centuries, exchange information and life experiences, as well as dye and assemble handmade clothing.

These traditions have waned over recent decades. Takanu said that given the indigenous people in Taiwan’s social movement in Taiwan to revive centuries-old cultural norms, many clothing designers wanted to return to S’uraw and collaborate with local communities to create this unique clothing line.

They adopted the “S’uraw” name for their clothing line because it is literally connected to indigenous traditions and metaphorically captures the idea of people working in partnership, according to Takanu.

The group’s traditional weaving is influenced by the Atayal tribe style. However, “S’uraw” workshops include many different ethnic groups; participants do not have to use Atayal elements.

The weaving material is traditionally made from the stalk fibers of ramie, a flowering plant native to eastern Asia. It is one of the oldest fiber crops, having been used for at least 6,000 years. The S’uraw area also offers a distinct dark gray soil type and an array of other natural materials such as roots, berries, and flowers that are used to dye the cloth. The final product is called “dye yam.”

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Credit: Jeffrey Warner
Tefi Tenaku and her son Fuyan Sawaya prepare for a catwalk show.
Fashion as statement

Social-cultural anthropologist and theorist in globalization studies Arjun Appadurai, who focuses on the modernity of nation states and globalization, said in a 1986 article that, “In all societies consumption is socially regulated. However, in non-capitalist societies there are no consumers; consumption is regulated by tradition. In contrast, in capitalist societies consumption is regulated by fashion.”

Takanu said that the purpose for modern-day indigenous peoples fusing the traditional with the modern like this is, in fact about fashion. “We want to present the brands and concepts to the world,” she said.

Takanu, separate from S’uraw, runs her own workshops in partnership with other indigenous clothing designers. Her Wind Color designs, like S'uraw, integrate modern fashion trends with traditional indigenous textile patterns. However, Takanu's designs focus more specifically on individual indigenous groups. One clothing design may be more specific to Atayal, or Amis, for example.

Takanu comes from Makerahay, an Amis village in Taitung, southeast Taiwan. Even though she was raised in a family of artists, Takanu said that nobody believed in her when she began creating her fusion styles several decades ago. Only after her creations became successful did she receive support from the indigenous community.

This fusion of modern and traditional styles simply didn't exist when she was young.

“We didn't believe that we could wear our own clothing outside of our towns or villages, because it was too traditional,” said Takanu. “I wanted to promote our culture and make something different, so that our people could wear our clothing outside of the village, too.”

“… But now the (Taiwan) government has been promoting indigenous culture, even in elementary schools.”

The Amis tribe is the largest in Taiwan and is divided into more than 100 different sub-groups. Takanu is mindful of potentially misinterpreting the cultures of other ethnic groups. Therefore, she stays within the parameters of what she knows.

“Our culture can influence the cultures of other tribes,” she said. “Of course, my designs are going to be majorly influenced by Amis culture because I understand Amis culture more than those of the other ethnic groups.” She therefore stays within the parameters of what she knows.

Takanu also said that many non-indigenous people think it is not okay for indigenous people to regularly wear their traditional clothing in public, adding that many Taiwanese people don't understand indigenous people. “But now the government has been promoting indigenous culture, even in elementary schools. For example, indigenous languages are being offered and taught. Even non-indigenous students can study them.”

There are also many activities and events in Taiwan, like the fashion show, where the public can learn more. “This is a good chance for non-indigenous people to know more about our cultures,” said Takanu, explaining that the events help raise the profile of what it means to be indigenous.

Takanu said that it is not problematic if someone from one indigenous tribe wears clothing from another tribe or culture. “This is like a blending of different indigenous peoples,” she said, adding that the clothing line is suitable for any ethnic group.

She also said that one of the primary concerns of her community is the mixing of indigenous and Chinese cultures. Moreover, the indigenous youth of today are living in a different world than when she was young.

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Credit: Jeffrey Warner
When the catwalk display was all said and done, the exhausted models in-relief took a moment's pause to joke with each other and pop a few selfies.

The influences are different. Most younger indigenous people in Taiwan live in cities. Their mindset and knowledge of indigenous cultures differs markedly from that of their elders. Therefore, updated approaches to the transference of indigenous knowledge are needed.

“Blending is the nature of these younger generations.” said Takanu. “I want the younger indigenous generations to know the traditions of their ancestors.

“But in these modern times, if they want the public to accept or understand the beauty of indigenous peoples, then there must be some change in the way their culture is presented.” This fusion-style clothing is therefore chosen based on current fashion trends, on the model, and vice versa.

“I want to say to the younger generations that you have to pass down the cultures of our ancestors to the next generation. … And, study more. Learn knowledge from the books. This is very important too.”

“Young aboriginal people do not understand their own culture. I think this is a big responsibility [for us as indigenous youth leaders] to do something.”

Models Paljaljim Galuvu, Dremedreman Giling, Erica (Rungi Wusay), Tjaiwan Giling Adriana Samunanu, Ljavuras lja ljatalingadan (Brian Chen), Syat Yupas and Fuyan Sawaya huddled together after their moment on the runway.

As the group talked in a mixture of Chinese and English, 26-year-old Galuvu served as the group’s voice.

When asked about how Taiwanese society perceives aboriginal peoples, he said that indigenous people in Taiwan are still thought of negatively and discriminated against.

“In Taiwan, people always think that aboriginals do not good things. … They don’t like us,” said Galuvu, who is part of the indigenous Paiwan tribe in Pingtung County, southern Taiwan. “This fashion show is a powerful tool for getting people to see us. We want to wear our clothing and for people to stop and say, ‘Oh, Wow! That is so cool!’”

Galuvu stressed the importance of indigenous clothing and its links to identity.

“Before, aboriginal people knew their culture,” said Galuvu. “But now young aboriginal people do not understand their own culture. I think this is a big responsibility [for us as indigenous youth leaders] to do something. I think it is up to us.”

Galuvu does not wear his indigenous clothing every day. He wears it “only at ceremonies … because our traditional clothing is very important,” and because mainstream society may not be so accepting. “But when we take off these clothes, we know who we are inside; we are aboriginal!”

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Credit: Jeffrey Warner
The catwalk show during by day involved preparations through the night. This included makeup, catwalk strut practice, as well trying on the (some, newly designed) clothing. They had to collaboratively decide on who was going to wear which outfits. Here (from front to back) Fuyan Sawaya, Tjaiwan Giling, and Brian Chen share in a playful moment.

This modeling experience has positively changed him; it has taught him about many things.

Galuvu described how indigenous clothing has different colors and patterns, and every pattern has a story.

“So, when we wear this clothing it is like we have a teacher who is telling us a story,” said Galuvu. “When we wear another tribe's clothing, one shirt can tell us about their history – their story.”

What would does he want to say to the world?

“Please come to us. Please understand us.”

For this article, lots of special thanks goes to Benson Ko-Chou Fang for the interview translating, to Dr. P. Kerim Friedman, as well as to Elle New and Tobie Openshaw, among others, for their helpful input.


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