Fashion as fetish: The agency of modern clothing and traditional body decoration among North Mekeo of Papua New Guinea

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Abstract

    Anthropologists and others have recently argued that Papua New Guineans' contemporary patterns of consumption including Western clothing fashions have become critical components of commodification, modernization, globalization, and the creation of individualistic personal identities in alignment with the nation-state. This paper suggests, however, that among North Mekeo the contemporary adoption of Western clothing styles also embodies additional meanings continuous with preexisting indigenous practices having to do with ceremonial body decoration, courting, and love magic. Personal adornment with items of manufactured youth apparel (T-shirts, jeans, name-brand sneakers, knitted caps, etc) is nowadays regarded by villagers as ritually "hot," or capable of changing people's minds similarly to the decorations and love charms previously employed in the colorful ceremonial dress and dancing performed at the conclusion of mortuary feasts. The view of personhood, agency, and gift exchange supposedly distinctive to "traditional" Melanesian cultures (ie, the so-called "New Melanesian Ethnography") is employed in a novel way to analyze the historical transformation of bakai ceremonial dress and display into the clothing styles and fashion of villagers today. North Mekeo ritual agency in both traditional and contemporary fashions is shown to consist in the exchange dynamics of "dividual" or "partible persons" involving bodily zones of inside, outside, outside-inverted, and inside-everted, analogous to Alfred Gell's basic technical schema for Polynesian tattooing and armature (1993). This paper thus brings together for a wide circle of Pacific scholars some of the more innovative theoretical developments in Melanesian and Polynesian anthropology of recent decades, highlighting particularly their suitability for the analysis of historical change and transformation.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)39-83
    JournalThe Contemporary Pacific
    Volume19
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2007

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