These fashion tribes use personal style to rage against political oppression

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The boys of the Izikhothane subculture in South Africa love Gucci, Armani and Christian Louboutin and so they beg their parents for money to put together thousand-dollar outfits. Then they take to the streets, dancing in epileptic swivels to do ‘battle’ with other crews over who has the most expensive clothes — clothes that they sometimes deliberately burn.

“Our youth must be addicted to reading; not drugs, alcohol or Izikhothane culture,” the deputy president of South Africa urged. But in a post-Mandela country where half the population lives in poverty and government corruption is almost expected, the participants find escape in these extreme displays of wealth and destruction. They rip up money and pour water on cellphones to show that expensive goods are disposable to them. The inflation of their wealth is their source of social capital, and therefore, their most prized possession.

The Izikhothane is one of the subcultures of the world that weaponize clothing against oppression, photographed for the book “Fashion Tribes” by Daniele Tamagni. (Abrams, 2015)

On the other side of the world are the lesser known female counterparts to lucha libre wrestlers: The flying cholitas. In contrast to the superhero-costumed men, the Bolivian women dropkick each other in a flurry of traditional petticoats.

“My motto is ‘Combine strength and violence with grace and elegance,’” says cholita Polonia Ana Choque Silvestre in “Fashion Tribes.” The full look also features an elaborately-embroidered pollera skirt, a tassled shawl, gold and silver jewelry, sleek black braids, and ballerina flats—all topped with a carefully balanced bowler hat.

Though outwardly flashy, the style has many subtle layers of meaning. The pollera skirt comes from a time of Spanish rule, when colonizers forced it upon the Aymara Indians. They were pressed for years into the lower strata of society, and even 60 years ago, these indigenous people were still not considered not high class enough to walk freely at the historical heart of La Paz, Plaza Murillo. Now the outfit’s extravagance has come to also represent their increasing political stature and spending power. Indigenous women have now served in President Evo Morales’s cabinet and some are getting better jobs in offices and banks. Today, the cholita is taking control of the meaning of garments that used to symbolize social and economic oppression.

Fashion can function as more than a one-way broadcast about who you are. It can lead to higher social status, meaning more food, better shelter and richer relationships, says evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller. “It’s about showing that you’ve got some resources or creativity or taste that others don’t have.”

Furthermore, these fashion phenomena can have international impact. After having seen Tamagni’s previous work on the dandies of Bacongo, fashion designer Paul Smith created a women’s collection inspired by it.

Knowing that, it’s impossible not to wonder what other designers were influenced by Smith’s collection. And what retailers. And so on, until it trickles down to your own closet, where you are putting on a full skirt or bright blazer, wondering for the first time whether those threads were first stitched together for a group of people trying to overcome adversity.

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