Chapter (1)
~Fashion as Material Culture

What are the origins of the demand for Kenyan Maasai traditional adornments market and its popularity among Western tourists? The role of an exotic object in a modern, capitalist society.

1.0 Abstract

Over the last century, the fashion industry, its workers and buyers have witnessed critical changes in the mechanism of production, marketing and consumption patterns. The rapid transformation of a product from bespoke, handmade garment to mass produced, low quality item, with a lifespan of one fashion season ended up causing severe consequences; most of which we are still fighting to remedy. Among the long list of consecutions, the most pressing is the environmental impact of the unsustainable modes of production, as well as the exploitation of workers on all levels. To consumers, fashion primarily sells an idea of an endless range of choices, items with which to build an identity and lifestyle.

However, awareness is growing, and customers are becoming more conscious of their choices as they seek an alternative to replace the unsustainable product. As the mass overproduction of fashion continues, this phenomenon creates new market niches for companies that use environmental concerns as marketing schemes.  

The chaotic and confusing relationship between members of capitalist societies and their material wealth feeds the expanding material culture and leaves people subconsciously lacking what they cannot define. For a long time, I have been this person. I started analysing my affiliation with the material object a long time ago. Yet, it wasn’t until my trip to Kenya and observation of a market of indigenous goods thriving among Western tourists, that I finally posed a question, which became the topic of my essay. Is the addiction with the material object so powerful that it reaches the product so far removed from the context of our lives and our culture, such as indigenous handicraft adornments? Or is there more to the exotic artefact that fuels the demand?

1.1 Methodology

To review the question posed, it is essential to investigate the theoretical framework surrounding the issues it regards. In order to explore the relationship between the human and the object, I will use works of philosophers, anthropologists and sociologists, with a particular focus on the theories of Jean Baudrillard, due to his notable interest in the transformations caused by consumer culture.

To start an analysis of the demand for the unique object, it is necessary to investigate the nature of the exchange, especially in the context of the changes it underwent since capitalism became the economy in power. Hence, Baudrillard’s “Symbolic Exchange and Death” (2000) is a crucial secondary source to provide an understanding of the nature of dominating exchange modes, past and present, and the effect their transformations have on societies. To further investigate the psychological and sociological aspect of different methods of transaction, an article by Haas and Deseran, “Trust and Symbolic Exchange” (1981) will be investigated, as it explores the act of exchange and its impact on the formation of relationships within communities.

In the next section, the meaning of the object itself will be explored. “The System of Object” (2005) by Jean Baudrillard will be the critical resource to investigate the nature of the relationship between people and material objects, as well as the transformation it underwent with the shift of economy in power. Consequently, in the following part of the essay, the fascination for the exotic will be in question, to understand the origins of our interest in objects, that are far removed from our cultural or personal context.

As I aim to question the demand for the handmade artefacts in a popular tourist destination: coastal areas of Kenya, an investigation into a newly emerged tourism type will be conducted. Cultural heritage tourism and its aspects will be explored with the help of theorist Dean McCannell, whose work focuses around the role of authentic experience in heritage tourism; the emergence of staged authenticity and the repercussions of the phenomenon. As it is vital to present the consequences of the obsession with the authentic concerning the culture in question, professor John Akama’s statement on the image of the indigenous peoples of Kenya will be demonstrated (Akama, 2002).

To familiarise ourselves with the case study of this essay, Donna Rey Klumpp’s 1981 study about the meaning of Maasai traditional jewellery will be referred to, as well as contrasted with the opinions of Prof. John Akama (2002) to show the magnitude of change in the perspective on the discussed item. I will conduct primary research in the form of an interview with two women, which aims at showing the perspectives of westernised people on the traditional body ornaments of Maasai tribes. Both women are raised and living in a Western country, but their origins differ. They will be presented with an image of a Maasai traditional necklace, and their responses will be recorded. Lastly, an interview by Anja Cronberg for Vestoj (2018) magazine will be quoted, as a source which directly demonstrates the perspective of a Maasai tourist guide.

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Dec 23’
Central Saint Martins
MA FC: Fashion Critical Studies 

Jul 20’
London Collage of Fashion
BA (Hons) FDT: Womenswear 


Dominika Szmidt is a versatile, technically proficient and multi-skilled researcher and strategist with art direction and design experience. Born in Poland, based in London for many years. Central Saint Martins MA Fashion Communication. London College of Fashion BA Fashion Design Technology.

Among her areas of focus are semiotics of a fashion object in relation to overconsumption, within the context of contemporary, western civilization, as well as the future of the craft in a technologically advancing fashion industry.