Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


No discussion of late 20th century trade in textiles - particularly trade in what has been called "regional" or "ethnic" textiles - would be complete without a discussion of the terms "traditional" and "authentic" for these terms inform even a lay person's evaluation of textiles on the market today.

As textile professionals, we encounter terms like "textile tradition," "traditional textiles" or even "authentic traditional textiles" in our everyday experience: a textile brought back by a collector from travel to a Third World nation or a textile on display in a museum. These textiles are subjected to discussions of their authenticity, of whether they represent a tradition. The authentic, traditional textile is often, either openly or implicitly, contrasted to the inauthentic, tourist textile. There is an assumption that we share a common understanding of the term "traditional textile."

However, a growing body of interdisciplinary literature from the fields of anthropology (Clifford, 1988; Dominguez, 1986; Handler and Linnekin, 1984 ), folklore (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1988; Bendix, 1989), history (Hobsbaum and Ranger, 1983) and sociology (Cohen, 1988) has challenged our commonsense understanding of what constitutes a tradition. In this emerging literature, traditions are viewed as "negotiable" (Cohen, 1988:374), "invented" (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983) and "socially-constructed" (Handler and Linnekin:1984). Further, collected objects, formerly seen as the locus of interesting data about other cultures and their "authentic traditions" are now being reevaluated for what they can tell us about ourselves and our values. For example, the quest for authenticity in the objects we buy and study is seen as a sign of our own alienation (Cohen: op. cit.) or as a "means of preserving our own historicity" (Dominguez, 1986:548). As the terms "tradition" and "authenticity" have been scrutinized and deconstructed, long-held assumptions have given way.

What is meant by the social construction of tradition? Rather than viewing a tradition as a natural phenomenon, which existed in the past, tradition is viewed as a symbolic process. Shils noted in 1981 (195) that tradition is "capable of being retrospectively reformed by human beings in the present" Later, Handler and Linnekin (1984) wrote, "Tradition is a model of the past and is inseparable from the interpretation of tradition in the present...a symbolic process that both presupposes past symbolisms and creatively reinterprets them;" tradition is "...a process of interpretation, attributing meaning in the present through making reference to the past" (1984:276).