From East Africa to Papua New Guinea, the body painting, jewellery, feathers and shells of tribal peoples are providing inspiration for fashion designers. Here we celebrate the rich diversity of decoration
It is no coincidence that when the American oil heiress Lynn Wyatt celebrated her birthday recently on the Cote D'Azur, she themed the party "Vive l'Afrique". Where else could she wear her long, beaded, halter-neck dress and matching jewellery from Ralph Lauren's summer Masai collection? She was hardly going to wear it to go shopping or lunching, two of her favourite pastimes. And she certainly couldn't pass herself off as a Masai warrior in tribal dress.

In fact, she probably had a whole range of African-inspired evening dresses in her extensive wardrobe. She could have opted for a Dior haute-couture number with East African beaded corset and matching high-heeled shoes. Or she could have sneaked a preview outfit from John Galliano's Egyptian collection for this autumn. And how about a Moroccan jellaba by Dries Van Noten or Jean-Paul Gaultier? Or, indeed, one of Alexander McQueen's animal-skin dresses with horn jewellery or more Masai beadwork, from his autumn/winter haute-couture collection for Givenchy.

Decisions, decisions. It was, after all, the perfect opportunity for the women who like to shop, lunch and shop some more, to dress up in zebra stripes, leopard spots, savannah colours, jellabas, cowrie shells and bright beads. That Alek Wek, one of the hottest new names in modelling and in demand from Richard Avedon to the American cosmetics company Nars, is from the Dinka tribe in Sudan is indicative of the fact that the glitzy set and designer friends are in the throes of a love affair with Africa.

They would simply adore these pictures: "Ooh, the earthiness of them - the exotica - the mixes of colour - the face paints - the beadwork - the culture of it all - the feathers! Where can I buy that necklace?" Of course, most African women, be they tribeswomen or bank clerks, do not spend their days in ceremonial regalia. But that of the social butterflies who wear Ralph Lauren's version of Masai dress, a nomadic tribeswoman's jewellery is an indication of her family's or husband's wealth and status. Much of the beadwork of the Masai is sold to tourists and cultural pickpockets.

Despite fashion's latest romance with tribal adornment from around the globe, there has long been a demand for pieces like chunky Berber necklaces from Morocco, and silver Ethiopian crosses. Frontiers, the shop in West London (37-39 Pembridge Road, London W11) that specialises in jewellery from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, has supplied a loyal following of buyers and collectors since it opened in 1985. Alby Nall-Cain runs the business with her husband and has travelled the world buying and selling old, quality jewellery for 25 years. She last visited Ethiopia over five years ago, and recently returned from Morocco. "There's a lot less around now," she says. "A lot of people from within the countries are collecting, too, and that pushes prices up. It's not that easy to find original, quality pieces." Prices range from pounds 15 to over pounds 2,000 for a heavy coral, amber and silver Berber necklace.

At more down-to-earth prices, the Africa Crafts Centre (38 King Street, London WC2) has a small range of jewellery from Kenya, Zaire and South Africa. A buyer travels around these countries searching out contemporary crafts - malachite necklaces and bangles from pounds 4.99, amber and white metal necklaces from pounds 20 - and old pieces like a pair of long Masai earrings, on sale at pounds 65.

Body piercing, nose, eyebrow mouth and tongue piercings, strange earrings that make the ear lobe look as though it is stretched and deformed, not to mention tattoos, have all become forms of body decoration so comonplace they do not even warrant a second glance. Most models have at least a pierced naval. Tribal body adornments once seen as extreme and savage are now as acceptable as hair- dyeing and nail painting.

One of the more bizarre, but recurring forms of decoration at the shows of Dior, Givenchy and Ralph Lauren were the gold "giraffe" necklaces of the Karenni tribe in Burma. Gold rings are added one at a time to stretch the neck of the wearer, seen as an enhancement in Burma - and also a form of torture. It has now been outlawed. It is not a look about to catch on in the West

The Surma (left) and Mursi, southwest Ethiopia Women from these tribes are among the few to still wear lip plates - large discs can be worth 50 head of cattle and are thought to deter evil sprits entering through the mouth. The Mursi practise facial and bodily scarification. Scars are often in the shape of a horseshoe, showing that a warrior has killed someone from another tribe. Before a battle, Surma men and women cover their bodies with elaborate paintings of stripes, stars and flowers in chalk and water.

The Wodaabe (right) The model in our picture is a woman - in real life it is the men who spend seven days before the Geerewol Festival, in the rainy season, painting their faces, shaving their foreheads, plaiting their hair, blackening their lips and eyelids with kohl and covering their faces in yellow powder. After days in front of their little pocket mirrors, they end up looking more beautiful, and more feminine, than the women of the tribe. Among the Wodaabe status is shown by the number of braids in a person's hair and by their jewellery.

The Masai, Tanzania, Kenya (left): Blue is the colour of the sky and, for the nomadic Masai, it is therefore divine. The Ralph Lauren tribe of New York thinks so, too, and used the Masai's beadwork and colour combinations of blue, yellow, red and green for its summer '97 evening wear. The tribe's brightly beaded collars have been adopted by John Galliano at Dior; he has also used its traditional beading for waist-cinching corsets that liberated Masai women would not be seen dead in. Ironically, the minimal dress and elaborate jewellery of the tribe has been discouraged by the Kenyan government, which favours shorts and T-shirts.

Cowrie and leather cape from Ethiopia, tribe unknown (right): This cape was found in Ethiopia and has been elaborately beaded for ceremonial occasions; it is too heavy to be worn day-to-day. Cowrie shells are widely used in tribes and indigenous peoples from Africa, India, Polynesia and Melanesia.In Polynesia, for instance, they are used as currency. But they can also have spiritual power - in Papua New Guinea, men wear neckties made of cowrie shells to protect them from disease and evil spirits. Cowries had less spiritual value when used on Manolo Blahnik shoes for Dior's summer 97 couture collection, or by designers Idol and Rifat Ozbek in Britain.

The Bamileke, Cameroon (above): No, it's not a Philip Treacy creation for autumn 97. The extraordinary flying-saucer hat is made out of red parrot feathers. It would be worn for festivals, celebrations and funerals, much as western women would wear a hand-made feather creation to Ascot or weddings. The Bamileke are renowned for a batik-type blue and white cloth with lizard and other animal motifs.

The Rendille, Kenya (left): The hat is a sign that the wearer has given birth to her first son. She will wear it until he is circumcised, then replace it with copper bracelets on her biceps. A bracelet on the forearm shows that a woman is married. Rendille women also wear multi-stranded horsehair collars.

Clay spur hat made by Fabienne Sevigne

Papua New Guinea, Oceania (top and bottom): It's not all grass skirts and penis gourds in Papua New Guinea. For traditional dances, body painting, with its origins in war paint, is done in black and white. Half the body is painted chalky white and the other half charcoal black, symbolising the opposition of the sexes. These elaborate feather, flower and moss headdresses are too big to be worn for everyday, but are popular among local people, who like to dress up in bright creations that make those who see them laugh. Fashion, wherever you live, need not have a function - it can merely entertain and decorate.