How African Fashion Has Made A Big Impact On Fashion Culture
Looking at the increasing number of consumers for African fashion & clothing, it appears we are finally being globally welcomed for what we have always known we possessed: a wealth of cultural agency and influence.
With this thought in mind, and also with 2019 marking the 400-year anniversary of the Middle Passage (when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the United States in 1619), I’ve wondered where African fashion falls in the mix of this recent attention, and what imprint our past has on our current fashion culture. What makes contemporary African fashion uniquely African? What is African Fashion's defining characteristic after epochs of mélange with western stimuli (both forced and chosen, welcome and unwelcome)? European fashion is celebrated for glamour; American “sportswear” (in the strictly fashion-industry sense of the word) is the stuff of legend: but what is the calling card of the contemporary African fashion sartorial landscape? These are the questions I sought to explore as I became highly intrigued by African Fashion. What does African fashion have to say about itself?
Perhaps any attempt to unravel the double helix and decode the DNA of African fashion is an experiment in futility when operating from such a narrow lens. Africa is not a monolith and neither is African fashion. In regards to African fashion, anything that is borne of Africa’s bounty is as much a function of disparate national identities as it is one continental cohesion. When discussing African fashion, it's important to consider all the pride of nations that course through the veins of our borders, and that our national demarcations were largely not of our choosing. So then, it is not strange to surmise that there may be some thread that links different types of African fashion, right?
As a Zimbabwean, and quite likely for the rest of the continent, ready-to-wear African Fashion is a relatively new concept. Growing up, I was accustomed to buying clothes “off the rack” only when I traveled abroad, but African fashion is now changing the way a lot of consumers shop. Ready-to-Wear African fashion brands have cropped up across the continent, leading to the advent of African fashion inspired weeks, e-commerce platforms, concept stores like Viva Boutique and even influencer marketing: In short, the makings of the African fashion industry, though plagued with structural issues as to be expected of any entity thusly nascent, in many ways resembles that of west.
When you ask most people what comes to mind when they consider “African fashion,” you are likely to hear a reference to brightly-colored wax prints (known in some circles as Ankara) from which seamstresses would sew our parents and grandparents’ traditional garb. (Surely no exegesis of African fashion clothing would be quite complete without paying homage to the unique way in which we embrace and employ color, but that is a whole other story). The sort of traditional African fashion I am referring to is the sort Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottei (whose canary-colored upcycled plastic tapestries that themselves tell a story of journey and exchange between the west and Africa and of turning toxicity into triumph are featured in Looks 3 and 4) dons in his performance series "My Mother's Wardrobe".
When talking about African fashion, we never consider that “African print” itself is of Dutch origin, a consciousness ossified in my mind through a long-ago exhibition by Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare in which he dressed black mannequins in wax prints sewn in classic Victorian style. His work, an exploration of colonialism at large and specifically how these prints supposedly divined by the Dutch to mimic Indonesian Batik came to be ubiquitous on the West African subcontinent, marked a seminal moment in my understanding of my own culture and of African fashion. While wax prints are, of course, now produced on the African continent (and also still in Europe as well as in China) and are inexorably linked to (West) African fashion, to me they alone cannot be the answer, but do point to a bigger clue in the puzzle of defining African fashion. That clue is textile.
Africa boasts a depth and breadth of traditional textiles of African fashion. Kente, which originates from Ashanti and Ewe cultures; the Aso Oke of the Yoruba; Fugu from northern Ghana (Look 7); the Bogolan (mudcloth) of the Bambara ethnic group (inspiration for the knit headwrap in Look 6); the Kikoi cloth from the horn of Africa (particularly Kenya); the kaleidoscopic woven cloth of the Ndebele people of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe; and no textile aficionado has truly lived until they’ve visited a Moroccan “tissage.” In the land of textiles, particularly those of the hand-woven variety, African is king, and African fashion clothing always represents the highest quality. I have noticed in my study (the word is used lightly here) of current fashion from the continent a propensity for modern African fashion designers to cull from this cornucopia of history-rich textiles while reaching for modernity in the rendering and silhouettes of clothing.
Perhaps it is this very syncretism that may be considered the genome of African fashion, generalization be damned: that a panoply of indigenous references is coiled with foreign allusions to result in a genre of clothing that is sui generis. Whether by African designers or non-Africans who have fallen in love with African fashion (or by designers who draw from their mixed heritage as the Japanese-Ghanaian designer Alexandra Tomiyama does with her Kanji Kente kimono), there always seems to be an interplay of looking in (at the culture) and looking out (at the foreign) in that which concerns African fashion. Beyond our current “en-vogueness” and seeming designation as the zeitgeist du jour, African fashion, like our very being, is rooted in a past both painful and pulchritudinous, and in a future we are determined to define for ourselves.