African fashion has been referenced in the global fashion industry for decades, but it has not always done so in the right way. We discuss the source of African fashion, why it is in the spotlight, and what African designers can do to capitalize on the current moment.
- The history of African fashion, from bark cloths to wax prints
- Africa as a reference point in fashion and art
- Why African fashion is in the spotlight now
African Fashion History
For a long time, African fashion has been misconstrued as ‘tribal’ or ‘exotic’ and simplified to leopard skins and mud cloths. Many times, it has been used as a point of reference, but the source never regarded as much as the derivative has.
Africa is a large continent and the variation of the African fashion story that exists is influenced by societies, and the status of individuals or groups within that community.
Photo Credit: Ceremonial Dress ‘bwaantshy’, Kuba King Zaire
The majority of Africans didn’t dress for warmth, due to warm climates on the continent. Loin cloths or aprons were sufficient for men, while women wore wraps around their waist or breasts.
Bark cloth, furs, skins and hides were mainly used for the first forms of clothing, and the rest of the body adorned with scarifications and colour pigments. Males simply wrapped the bark cloth that passed between the legs over a belt while women draped the cloth over the belt to hide the front of their bodies.
Garments communicated status, marked a ritual or passage of time as people moved from one state to another. According to some traditions, young women wore just skirts, and when they got married, they would wear full body wraps and cloaks.
Africans then started using raffia to sew separate pieces of bark cloth together, and also made grass skirts. Accessories were created for the uncovered parts of the body consisting of jewellery and headgear fashioned from seashells, bones, ostrich eggshell pieces and feathers. Fur, skins, bone, animal tails and hair, raffia, wood, grass, bells and pressed metal all contributed to a rich and embellished costume used for ceremonial purposes.
Colours and patterns, created in printed and dyed cloth, woven fabric strips or beaded attire distinguished one ethnic group from another. Tribes prided themselves on the quality of their hand-made cloth using techniques that have been handed down generation by generation for centuries.
Around the 15th century, shipping routes opened up between Europe, Africa, and the East, leading to a growth in trade. Uncommon items arrived and were coveted by Africans to add to decorations of their local cloth. Beads, shells, and buttons were adopted on garments, either as embellishment or making up the entire garment like beaded aprons, capes, headbands and shoes.
Photo Credit: Traditional Kenyan Clothing
Weaving techniques also made some improvements, cotton, silk, raffia, and wool, were the fibres now in use. Woven and decorated textiles became a reflection of a tribe’s status, socioeconomic standing, culture, environment and climate.
The wax prints that are ubiquitous and synonymic to African fashion today began to find its way to Africa in the 19th century. During the Dutch colonization of Indonesia, the Dutch adopted this style of pattern making from the Indonesians and mechanized the process. They initially tried to sell it to Indonesians but were unsuccessful. They traded it to Africa where it was much coveted. Women began to ask for specific designs, and particular designs became a form of secret communication among groups of people. And so the trade became very successful, and continues to boom till today.
Photo Credit: Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou
Colonization enforced a massive change in daily wear in African cities; traditional garments are not encouraged in many corporate scenarios. However traditional robes were replaced or influenced by the western popular dress code but remained prevalent in rural areas. Today, people in urban areas are warming up to traditional garments outside of special occasions. An example would be men who opt for kaftans for work wear for dress down Fridays.
An example of colonial impact on African fashion are the Sapeurs in Congo who took European high fashion and made it their own. Literally the “Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People” they utilize elegant European dressing to improve the atmospheres they go into and serve as beacons of positivity.
We at U.Mi-1 admire La Sapeur community due to their embodiment of different cultures, and the parallels they draw to what we do. Our cross-pollination of British, Japanese, and Nigerian elements are a conscious act of showing how cultures are entwined.
Africa as a Reference Point
Referencing Africa in fashion has been done many times, sometimes tastefully, other times rather poorly. Yves Saint Laurent’s Spring-Summer 1967 collection is an example of a tactful interaction with African fashion styles. He created a series of delicate gowns using materials including wooden beads, raffia, straw, and golden thread. The most distinct dress paid homage to Bambara sculptures produced by the Bambara people in Mali, their statues depict women characterized by long bodies and pointy breasts.
Photo Credit: Yves Saint Laurent African Collection
Pablo Picasso has an African period which ushered in his cubist period that he is well acclaimed for. From 1906 to 1909, Picasso painted in a style which was strongly influenced traditional African masks, and art of ancient Egypt. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the faces of the two women on the right have the appearance of masks from Dan, and Fang ethnic groups. It was well known that Picasso collected African totem art; however, he denied being influenced by it. Like many creative people, he lacked the courage to admit the source of his inspiration and the influence on his creativity.
Photo Credit: Pablo Picasso – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Africa in the Spotlight
Photo Credit: Michele Obama
In the 21st century, African fashion is in the global spotlight, from runways, to celebrities, music and cinema, it is almost impossible to ignore. When influential people like Beyoncé and Michelle Obama step on red carpets with African clothing, they turn heads, and reinforce trends to follow.
African culture is popular around the world right now, Afrobeats and African dancers are on almost every screen, and this inevitably causes the world to take note of what they’re wearing. There are a large number of young African adults living around the world, who are increasingly trying to reconnect with their heritage. This includes learning about fashion from their homeland and adopting it to feel more in touch with their roots.
At U.Mi-1 we are deeply involved with African culture. Not only through the heritage of the Creative Director, but by our involvement in art, design and culture. We aim to bring to light the influences that shape some African tribes, giving them new life through modernized designs. One example of such aim is our use of Aso-Oke – the indigenous hand-made Nigerian fabric. The essence, traditional meaning and design of the material have been preserved, while the fabric has been used to create beautiful modern jackets and trousers, breathing new life into the cloth. With our collections we also want to showcase the richness and variety of culture in Africa, unseen anywhere else in the world.
Social media has also played a huge role in familiarizing the world with African fashion, seeing how people dress and a variety of styles in real time make people connect with it on a personal level, and make them covet them.
The future is bright for African fashion, but only if they take hold of the narrative and get in front of the current boom. In order to not repeat another tale of exploitation, designers must also learn to be business savvy, putting the correct infrastructure in place for the manufacture and sale of their products as recognition isn’t the end game. As consumers, rather than buying African inspired collections from western brands, buy from Africans themselves.
Fresh shapes and vibrant colors are driving African fashion to make a mark in the world right now. It is up to African designers to leave a long-lasting impact, which will spur on future generations of designers.