For decades, the global fashion industry has referenced African fashion, 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.
Credit: Yves Saint Laurent African Collection
- 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 is a point of reference. However, the source is never regarded as much as the derivative.
Africa is a large continent. As a result, the variation of the African fashion story that exists is influenced by a myriad of societies, and the status of individuals or groups within that community.
Photo Credit: Ceremonial Dress ‘bwaantshy’, Kuba King Zaire
The majority of Africans did not dress for warmth, due to warm climates of the continent. Loin cloths or aprons were sufficient for men, while women wore wraps around their waist or breasts.
The first forms of clothing were bark cloth, furs, skins and hides, and the rest of the body adorned with beautification marks and colour pigments. Males simply wrapped the bark cloth that passed between the legs over a belt. Similarly, women draped the cloth over the belt to hide the front of their bodies.
Garments communicated status or 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.
Soon, Africans began using raffia to sew separate pieces of bark cloth together. In time, grass skirts were the rage. Likewise, they used accessories to adorn the uncovered parts of the body. This consisted of more intricate 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 especially for ceremonial purposes.
Colours and patterns, created in printed and dyed cloth; woven fabric strips; and beaded attire distinguished one ethnic group from another. Tribes prided themselves on the quality of their hand-made cloth. They used techniques handed down generation by generation for centuries.
Around the 15th century, shipping routes opened up between Europe, Africa, and the East. As a result, trade increased. Uncommon items arrived from far and wide. Africans coveted them and decorated local cloths with them. Beads, shells, and buttons were adopted on garments, either as an embellishment or used as the entire garment. For example in 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 back to Indonesians, but were unsuccessful. They traded it to Africans, who coveted it.
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. It continues to boom till today.
Photo Credit: Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou
Effects of Colonisation
Colonisation enforced a massive change in daily wear in African cities. Even after independence, traditional garments were not encouraged in many corporate scenarios. Consequently, traditional robes were replaced or influenced by the western dress code, which became popular. However, they 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.
Africans have always taken European fashion and made it their own. An example of colonial impact on African fashion is the Sapeurs in Congo who took European high fashion and put their own spin on it. Literally, the “Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People” utilize elegant European dressing to improve the atmospheres they go into and serve as beacons of positivity. What a brilliant twist!
At U.Mi-1, we 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 that show how cultures are entwined.
Africa as a Reference Point
Africa is constantly referenced in fashion, 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 strongly influenced by traditional African masks, and the art of ancient Egypt. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the faces of the two women on the right have the appearance of masks from the 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 its use by celebrities in music videos and film. It is almost impossible to ignore. When influential people like Beyoncé and Michelle Obama step out on red carpets wearing 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. This inevitably causes the world to take note of what they are wearing. There are a large number of young Africans 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 want people to connect to the heartbeat of Africa. Through the heritage of the Creative Director and our involvement in art, design and culture, we aim to show the beauty of Nigerian tribes through our designs. Our use of Aso-Oke, an indigenous hand-made Nigerian fabric, is testament to this.
The essence, traditional meaning and design of the material have been preserved. We use the fabric to create beautiful modern jackets and trousers, which we coin “African Denim”. Through this, we breathe new life into the cloth. With our collections we also want to showcase the richness and variety of culture in Nigeria, unseen anywhere else in the world.
The Future of African Fashion
Social media has also played a huge role in familiarizing the world with African fashion. Certainly, seeing in real time how Africans dress and the variety of styles available makes people want to connect with African culture and style.
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 avoid 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. Recognition isn’t the end game. As consumers, rather than buying African-inspired collections from western brands, buy from Africans brands.
African fashion designers deliver fresh shapes and vibrant colors, which the world yearns for right now. We hope they make a long-lasting impact, which will spur on future generations of designers.