Book Review: African Dress

african dress cover

They gave him garments of servitude, which he imagined the candid cloak of the martyr

Oh naïve! Natively naïve! Fez and boots for his free domesticated feet…

He rids himself of his collar–his tie hides the sweat soaking his shirt–of his somber jacket.

He leans over a second plain saturated with fezzes and blood. (179)

From Léopold Senghor, “The Despair of a Free Volunteer”, cited in “Photography, Poetry, and the Dressed Bodies of Léopold Sédar Senghor” by Leslie Rabine.

Analysis of the life and work of a well-known Senegalese poet is one of the many observative approaches to the titular subject of African Dress. Offering the authority of a host of PhDs in African and dress-related subjects, this book offers a compendium of essays broad in scope and focused in nature. Arranged in four Parts, they begin under the rubric of “Dressed Bodies and Power,” move through “Material Culture, Visual Recognition and Display” and “Connecting Worlds Through Dress,” and finish with “Transculturated Bodies.” Of course, many could easily fall under more than one of these headings; as one authors notes, “clothing, after all, is complicated.” (77) In these sections you will find: the lightness and frivolity and deadly seriousness of colorful textiles that are local, imported, or both; politics; incarnations of the veil; military history; traditional and modern embroideries; colonialism; fashion photography; Obama; poetry; and travel. Lots of gender, some sexuality, very little on non-traditional gender identities or diverse sexualities, but the lack reflects the nature of the societies observed. Questions and conflict surrounding religious dress abound, as these are common and public topics in the featured countries.

Senegal is most often represented, along with Nigeria and Ghana; West Africa dominates the scholarship. While each of the essays is located in a specific city (or two), sartorial expression is a complicated construction, and ethnicities and religions that don’t conform to geographic boundaries often manifest as stronger influences than national identity. The figural, modern “Ghana Boy” embroidered tunics Victoria Rovine contrasts with the traditional, Islamic tilbi garments in Mali belong to a group of young men who define themselves more by travel, experiences, and age than by country of origin. Tina Mangieri’s work most explicitly studies this local/Islamic/Western collision felt by Swahili Muslim men who live in Kenya.

Typical opening pages of a chapter. From "African Dress," 2013.

Typical opening pages of a chapter. From “African Dress,” 2013.

A strength of the book is its Afrocentric approach: fashion is defined in African terms, by Igbo and Ghanaian traditions. Editor Karen Tranberg Hansen, a well-known scholar of African dress, fashion, and domesticity, notes in her introduction:

When it comes to the study of dress practice in Africa, we are confronted by a widespread scholarly tendency that privileges Western exceptionalism and denies any non-Western agency in the development of fashion. (1)

She notes other concerns within the more general study of dress and fashion:

One is the trivialization of consumers’ interests in clothes, an antifashion tendency the devalues the significance of dress as a cultural and economic phenomenon…The second concern is the distinction between fashion in the West and the ‘traditional’ clothing of much of the rest of the world, unchanged for generations, drawn by scholars who attribute fashion’s origins to the development of the capitalist production system in the West. …A third concern arises from the lingering effects of the trickle-down theories that have restrained our understanding of the sources and currents of dress inspirations. (4-5)

Western-African ties, conflicts, and cultural influence rumble right beneath and often break the surface, unavoidable when studying contemporary dress issues in an increasingly global world. Western theorists such as Veblen, Barthes, and Simmel make their obligatory appearances, but the authors also adapt or manipulate these well-worn theories to fit non-western cultures, or reject the Western foundations for a more inclusive, global fashion history, as challenged by Hansen in the introduction. Kelly Kirby drops a range of fashion theory names in the introduction to her essay, “Bazin Riche in Dakar, Senegal: Altered Inception, Use, and Wear,” as she seeks to find a satisfactory definition of “dress” and “fashion”:

Following Hansen, I use the term dress in this chapter to be inclusive of both cloth and clothing. I also build upon Barnes and Eicher’s definition of dress as “an assemblage of body modifications and/or supplements displayed by a person in communicating with other human beings’. … I draw from Georg Simmel’s definition of fashion to make a final distinction between dress and fashion. Simmel suggests fashion is a ‘form of imitation and so of social equalization…The elite initiates a fashion and, when the mass imitates it in an effort to obliterate the external distinctions of class, abandons it for a newer mode’. Thus, according to Simmel, individuals have minimal freedom as adherents to fashion yet are liberated from having to make personal choices about what to wear. (64-65)

She later locates shortcomings in applying Simmel’s rich-first theory to her examination of the use of a cloth imbued with socially-constructed web of class, wealth, and display:

I suggest, however, that intent–intent of the observer, of the wearer, and the creator–must be considered as an important component that contributes to the augmented values related to the use and wear of bazin riche. In this context, then, what Simmel’s perspective on fashion lacks is recognition that no one, not even the elite can ‘pay’ for the gift of creativity. And therefore, rich or poor, ‘intent’ and the ability to execute it is not always contingent upon socioeconomic status. (73)

Are these old-school theorists relevant here? The first essay, “Dressing for Success: The Politically Performative Quality of an Igbo Woman’s Attire,” may be most successful in that endeavor; the rites, rituals, and performance Misty Bastian observed, experienced, and describes for the reader belong singularly to the town of Onitsha, in Nigeria. In this and many other chapters, the experiential real stands for itself and has no use for or intentional basis in Western theory. What is African fashion theory? Should, or could, it be established? Do we need a theoretical framework to understand each fashion system, and does the negation of existing models require the construction of one or many new?

The tone of most of the chapters skews toward the anthropological and academic; that is to say, probably most of interest to those already engaged in advancing their knowledge of the subject. The form of the book itself privileges the written word and includes, at maximum, three black-and-white photos and one color plate.

Color plate featuring commemorative Obama fabric; facing two black and white figures. From "African Dress," 2013.

Color plate featuring commemorative Obama fabric; facing two black and white figures from a different article. From “African Dress,” 2013.

The series to which this book belongs, Dress, Body and Culture (Bloomsbury), features a few titles that encompass African fashion practices, some edited by contributors to African Dress. The format will be familiar to readers of that series, providing great research, ample citations, excellent bibliographies, and highly quotable writing, but is not quite enjoyable to read cover to cover.  There is a lot of information here. Much like collections of short stories, these edited volumes of short, focused research allow the reader to choose which subjects are most applicable to one’s interests, and take the work on in smaller chunks. That said, the flow of the book is pleasantly intentional, as set out by Hansen in the introduction (6-9). It’s nice to read a chapter about the Senegalese notion of sañse (to dress up; a complete outfit (63)) and see the concept referenced in the following chapter on Mauritanian shabiba (85). There are a few gratuitous instances of academic buzzwords like “performative” and “unpack,” but this comes with the territory, and did not ultimately take away from the content.

African dress has lately been highlighted by the Western fashion press, most significantly Lagos and Nigerian Fashion. The Business of Fashion ran an article on November 5 about Morocco outpacing its neighboring countries in the fashion race (or…in attracting fashion chains, at least). Suzy Menkes chaired the “Promise of Africa” conference last year, on Worn Through here. Guaranty Trust Bank Lagos Fashion and Design Week happened last month, and The Financial Times Style section recently called Lagos a “global fashion hotspot.”  While the authors in African Dress define fashion and dress in a unique, Afrocentric way, newspapers and magazines are combing these cities and fashion systems into the stream of catwalks, skinny models, and spiraling Seasons–privileging that Western construction of fashion. Lagos, in its success, is poised to become a metonym for African Fashion–perhaps to its benefit, like New York’s situation in America, although being the fashion capital of an entire continent is quite a different responsibility. While African fashion deserves more than an ethnographic or anthropological review of its fashion systems–it can be fun and frivolous too–the articles in this book successfully value the small details and the distinctions of each place.

As Hansen writes in the introduction, this book is unique and worthwhile because

it not only features scholars who enjoy exceptional access to sources close to public persona like Josephine Baker, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Malick Sidibé but also contributors who have experienced the trials and tribulations as well as the joys of conducting research on clothing in the context of everyday life in some of Africa’s most bustling cities. (6)

A generalist addition to the genre, it is an example to emerging scholars in African studies, anthropology, and dress history that will serve to educate on the “rising star” of Africa from a human perspective or to expand a research paper or inspire fieldwork. Good research practices, interesting subject matter, and logical, easy-to-read presentation are reasons enough to pick up this book. As a title, African Dress aspires to cover an extremely large landmass comprising many distinctive nations, ethnicities, and cultures; the content deftly continues to work toward defining that broad term by offering engaging individual stories, showing the average reader that African dress is more than kente cloth and postcolonial performance.


Lead Photo Credit: Cover of African Dress: Fashion, Agency, Performance edited by Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Madison. Bloomsbury, 2013.


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Further Reading

Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion. London: Routledge, 1993.

Eicher, Joanne B., Sandra Lee Evenson and Hazel A. Lutz. The Visible Self: Global Perspectives on Dress, Culture, and Society [3rd ed.]. New York: Fairchild Books, 2008.

Eicher, Joanne B. Dress and Ethnicity: Change Across Space and Time.

Gott, Suzanne and Kristyne Loughran. Contemporary African Fashion. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2010.

Hansen, Karen Tranberg. Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Hansen, Karen Tranberg, ed. African Encounters with Domesticity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Hendrickson, Hildi. Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

Maynard, Margaret. Dress and Globalisation. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Perani, Judith and Norma H. Wolff. Cloth, Dress and Art Patronage in Africa. Oxford: Berg, 1999.

And, obviously, dozens more.

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