Book Review: African Fashion, Global Style

african fashion

It is more often than not that African fashion—an umbrella term that cannot possibly distill the fashion endeavors of every country on this continent into two words—is talked about within the retail marketplace in terms of Western designers and companies that have their pieces made in Africa, often on an artisanal, small scale, with the aim in training men and women in sewing and manufacturing skills. Usually most if not all of the design process is done outside of the African country, and these projects can unintentionally give the impression that no such “modern” fashion infrastructure or business models exist within Africa. Victoria L. Rovine’s well-researched and page-turning study, African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, aims to seriously complicate this familiar-sounding story.

The opening up of the term of “fashion” to other cultures other than Anglo-European has steadily begun to rise since the 1980s in academic fashion studies. Rovine builds on these studies from the areas of fashion and textiles, art history, and anthropology, and eloquently and clearly argues that African fashion is innovative and dynamic. Even so-called “traditional” forms can change with personal aesthetic motivations, client preferences, and new technologies employed by a designer or maker (Rovine notes that not all in her study identify as “fashion designers”).

Rovine demonstrates through several fascinating case studies that modernity—the restless search for the new so long associated exclusively with Western culture and the colonialist mentality that indigenous cultures are unchanging in contrast—is not simply an aspirational move towards emulating the West and its products and ideals, but can be inward-looking, inspired by the multilayered histories of African countries, as well as influenced by other non-African, non-Western cultures. Fashion does not flow only one way, and it is “a key element of global visual culture” (p. 15). The reader emerges from the study with a firm understanding of how African fashion is a significant conversant in this worldwide dialogue.

Rovine recognizes the vastness of her subject matter and limits her study accordingly. She presents case studies that challenge the notion of the traditional, the modern, and the lines drawn between designers and artists, fashion and seriousness. In addition to looking at embroiderers that practice regional, very specific types of “indigenous fashion”, she explores designers and the fashion scenes in Mali, South Africa, Nigeria and beyond, and describes two types of African designers working in the global and regional fashion arena: those who directly reference the craft and construction of specific styles, histories and localities (even if those traditions are transformed and lose their original meanings), and those who take a more conceptual, less literal approach to expressing the “Africanness” of fashion. Both of these approaches can achieve regional practices with a global strategy (p. 108), and sometimes share design philosophies, such as the recycling of clothing.

This review would be too lengthy if I discussed even a portion of these case studies—they are numerous—but I will attempt to give you an idea of Rovine’s overall trajectory of themes and locations of study.

Chapter 1 is devoted to analyzing two very different types of tunics made in Mali that could initially be perceived as unchanging, “traditional” clothing–tilbis and “Ghana Boy” tunics. The “Ghana boy” is the young, ambitious, secular, brightly colored upstart to the luxury, maturity, piety, and subdued colors of the tilbi. Ghana boy tunics embody the “authenticity of the journey” (p. 41) of a young man from the rural Niger Delta region of Mali to the urban centers of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in the mid to late 20th century. One of many significant points that Rovine makes about the Ghana Boy tunics is that what may first strike one as Western emulation and aspiration (images of bell bottoms, motorcycles, platform shoes, etc.) may be based on exposure to Bollywood films and imagery, “doubly” exotic to a young Malian man—not directly experienced or seen in his country, and with origins outside of Africa or the West. In the Ghana Boy tunics, the global finds local expression.

Ghana boy tunic, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Ghana boy tunic, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Tilbis, on the other hand, are very finely made, expensive tunics created by highly skilled embroiderers that signify maturity, wealth, and local Muslim identity. Unlike the usual loud fashion fanfare of the newest, greatest thing, Rovine notes that the subtle changes taking place in tilbi embroidery patterns, inspirations and construction techniques are “fashion innovation[s] that [are] intended to be essentially invisible” (p. 64). Rovine effectively juxtaposes this first chapter with the following second, to show that the processes in the previous chapter are not the “traditional”, unchanging foil to the ever-changing, Western “modern”.

Tilbi and tilbi designs, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Tilbi and tilbi designs, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

For the second chapter, Rovine shrewdly decides that if you’re going to talk about fashion and Africa, you cannot ignore how designers from the former colonial powers have created imagined African iconography or styles in their work. She frames French fashion conceptions of Africa through the lens of the simultaneous rise of colonial expansion and the system of haute couture in the early 20th century, and colonial expositions of the 1930s. Colonial expositions—seen by the French as a domestic showcase of the colonies’ “civilizing” mission—simultaneously showed new textiles and dress for French inspiration and consumption while excluding urban African designers for more “primitive”, rural forms that conformed to the French idea of the childlike, “uncivilized” nature of Africans. This doubly assured that French designers would not be threatened by African competition for cosmopolitan designs. Throughout the 20th century, French designers such as Yves Saint-Laurent, Paul Poiret, and Jean Paul-Gaultier have created their own “invented Africas” that she points out have remained surprisingly consistent since the 1931 exposition. Decontextualized colorful beading and bold patterns, for example, remain shorthand for “Africa” in Western fashion.

Images of Nancy Cunard and Josephine Baker, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Images of Nancy Cunard and Josephine Baker, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Through the juxtaposition of these two chapters, Rovine argues that both French and African designers “sought inspiration beyond the familiar” (p. 71) and looked beyond their borders for new ideas and forms. While Western conceptions of Africa in fashion since the early 20th century can often be romanticized or grossly stereotyped, Rovine demonstrates that, at the same time, “contamination” can be a positive, two-way phenomenon that spurs on creativity and innovation (p. 26). Later on, in Chapters 4 and 5, Rovine also demonstrates how African designers can reinvent Western historical styles or remake used clothing from the West, resulting in disrupting and subverting “colonial time”—the notion that time is one-way, progressive, chronological, and ultimately controlled by exterior forces (p. 160).

Chapter 3 discusses “reinventing local forms”, and how the experience of immigration or separation from the homeland can provide inspiration and bring Africa into sharper focus for some designers.  Although these designers may work abroad or have lived abroad, they do not create an imagined Africa, but an “actual” one. Terms that resurface as inspirations include “authentic”, “heritage”, and “mythic” to name a few, but are very specific in their references to that past (p. 108).

Rovine investigates pioneers of African fashion, including Folashade (Shade) Thomas-Fahm of Nigeria, Pathé Ouédraogo of Burkino Faso, and Chris Seydou of Mali, as well as new designers such as Laduma Ngxokolo (MaXhosa by Laduma).  Ngxokolo designs knit sweaters based on those received by young Xhosa men after going through initiation into adulthood. Instead of the Scottish-made sweaters usually worn, Ngxokolo designs sweaters with local, specific designs modeled after geometric patterns and the bright colors of Xhosa beadwork. One particular sweater literally reads, “My heritage / my inheritance”, and was presented on the runway with the model holding a copy of “The Magic World of the Xhosa”, an anthropology book on the Xhosa that Ngxokolo’s mother would read to him as a child.

Man's sweater by MaXhosa by Laduma, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Man’s sweater by MaXhosa by Laduma, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Chapter 4 is dedicated to “Conceptual fashion” that creates “allusions to Africa that do not depend on recognizable stylistic references” (p. 158) and favors “production of meaning over primarily aesthetic concerns”.  Although the previous designers also allude to personal histories and making meaning, in this chapter the designer’s references are very subtle, or are not immediately apparent as “Africanisms”, and move back and forth between Africa and the West.

Designer Sakina M’sa is one of the designers that is a good example of this; her clothing is highly theoretical and embodies a multiplicity of references. While Ngxokolo proclaims his heritage and personal history clearly on the front of his sweater and through props used in a fashion show, M’sa buries her clothing in dirt to get a certain patina, (based on a personal story involving her grandmother’s advice on remaining connected to one’s homeland), or through colors or shapes that make a diverse array of references to working-class laborers in France, the body transformations of Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, Maasai jewelry and dress, and the artist Yves Klein.

Dress by Sakina M'sa, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Dress by Sakina M’sa, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Chapter 5 focuses solely on South Africa, the country with historically the most sophisticated infrastructure for fashion.  The designers highlighted in this chapter demonstrate how the local was brought back into South African fashion (before the 1990s, the popular, mainstream fashion/retail scene largely consisted of imported European designers and “vernacular sportswear”, p. 195), and how the painful histories of apartheid and the promise of transformation can be expressed through clothing and design.  Precedents of such sartorial incisive and political practices include Nelson Mandela’s wearing of a Xhosa cloak at the trial where he was sentenced to prison (the photograph was censored for 30 years).

The South African case studies include the work of Marianne Fassler (whose career spans from the 1970s to the present), Nkhensani Manganyi Nkosi of the brand Stoned Cherrie, and Themba Mngomezulu of the controversially-named brand Darkie, which was intended to “rehabilitate the term without expunging its history, and to transform it into an expression of empowerment” (Mngomezulu later changed it to Dark Icon, which he says made the name “simpler, easier to explain”, especially to non-South Africans) (p. 200, 202).  All of these designers take very different approaches and methods to their design and presentation, including use of local isishweshwe fabric (Fassler), remaking recycled clothing (Mngomezulu), or collaborating with others in the visual and performing arts (Carlo Gibson and Ziemek Pater of Strangelove) to tell complex narratives through clothing.  

Strangelove collaboration with Nelisiwe Xaba, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Strangelove collaboration with Nelisiwe Xaba, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Rovine makes great use of several color, full-page photographs throughout the book; she immediately thanks image owners in the introduction, acknowledging that such images “enable me to tell these garments’ stories so much more vividly” (p. ix). Many these are runway images, which also conveys the dynamism and the high visibility of the clothing, seen through the dominant and iconic mode of fashion presentation and image dissemination worldwide (Rovine also points out the fashion show’s great narrative potential).

On the cover are designer Maimouna Diallo’s boubous (floor-length, dramatic tunics). She is particularly concerned with copying, and usually does not like her work to be photographed. The image is slightly blurred—the models are in motion on a catwalk–and the designs cannot be clearly seen. Personally I would like to have seen more discussion on the notion of copying and replication and its possible outcomes.  After all, the subtitle of the book “ideas you can wear” comes from a tailor’s shop sign in Accra. Copying and worldwide dissemination of designer fashions–for better or worse–is such a huge part of the global fashion market today and is one of the ways that everyone can participate in the latest designer fashions if they so choose. How is this taking place locally and regionally across Africa? What are the benefits for consumers, who can reproduce desired designs on a small scale at a tailor as opposed to consuming mass manufactured goods? What are the detriments for designers and regional industries?  Does local copying hurt or affect their profits or make their designs less desirable to their clientele?

The study concludes with a brief analysis of African fashion magazines with local, regional, and international reach, as well as a discussion of the cultural and political complexities surrounding fashion shows and fashion events.  Rovine here also raises the question of challenges for designers who receive international media attention but are limited to the label of “African designer”.  Several designers expressed frustration with this strict categorization; Stoned Cherrie was even dropped by a South African fashion retailer because its designs were perceived as being “too African” (p. 228-233).   Rovine leaves readers with the important question, “who decides”…”What makes fashion African”? (p. 230).

Despite the layered complexities of her subject, Rovine’s analysis is sophisticated and clear, never convoluted.  Much of Rovine’s study comes out of individual face-to-face interviews with designers within the last 5-10 years, so much of the content is fresh and unique.  This book would be a great introduction to those not at all familiar with African fashion, as well as an excellent read for those already well-versed in Africa’s creative fashion output.

Images provided by the author of this post.

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