Is African Fashion Besieged?

Published on 28th August 2007

Duracoat, one of Kenya’s leading paint manufacturers, has its punch line: “colours inspired by nature, perfected by Duracoat.” Fashion borrows the same concept. It is inspired by nature and perfected by individual creativity. Sadly though, Africa lags behind in making firm its grip on creativity on fashion.

Most Asian nations have stamped their cultural authority by adorning garments that reflect their own oriental touch. Nothing seems to threaten the deep cultural dressing codes they have had for centuries. Our neighbours in Europe and Asia Pacific stick to conventional practices of summer – winter wear, where the dress code is influenced by environmental factors. Even in this, their classic styles have always been upheld.

Africa does itself a disservice by discarding its sole role of perfecting its fashion. Whenever there is a dinner party or cocktail in the African corporate scene, guests are always reminded of the dress code. “Strictly African” is always shouting loud on some invitation cards. It is no surprise that sometimes, one or two guests skip the occasion for lack of African attire.

Do we have to be reminded that we are Africans? Renowned scholar, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o always says that “having no opinion of your own about anything will most likely force you to agree with that of your peers.” Every time Africa shies away from displaying its cultural values, it gives more room to other cultures to express theirs. In the 19th century, men in Italy creased their trousers horizontally across the knee, mimicking what they saw on visiting Englishmen. Of course, the Englishmen had those creases because their pants had been folded in a suitcase during the long trip from the UK! We sometimes pick up on styles whose intended purpose is not known.  

Does Africa have its own fashion? With beautiful landscapes, breathtaking forests, amazing skin colours, wonderful black hair, water bodies, the beautiful sunset and non-apologetically ‘African’ silhouette, what else does Africa need as fashion inspiration? With teeming wildlife: zebras, giraffes, cheetahs, leopards, alligators, lizards, polished bird feathers and classic artifacts, who else matches Africa in sources of inspiration? Africa stands at a strategic position to take its fashion industry to a higher level. The fact that we are swamped with imports of fashion items is no strong reason to lose pride in our local products. Think about Tanzania without Kanga, Kenyans without ‘kiondo’ and ‘kikoi’, Nigerians without ‘agbada’ and the Senegalese without ‘boubou’, do you get the picture?  

It is not easy for Africans to simply change their dress code overnight but we can learn one step at a time. In African societies, the dress code is closely interwoven with issues of culture, status and identity for both individuals and groups. Even in societies where clothing was apparently minimal, dress involved a hint of distinction and elaboration which could only be understood by close local knowledge. Dress meant any item attached to or covered the body: amulets, earrings and tattoos were aspects of dressing too.   

Africans ought to promote and aggressively market their dress codes. It is through the same way that the non-African styles pitched tent in Africa. With the African media frowning upon cultural productions, indigenous African fashion is bound to go no farther. However, a renewed understanding of our heritage and the realization of the need to front an African agenda will make a big difference. All of us have a part to panel beat our fashion: inspired by nature, perfected by Africa!   

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