African Fashion Is More Than Traditional Caricatures

By: Tshego ‘Red’ Mosiane

Since the beginning of the decade, the world of fashion has seen a gradual increase in the use of traditional and traditional-inspired African prints, mainly of the West and East African regions, in global subcultures, mainstream fashion and on runways. Many thought, like any other trend, it would peak and fizzle out after a season or 2 but has instead stood the test of time while further diversifying into other industries because it responds to the genuine needs of a large sum of global consumers – black people.

Afropunk Broklyn 2016
source: wmagazine.com

This trend was not fueled by Africans in Africa, but rather the millennial generation of African diaspora across Europe and the US. As they have grown, we saw them undergo a mass interest in returning to the cultural heritage of their parents or ancestors before them which was born of an absence of their representation in mass media.

Naturally, those African expatriates were drawn towards performative aspects of African cultures in the form of colourful printed fabrics, beads, etc. After being censored or even ignored by all mainstream media representation around them, they refused to be overlooked any longer and chose to be defiant by being bright and bold in performing their pride.

When considering that a majority of the diaspora in Europe and the US have ancestry rooted in West and East Africa, the fact that they mainly draw inspiration from the tribes of those regions comes as an expected progression – kind of like coming full circle in one’s identity. However, they seem to have mindlessly co-opted these ancestral sensibilities and applied them to their lives in the countries they occupy whilst neglecting to do the necessary research into the various symbolism and appropriate usage of the pieces and began building businesses, fashion brands, media outlets and blogs to validate – and monetize – their interpretations of blackness.

Albeit unintended, every thoughtless action almost always has a negative impact on one thing or the other. In this case, this trend attributes largely (along with many other factors) to the fact that the rest of the world still views Africa, fashion in Africa, as well as blackness as monolithic. The diaspora of this generation plays a key role in leading the global narrative of what the modern-day African is perceived as. Not to say they are wrong in representing themselves as they are, but is it fair that Africans in Africa become a subordinate definition of blackness while the performance of the diaspora takes center stage in the mass media whose framework we also form part of?

The universal influence of the West, particularly in fashion and popular culture affects us all. Millennial Africans grew up socialized to believe that African expatriates in Western countries are a better brand of black due to their proximity to whiteness. From the late 90’s, we saw an increase in the access to American and European television programs, music, subcultures and more on the continent. We were drawn to it because of its higher production value and how Western culture and mannerisms are completely different from those of our parents. This only intensified from the late 2000’s with the growth in popularity of social media and has led to a change or development in how African youth see and approach fashion. But why is the cross-culturation one-sided, and not evident in how global mass media represents Africans living in Africa? Back in the day one could concede that it was because of the mass erasure of blackness in the media. But surely, that should see a change with the current times of improved representation…?

SOL SOL
source: sol-solmenswear.com

These days, social media and the internet are irrefutably the biggest catalysts of any trend with global impact. With the world’s population spending more of their daily time scrolling through their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds – we are all influenced by what we see and consume in some way. That’s evident in the movements, news pieces and topical discussions that have sparked online and are now front and centre in a global dialogue. And because the online reach and impact of the voice of the Western diaspora still largely outweighs that of Africans in Africa – due to a variety of factors, but mainly access to resources – we still are heavily influenced by the trends they set as well.

Africans do not walk around on a regular Tuesday in Kente dashikis and seShweShwe head wraps – similar to how Japanese youth, for example, do not live their daily lives in Hikizuri Kimonos. Instead designers and consumers alike are juxtaposing indigenous cultural and religious beauty standards, socio-economic circumstances, organic local fashion subcultures, as well as Western ideals which were imposed through generations of colonialism and systematic racism with current global trends. The continent also has streetwear, bridal, swimwear, shoe, jewelry brands and so on, with offerings that can seamlessly transcend borders. Where we can, we are also a vibrant tech-savvy youth documenting our reality and aspirations online.

MAXHOSA by Laduma
source: superselected.com

African fashion is a melting pot of ideas and aesthetics unlike anywhere else on this earth but that is not what is largely seen on global mass media’s coverage of African fashion. In fact, brands based in Africa who have received the most fruitful and consistent global attention are mostly those who peddle aspects of African-ness that appeal to the white and Western gaze – namely colourful prints and beads – which are by no coincidence in line with the aspects cherry picked by African diaspora when this whole trend started to form. To the point that even in Africa, mass media does the same thing as to try and gain international readerships by further assimilating to their norms.

We have to make caricatures of our own cultures in order to feel some semblance of representation because Africans in Africa are still not allowed to represent ourselves as we see fit, or our diverse modern versions as we are, because that would contradict how the rest of the world wants to keep us: primal. In order feed this odd fixation on romanticizing the “starving African” as means to “connect with the motherland” or whatever.

Millennials now comprise 37 percent of Africa’s population and – as of 2012 – 70% of the Sub-Saharan African population was under the age of 30 thus making it the world’s most youthful continent. With that comes a constantly diversifying approach to fashion that deserves to be covered, respected and supported globally, and led by Africans in Africa.

 

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below?