The Hidden Meanings of African Clothing & Influence of African Fabrics on British Fashion Industry
African clothing is the traditional clothing worn by the people of Africa. In some instances, these traditional garments have been replaced by western clothing introduced to Africans by European colonialists. (Britain)
The evolution of African clothing is difficult to trace because of the lack of historical evidence. Although artefacts from Egyptian culture date back to before 3000 B.C., no similar evidence is available for most of the African continent until the mid-twentieth century. Sources from Arab culture refer to the people of northern Africa by the eighth century C.E., but much of early African clothing history has been pieced together from art, oral histories, and traditions that are continued by present-day tribal members.
When Europeans began trading and later developed colonies in Africa starting in the thirteenth century, more information about how Africans dressed was recorded and continues to this day. The spotty information available, combined with the huge number of different cultures living in Africa, however, provides only a very general history of the clothing trends on the continent.
Clothing was not a necessity for warmth or protection throughout much of the African continent because of the consistently warm weather. Many people, especially men, did not wear any clothing at all and instead decorated their bodies with paint or scars. When Africans did wear clothing, evidence suggests that animal skins and bark cloth were the first materials used. It is unknown when these readily available materials were first utilized, but they were used to make simple aprons to cover the genitals or large robes to drape around the body.
Later many cultures developed weaving techniques to produce beautiful cloth. Raffia, the fibre of a palm plant, and cotton were common materials used to weave fabric. At first cloth was woven by hand, and later looms (weaving devices) were created to make more complicated fabrics. Men and women worked together to produce fabric for clothing, with men weaving the fabric and women decorating it in many cultures. Perhaps the most well-known fabrics were folded batik cloth. Some Africans used their fabric to create elaborate wrapped clothing styles, while others cut and sewed their fabrics into shirts, dresses, and trousers. There were the intricately woven cotton or silk Kente cloth of Ghana; the mud cloth of Mali, with its distinctive brown and beige patterns; and the tufted Kuba cloth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other types of cloth were also woven by other groups; each culture using its distinctive cloth to create clothing. Some used their fabric to create elaborate wrapped clothing styles, similar to the toga worn by ancient Romans. Others cut and sewed their fabric into skirts, shirts, dresses, and loose trousers. Different versions of loose-fitting robes are worn in many different regions of Africa.
In Nigeria and Senegal, a robe called a boubou for men and a m’boubou for women is popular. Other similar robes include the agbada and riga in Nigeria, the gandoura or leppi in Cameroon, and the dansiki in West Africa. Styles in northern Africa reflect the strong influence Muslims have had on the cultures, especially the Berbers of Morocco and other Saharan desert countries.
The clothing styles already discussed are considered traditional African dress, but there is a great deal we don’t know about them and other forms of African dress. We know nothing about the origins of these styles, for example, nor do we know the precise ways that they changed over time. It is almost certain, however, that African clothing styles, like the styles of all other long-enduring cultures, have evolved over time.
In ancient times, when different African groups would meet and trade with each other, exotic items, such as shell beads in inland communities, would become prized status symbols and be incorporated into different tribal clothing styles. One prime example of how trade changed African clothing is the popularity of the tiny glass beads brought to Africa from Europe in the fifteenth century. Africans coveted the beads and soon created elaborate beaded skirts, capes, headdresses, and even shoes. The colours and patterns of the beadwork distinguished tribes from one another, and the styles of beaded clothing differentiated people by sex, age, and social status. These beaded items are now identified as traditional among many different groups in Africa. Further contact with Europeans introduced other Western items, namely Western clothing styles. Although these items were first combined with older African styles, by the twenty-first century it was not uncommon to see people in Africa wearing jeans, T-shirts, and tennis shoes, or other Western style outfits
Any study of African clothing and fabrics must take into account that Africa 5 minutes ago, 50 years ago, 500 years ago and Africa 5000 years ago is not a static feature. A diverse Africa has influenced and been influenced. Concepts and cultures of African clothing have been exported and re-imported, just as genes, ideas and technologies have exited and re-entered African Continents.
There is no such thing as African monolithic purity, cultures smash through deserts, cross trade routes, travel through immigration borders, disregarding our notions of geography and race. Throughout history, names, foods, cultures, religions, genetics have jumped between Asia and Africa from the dawn of humanity with blatant disregard for our social constructions.
But as much as culture drifts on the open ocean of human interaction and technological development, pushed on by the winds of globalization. The ethics of culture are pretty much static. And where Africa is concern, the centrality of life-systems and functionality have always been at the root of all African cultures.
What is the point of multiculturalism if we all become one? Same ethics, same dress, same attitude, same way of thinking, same hair, clothes, and socialization. Where is the richness in that—If Africa looks like Europe? The beauty of the world is in the differences, which allow for diverse contributions to this world. Culture is the repository of human traditions; long and tested solutions for living in a meaningful way
Clothing and fashion underwent several transformations in the early modern world, reflecting the changing social, political, religious, and economic forces of which they were a part and an expression. Though major shifts in patterns of production and consumption and the emergence of more varied fabrics and textiles had already taken place in the late Middle Ages, the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries represented a culmination of these trends as well as a distinct and dynamic period in which clothing became an innovative and rapidly changing style form in its own right.
Reflecting a heightened clothes-consciousness, men and women constructed their identity by wearing garments that reshaped their bodies and created around them a fluid circulation of meanings.
In this sense, clothing, as one writer put it, constituted a “worn world: a world of social relations put upon the wearer’s body.”
This project looked at the colours and distinctive designs that give African clothing something extraordinary that also has a rich cultural meaning and explored the history of African clothing, the importance, meanings and spirituality of the colours.
It also explored the influence of African clothing on modern day British Fashion, and the influence of modern fashion on contemporary African clothing.
THE CONCEPT AND OBJECTIVES
Wearing African clothing is a wonderful way for many to celebrate our cultural heritage and to commemorate the beauty of our motherland. The project focused on African Heritage, it looked into the history of African clothing, the importance, meanings and spirituality of the colours, it also looked at the African head wrap ( scarf) which during slavery, the white overlords imposed on their slaves as a badge of enslavement and look at the influence Of African clothing on modern day British Fashion. Both Africans and British women use the headwrap but never knew how it came into existence.
The project was made up of three parts:
1. Participatory workshops which involved focus group and using the Time Spark Index in Gillingham Library to explore the history and evolution of African clothing, the significance of colours and why different Africans countries dress colourfully and what each colour stands for. Volunteers will also visit HLF funded project (Fashion Africa) in Brighton to work out how “The hidden meanings of African clothing” can complement “Fashion Africa” and get some expert advice from Brighton Museums.
2. Using information and pictures compiled from the workshop and visit to the Brighton Museums, we carried out 10 educational Workshops to inform participants on history of clothing used in selected African countries including the fact that Headwrap (scarf) has a rich cultural history linking head wrap to influence of British colonial slave masters on their slaves.
3. Exhibition/ Conference to celebrate the project. This was made up three days exhibition in Sunlight Centre ,Richmond Road Gillingham showcasing clothing made from materials from the selected countries, pictures and some British fashion clothes made from African fabrics.
The project explored the history of clothing from two selected British colonial African Countries( Ghana & Nigeria ) Ghana (Adinkra & Kente), Nigeria( Aso- Oke & The Dye cloth) and Congo ( French Colony) Clothing called Liputa.
Unlike British fashion, African styles are created to stand out from the crowd, making use of both vibrant hues and striking prints, reflecting African culture. There can be variations in the meanings depending on the people group you are studying; however, in general these are the most common meanings behind commonly used colours in Africa.
Gold: Gold is an extremely popular colour. It represents wealth and fertility.
Red: Red represents tension in the spiritual or political world and is viewed as the colour of blood.
Blue: Blue represents love and peace, it symbolizes the sky, and is a harmonious colour.
Green: Green represents prosperity and life and is also a medicinal colour.
White: Spirituality and purity
The main aims and objectives of the project were to explore:
• Why Africans are always colourfully dressed?
• What the different colour stands for in the different African countries? b
• How the head scarf (“Gele”) originated and the history behind it?
• How African fabrics have influenced modern day British fashion?
The project started with the recruitment of a project coordinator and production of project publicity leaflets Project publicity flyers was widely distributed by the volunteers, staff and the young people of HACO Youth Club and in the libraries. It was advertised in our website, Facebook, twitter and the MVA monthly magazine that goes to all voluntary organisations in Medway this enabled wide range of people to hear and take part in the project
This was followed by the training of 5 new volunteers in addition to the 6 volunteers that took part in the Elders Respect and we then had 11 volunteers in total to work on the project. These volunteers were trained on basic research skills, oral history, heritage interpretation and how to use the use the “Time Spark Index” in Gillingham Library
VISIT TO BRIGHTON MUSEUM
3 trained Volunteers travelled to HLF funded a project (Fashion Cities Africa) at Brighton Museum. This was the first major UK exhibition dedicated to contemporary African fashion at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. The project explored fashion and style in four cities at the compass points of the African continent – Casablanca in Morocco, Lagos in Nigeria, Nairobi in Kenya and Johannesburg in South Africa. Fashion Cities Africa considered recent and contemporary fashion practices in these distinctive metropoles, from couture to street style.
Fashion Cities Africa focused on the style choices of individual ‘fashion agents’ from each city; from designers and stylists to photographers and bloggers. We met with Helen Mears, the Museum’s Keeper of World Art to explore their fashion scenes and identify key players. Project Fashion Africa explored contemporary African fashion and we wanted to make a connection with the project to see how our project can complement theirs. The volunteers that visited viewed their fabric collections, talk to the project Lead (Helen Mears) to gather relevant information that supported our project delivery
The visit to Brighton was followed by 3 focus group meetings which was held in HACO main hall. These meetings were held on 30/4/2018, 1/5/2018 and 1/6/2018 respectively. The aim of the focus group was to explore what members of the African communities in Medway already know about African fabrics & clothing. Older members of the African communities taking part in the focus group were asked to bring in materials and pictures of clothing made from fabrics from their individual countries including head wrap (scarf) and participants were asked to tell the group what they know about the history of those type of materials, what the individual colours signifies (if they knew), whether those type of clothing are still worn in their countries or have been replaced by western clothing introduced by the British. The trained volunteers put into practice the skills they acquired from the training they received by using the skills to get required information from the participants. Those who are British born were asked to look at the fashion industry as they were today and say from their own point of view if African prints have had any influence on clothes that are made and sold in British fashion shops. The focus group meetings enabled us get insight into participants’ understanding of the culture of clothing in contemporary African countries. We realised that the young people and even some of the older ones knew little or nothing about the project topic. The information from the focus group was documented in writing. Based on the information documented from the three focus group meetings, PowerPoint presentation was put together which was used for training in the 10 educational workshops
10 Educational workshops were delivered throughout the project life . They were delivered on 28/7/18, 25/8/18, 15/9/18, 1/12/18, 23/02/19, 30/3/19, 27/4/19, 25/5/19 ,29/6/19 and 27/07/19. The workshops emphasised the importance of colours when we talk of African fabrics and the history of clothing used in Nigeria, Ghana and Gambia. The meanings of the prominent colours in African fabrics were explained to participants. They were given the list of some of the main colours followed by the meanings and that there will be variations depending on the country. Gold represents wealth and fertility, Red representing tension, Blue represent love and peace, Green represents prosperity and life and White Spirituality and purity. The three countries were selected because majority of the participants were from the three countries. The history of the head wrap was also explained. The workshop made participants to understand that there is much more to the headwrap(Scarf) than the beautiful colours and fascinating style; that Headwrap is a symbol in Africa of one’s life and social status; survival, courage, and cultural identity. The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and was often used to convey modesty, spirituality and prosperity. Even men in Africa wore head wraps to symbolize wealth and social status. Head wrapping was literally a way that Africans for centuries have been able to non-verbally communicate theirplace in life. They were made to understand that the headwrap of a woman walking down the street would tell them if she was a widow, a grandmother, or if she’s a married young woman. It was an element in the daily living of an African woman. Headwraps also served a practical function in protecting the head from the rays of the sun. In West Africa, head wraps are referred to as ‘gele’ in Yoruba or ‘ichafu’ in Ibo.
During slavery, British white overlords imposed the wearing of headwraps as a badge of enslavement. Later it evolved into the stereotype that whites held of the “Black Mammy” servant. The enslaved and their descendants, however, bravely regarded the headwrap as a helmet of courage that evoked an image of their true homeland – that ancient Africa. The simple headwrap worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants had served as a uniform of communal identity
During the workshops, participants were also taught how the famous Adire materials ( tie & dye) were made and they created so many designs that were used during the exhibition. The workshops were well attended as each had more than 15 participants. The influence of the African Fabrics on modern day British fashion could not be over emphasized as some of the participants brought in material that were made with blending of African and British fabrics.
During the Black History month when Africans celebrate the contributions of the Black community in Britain, the project had three days Exhibitions on the 10th, 17th and 24th of October 2018 at Sunlight Centre in Gillingham. African fabrics, photographs, head wraps and other products of the project were in display. Fashion designers from the African community that specialises in the blending of African and British fabrics came to display the items they have produced by blending both materials. Most of the end products of their work were displayed and people purchased some of these extraordinary materials. There were food tasting, music and dancing. There were demonstrations of head scarf, fashion parade etc. Items produced by project participants especially “Adire” were in display
This 3 days event brought both African and non-Africans together to celebrate and understand the impact and influence of African fabrics on modern day British fashion
How African fabrics have influenced the British Fashion Industry
The way one dresses can express their heritage, culture, style and so much more. African-print fabrics, which were inspired by batik or wax-resist cloth from Indonesia, have been used to dress the people of Central and West Africa from the 1800s to present day. From traditional attire to modernized African-inspired dashikis and dresses, the various print designs and range of colours of African textiles have had an influence on the British fashion industry.
Brighton Museum in Britain recently had an exhibition, “Fashion Cities Africa which was shown at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery between April 2016 and January 2017. The exhibition explored practices of dress, fashion and styling in four African cities: Casablanca (Morocco), Lagos (Nigeria), Nairobi (Kenya) and Johannesburg (South Africa) African-Print Fashion Now! Our project looked at the history of African prints, the head wrap, the meanings of the colours and its influence on global runways
We spoke with Helen Mears the project Manager and one of the curators of the exhibition, and she said, “One cannot underestimate the importance and the extent and the enormous variety and beauty of examples of fashion in Africa and especially those that utilize African-print cloth. It is really a pan West and Central African cloth. There are tens of thousands of patterns and men and women have it tailored into unique fashions for themselves across the continent.”
One of the things that differentiates African prints from other textiles in Africa is that they are factory manufactured. They are a special category of manufactured cotton textiles. Their origins are traceable to the painted and block printed cottons that were produced in India for the Indian Ocean trade as early as the 4th century. By the 11th century, these blocks printed cloths from India had inspired the development of hand printed wax-resist batiks in Java. So they are commercially manufactured batiks in essence.”
Those African-print wax-resist textiles have stood the test of time across generations throughout Central and West Africa, and has been used to signify status, religion and much more. In the ‘70s, African-inspired clothing was worn as a symbol of Black pride during the “Black Power” movement. We could look at one design, the Angelina design, which was the name of a cloth designed by the Dutch company Vlisco in 1963 and it quickly became known as dashiki.
It was the cloth worn by many Africans in the 1970s as very much a gesture of Afrocentric pride and pan-African pride. It was a shirt often worn by men with an embroidery pattern at the neck. It was very popular in Britain in the ‘70s and then it sort of faded away a little bit both in Britain and Africa.”
In recent years, colourful dashikis and African-inspired headwraps and dresses have become popular among Black British and many more. In just the last couple of years, Vlisco re-issued the cloth and then of course the Chinese copied it in every colour imaginable and it is now hugely popular in West and Central Africa. It is now being used by designers in Britain and by local seamstresses on the African continent.
In the last 10 years, African designers have also been using the print and it appears they are showing their work in fashion shows in London, Paris, New York, Shanghai, Dakar, Johannesburg and more.
We also had the opportunity to speak with Elizabeth Kwashi, a Black Fashion Designers who came to give a talk at the exhibition and displayed some of her designs . All of these designers regularly incorporate their own variations of African textile traditions into their work.
She also gave specific examples of other designers “Lisa Folawiyo, based in London, was inspired by the Ankara prints of Nigeria for the spring 2018 dress on view in Black Fashion Designers. Aisha Ayensu, the designer of Accra-based Christie Brown, looked to the Dutch wax prints she associates with special occasion wear in Ghana for her spring 2018 design. Both designers modernized the traditional textiles of their own cultures to create fashion-forward designs. Italian designer Stella Jean worked with the Ethical Fashion Initiative to commission her fall 2017 ensemble’s fabrics from textile artisans in Burkina Faso.”
Stella McCartney a famous British designer in 2017 was under fire for using Ankara Prints an African fabric long associated with Africa and wasn’t sent down the runway on models of African descent, and it made some people very unhappy.