Black Fashion: The Undertones Of The Industry
“I thought I’d take style to its limit… My philosophy is a belief in magic, good luck , self-confidence, and pride.”
- Grace Jones, Jamaican Model, Singer, Actress, Record Producer, Recipient of the Q Idol Award Recipient
Power Within The Threads
Fashion is much more than simply a visual aesthetic. It is about the muse of the human body, testing the limits of experimentation, standing on the final frontier, developing an artform and so much more. How a person chooses to cover, dress, and reveal his or her body is an extremely complex dynamic that has the ability to be a form of self-expression, create political statements that may be gendered, and allude to one’s social identities in the most subtle or bombastic of ways. The wide array of patterns, materials, colors, threads, jewelry, symbols and designs cannot only come together as a lush aesthetic, but each piece also has Black culture weaved within its fabric.
Often times with each fiber in Africa is sewn as traditionally special clothing; being used for occasions such as weddings, naming ceremonies, burials, and tribal events. Fabric would be wrapped around the hip and waist as a skirt and more fabric would be put over the shoulder; this would vary on custom, region, and ceremony. Outfits are also made with the purpose of relaying stories, proverbs, and history in a non-oratory form.
If colonialism and eurocentrism, amongst the host of other -isms have permeated so deeply into Black culture, geopolitical dynamics, media and even the lives of millions on a day to day basis, it is to be expected that the fashion industry has also been affected. One such instance is how Sheebah Karungi, a Ugandan Afropop musician praised for being someone that has mastered her self-presentation and sexuality, uses her clothing as a way to exert her individuality and as an act of resistance to norms in the environment. Women in Buganda, where Sheebah is from, were demonized and ostracized by politicians and community figureheads for expressing their sexuality and freedoms of their bodies; thought as having no morals, all tying to conservative ideas of femininity. Her style presents a dichotomy to those ideals and is a example of how much clothing and presentation can be deeply rooted in one’s culture.
Expanding The Industry
The multibillion-dollar industry has the ability for African countries to thrive and flourish, providing jobs and opportunities for people, changing the economy, building factories. The African economies would be more diversified. It is also a way to combat unemployment and low levels of education particularly with women and the youth as the government would have to support these companies due to the increasing production logistic costs, education programs, transport, energy consumption. Fashion inspires entrepreneurship.
Milan, London, Paris, and New York — deemed the four capitals of the fashion world — are thousands of miles away from Africa. A problem for those wishing to get into the lifestyle acknowledges that there is comparatively fewer resources and opportunity available in their country; with many acknowledging that to learn the necessary fashion techniques, they would have to travel across borders into the Western world.
South Africa in 2011 launched the Wear Only ZA initiative to encourage more fashion design and production in South Africa to increase the demand for local clothing and create easier pathways for local integration into the fashion industry. There are also two fashion weeks, South African Fashion Week and Mercedes Benz Fashion Week; this allows for international brands, designers, entrepreneurs to view the talent in the hopes of collaboration or creating more exposure for people. The Zambia Fashion Council was formed in 2014, to develop the industry in its country; primarily by supporting young talent with a passion for it after learning the ins and outs of the industry globally and domestically. Biannual workshop seminars are also run to teach people and grow interest in this creative industry. More and more young designers have begun to change the fashion industry. Many of which create a fusion between African and international styles, using their creativity to work with designers, clothing stylists, fashion, photographers, make-up artists, journalists, and hairstylists to express what they envisioned.
Lastly, the sociopolitical dilemmas unfortunately have been coupled with pressing environmental issues. Global consumption has increased the amount of environmental damage from clothing and resource waste, the agricultural practices along with transportation have led the garment industry to become the second-largest polluter in the world. Chemical use is abundant in the manufacturing process, especially regarding dyeing, bleaching, pesticide use. Synthetic fibers do not decompose so improper disposal can be detrimental to many habitats. Resolving these problems is part of the greater fight for environmental justice.
The rich history of Africa is further enriched by the colorful world behind fashion. The Mali empire had bogolanfini/mud cloths which were handmade clothes made by the men with symbols on them revealing a hidden message. The tradition was developed for these clothes to be passed down from mother to daughter. The Ugandan barkcloths is attributed to be one of the first-ever fabrics created as it served many purposes ranging from draperies to bedding to skirts. The Adire Cloth of Nigeria is a tie-dye textile holding symbols of culture, legend, proverbs using special weaving techniques. Ghana holds the Adinkra and Kente cloths both made to be worn during particular ceremonies. For kente having gold means wealth, green meant renewal, blue means spiritual purity. There are similar concepts across many cultures with their unique style and twist which can be seen in the Kanga of Tanzania or the Kitenge of Kenya. Each country has its unique style and products related to its traditions and lifestyles; even more so each region may have its own distinct and unique features .
Africa, rarely credited for it and the Diaspora’s impact in the global fashion industry, supplies many of the worlds raw materials and handmade textiles in addition to casting many giants in the industry. The largest fashion markets in Africa are currently South Africa, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. However, every country had a hand to play in fashions globalization. The Egyptians started by weaving flax into linen, and as cotton became more used/refined/utilized, it became the main raw material for clothing and textiles.
Traditional clothing from old has continued to be staples, such as the Ghanaian kente cloth, Malian bogolan, and Zimbabwean ndebele. Southern nations such as Swaziland and South Africa have become hubs of cloths and textile exports. Northern African countries such as Egypt and Morocco have become areas of industrial production because of their proximity to Europe. While East Africa supplies precious metals for jewelry and countries such as Mali producing the clothing dyes, West Africa and Central Africa is also big on textiles due to their high cotton production with countries such as Ethiopia and Senegal.
Greater Than Just The Fabric
There are many instances of a style or look being much more deeply rooted into the culture than being of tradition. For example, the dashiki, created in the 1970s, has remained a popular style of clothing through the decades. The word stemmed from the Yoruba and Hausa terms for shirt but quickly meant much more than that. Jason Benning began to produce the dashiki style in Harlem and it quickly became very popular as a symbol of the Black Power Movement at the time because it encapsulated an afro-centric aesthetic and an acknowledgment of African heritage. The V-shaped collar, colorful embroidery, and sleeve lines would remind people of African roots.
In more recent history the Congolese Sapeurs are considered an elite group of individuals, formed in the 1920s, with high fashion wardrobes consisting of three-piece suits, canes, and bright pocket squares. For these individuals it is much bigger than just keeping an appearance, it has become a lifestyle and cultural phenomenon specific to the region. They stand in the face of the immense poverty, corruption, generations of unrest in their communities standing with a sense of pride that leaves them unwavered; they move in a way that brings the community together. Mainly done by men, women are also creating a major shift by adopting the fashion style. This is one of the many instances of fashion is more of a lifestyle than a simple aesthetic. Issues arise when people outside of the culture adopt a style without understanding that it is much more than simply taking on a look; the appropriation ranging from having faux locs to wearing cultural beads to wrapping yourself in kente cloth.
A powerful phenomenon in Black culture is the reclamation of fashion, a black aesthetic. The Black Lives Matter Movement has called for the upliftment of Black creatives that are generally ostracized from the mainstream fashion industry. The “Vogue Challenge”, being much more impactful than a simple social media trend, originated from people bringing up the fact that Vogue Magazine did not have Black executives, designers, or workers on their staff indicating that the brand did not truly support Black creatives. Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue, stated in a letter to the employees that Vogue has not found a way to elevate and give space to Black people; which was especially shocking considering that there has only been one Black photographer and 21 Black women on the cover in its 127-year history.
Black creatives made the challenge by deciding to make Vogue styled cover pages of themselves or friends as models to bring more awareness to this issue. The challenge was deeper than just having Black Models on the covers, but it brought attention to the need for the fashion industry to give opportunities to photographers, set designers, artists, and every one Black that works behind the camera to bring visions to life. People went a step further by putting themselves on covers of The Root Magazine and Ebony Magazine, to show that Black people can thrive in their own spaces rather than needing to be recognized in that of others. The challenge also brought attention to the other disparities within major fashion corporations such as the severe lack of LGBTQ+ representation and the intersectional identities expressed throughout the magazine issues.
Curating A Brand
Smaller brands have a steep uphill battle against the giants of the industry. These bigger brands have greater control of transnational trade deals, have the resources to be hyper-visible in the market, and have major leverage in the manufacturing and distribution sectors; creating more little space for smaller brands looking to dive into anything related to production.
Fashion week, social media challenges, and spaces created for and by Black people such as Jumia and Afrikrea dramatically increase one’s access into the fashion world. Designers and other creatives can showcase their work on runways, through celebrity support, or simply through a post online. African creatives Duro Olowu, Chris Seydou, Alphadi, and David Tlalea amongst many others have continued to display their talents and grow their spaces in the fashion world. Thousands of creatives are following suit to inspire others that see their visions being realized.