Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 8, 2012
Suzanne Gott and Kristyne Loughran, eds. Contemporary African Fashion Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. 248 pp.; 71 color ills. Paper $27.95 (9780253222565)

Malian designer and artist Kandioura Coulibaly “interpret[s] the stories that are told by the material culture” (106) he uses in his costumes and jewelry. In Janet Goldner’s conversation with Coulibaly, entitled “Using the Past to Sculpt the Costume of the Future: An Interview with Kandioura Coulibaly” and collected in Contemporary African Fashion, readers discover how his work—and his aim to construct a museum of fashion—emerges from a process of reconstructing and recovering a hidden history, one often overlooked in accounts of Africa’s complicated chronology. Seeing fashion as an organizing system, he describes how it is woven from the physical, social, and spiritual worlds that shape individuals and their communities. Thus fashion and history coalesce powerfully in the arrangement, texture, and form of his designs as they materialize aspects of his Malian heritage. They are evocative ensembles, created—not unlike a museum—by the careful collection of material objects and human stories to share knowledge and inspiration locally and internationally.

While describing the philosophy and practice of an influential Malian artist, the interview with Coulibaly also sheds light on the contemporary significance of fashion—as ideology, system, and cultural strategy—for the preservation of an African, and pan-African, heritage. Insightful pieces such as this one comprise Contemporary African Fashion, edited by Suzanne Gott and Kristyne Loughran. It investigates the varied and complex ways in which Africans participate in the networks of a global fashion world. The book is divided into three sections: “Fashion within the African Continent,” “African Fashion Designers,” and “Fashion in the Diaspora.” This division provides readers with a sense of the immediate context for each case study, while also allowing more general disciplinary and methodological questions to percolate throughout the text. Each chapter is beautifully illustrated; moreover, as a scholarly text Contemporary African Fashion provides an important interdisciplinary analysis of a subject relevant to art historians, fashion historians, anthropologists, and historians alike. It would fit well within graduate-level reading lists for courses in African art history and histories of fashion. The writers engage closely with more practical aspects of the fashion industry, and in so doing they often bridge the gap that has emerged between the academy and the industry in Fashion Studies. Importantly this text also sheds new light on debates within the often Eurocentric histories of fashion by expanding the ways in which African art and dress can be studied and understood by scholars, designers, and wearers.

Both Gott and Loughran are well-published in the areas of fashion and art history. Gott’s work focuses on female art and fashion from the Ashanti region of Ghana, while Loughran specializes in the art and culture of the Tuareg peoples, as well as African influences in fashion more broadly. In the foreword written by Joanne Eicher, a path-breaking scholar of African textiles, she notes that while the volume owes much to previous scholarship, it makes an important contribution to this existing body of work. Scholarship it does draw on includes Mary Jo Arnoldi and Christine Mullen Kreamer, eds., Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1995); Mary Ellen Roach-Higgins et al., Dress and Identity (New York: Fairchild, 1998); and Jean Allman, ed., Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004). However, Contemporary African Fashion moves away from being an ethnographic account of African dress practices or using dress practices to analyze social systems of patronage, gender, and authenticity in African cultures. Neither is it focused only on explicating a language of fashion. This collection of essays brings to mind the exhibitions (and their catalogues) Black Style, curated by Carol Tulloch at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2004, and the Global Africa Project, curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Leslie King Hammond at New York’s Museum of Art and Design in 2011. These explorations of fashion and design, albeit using different methodologies, juxtaposed regional and design-oriented perspectives on fashion to underscore how these aspects shaped fashion’s multivalent meanings throughout Africa and its diaspora.

Contemporary African Fashion engages with the contemporary nature of African fashion, merging accounts of haute-couture fashion and international designers with case studies exploring individual fashion choices and grassroots-level networks of production and consumption. In this way Contemporary African Fashion brings new analytical questions to bear on African fashion that has often been studied outside of its international contexts. By assessing stylistic and technological creativity and by incorporating discussions of production as well as the impact of global media on local conceptions of modernity, the book maps out the complex processes of movement that shape flows of people, aesthetic practices, and garments across continents. Furthermore Contemporary African Fashion also historicizes the position of Africa with relation to these pathways: the book foregrounds the centuries of production and trade through which Africans have always been participants in global networks of commerce and consumption adapting and responding to changes in taste, design, and materials. In so doing it delineates some of the networks and theoretical concerns that shape contemporary meanings of fashion and dress in Africa and its diaspora.

The first section is concerned with the importance of fashion in different African contexts. In “The Ghanaian Kaba: Fashion That Sustains Culture,” Gott studies contemporary wearers of the kaba, a traditional three-piece wrapped and sewn ensemble worn by women in the Ashanti region of southern Ghana. Her study highlights how wearing the kaba allows these women to maintain expressions of local fashion and cultural heritage and participate in a dynamic, local fashion system. These networks are explored in other contexts too. Joanna Grabski explores urban fashion in Dakar in “The Visual City: Tailors, Creativity and Urban Life in Dakar, Senegal” while Elisabeth L. Cameron, in “Fashion, Not Weather: A Rural Primer of Style,” writes about rural fashion in Zambia. Karen Tranberg Hansen explores the second-hand clothing trade in Zambia in “Secondhand Clothing and Fashion in Africa,” and Elisha P. Renne’s “Contemporary Wedding Fashion in Lago, Nigeria” makes wedding dress fashion her focus. These essays provide a sophisticated integration of the spaces of fashion production, the creativity of designers and wearers, and the socio-economic factors that structure the worlds of those involved in these networks. Thus they emphasize historical change while sensitively defining the specific contexts of its participants.

The second section, which includes Goldner’s interview, revolves around the practices of several African fashion designers. Hudita Nura Mustafa’s essay, “Intersecting Creativities: Oumou Sy’s Costumes in the Dakar Landscape,” is a poetic description of Senegalese costume and fashion designer Oumou Sy. Bringing together the intricacies of art, fashion, and the urban landscape of Senegal, Mustafa shows how Sy’s elaborately staged creations negotiate “the artistic legacies of her Senegambian heritage [with] more universal themes about the ironies and doubled-edged swords of civilized modernity” (124). She argues that this negotiation gives Sy’s richly embellished, surrealist costumes such international appeal. Victoria L. Rovine’s chapter, “African Fashion: Design, Identity and History,” examines the work of four contemporary designers—the now deceased Chris Seydou (Mali), Ben Nonterah (Ghana), Lamine Kouyatè (Senegal/Mali/Paris), and the brand Strangelove created by South African designers Carlo Gibson and Ziemek Pater—who in different ways, “participate . . . in the production of African style for global markets” (93). Rebecca L. Green’s “From Cemetery to Runway: Dress and Identity in Highland Madagascar” offers an evocative discussion of Malagasy designers’ use of an indigenous, culturally and ritually significant silk cloth (lamba fitafy) to create contemporary Malagasy fashions that express both global trends and local traditions.

The final section looks at the fashion systems that Africans in the diaspora engage with and create. In “Have Cloth—Will Travel,” Loughran presents an almost anecdotal account of Haliatou Traorè Kandè. Kandè, a Togolese woman, has lived and worked in Florence for eighteen years, and created a fashion network encompassing Florence, Munich, Togo, and Mali that allows her to maintain a fashionable identity mirroring her transnational position. Loughran’s chapter highlights how economic factors shaping diasporic formation and transnational systems of production can coalesce in personal fashion choices. Also providing an insight into the multiple dimensions of African fashion—specifically, in the Congo and its diaspora—is Didier Gondola’s account, “La Sape Exposed: High Fashion Among Lower-Class Congolese Youth: From Colonial Modernity to Global Cosmopolitanism.” Fashion in the Congo has been important since the 1900s, and it continues to be so for Congolese youth at home and abroad. The male sapeur, with his high-fashion assemblages, seems to embody all the contradictions of a postcolonial Congo. Through Gondola’s dynamic visual analysis, punctuated with extraordinary photography, readers come to understand how la sape is—and will perhaps remain—a “vehicle for Congolese youth to express their modern cosmopolitanism” (7). Heather Marie Akou’s essay, “Dressing Somali (Some Assembly Required),” describes the Somali shopping malls of Minneapolis-St. Paul and the practice of bricolage used by the Somalian refugees who shop there to create ensembles expressing diverse identities. Finally, in “Translating African Textiles into US Fashion Design: Brenda Winstead and Damali Afrikan Wear,” Leslie W. Rabine introduces African American fashion designer Brenda Winstead. Her photo-essay juxtaposes contemporary images of Winstead’s work with historical imagery, evoking Winstead’s practice of combining textiles from different African cultures in her designs.

Of course with such a range of perspectives, the text does raise questions. Often the multiple dimensions of fashion and its meaning in the diaspora focused on strategies that intertwined personal expressions of style—through dress—with transnational processes (such as production) connecting communities at “home” and “abroad.” Perhaps further research might dig deeper into the complicated socio-economic positions of these Africans “abroad.” Doing so might allow a study of how relationships between Africans and other diasporic groups in Europe are mediated through cross-border and cross-cultural processes and constructions of fashion. Similarly, the concept of Africa as a diasporic space could itself provide new perspectives for a rich, comparative analysis of the dialogues created between Africa, Asia, and the Middle East through textile production, cultural and religious modes of exchange, and histories of commerce.

Clearly the central aspect of any study of fashion must be an ability to allow technical detail to cohere with a sense of the dynamic—even animated—nature of the material being examined to “reconcile the notions of fashion as an idea, object and image” (Christopher Breward, Fashion, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, 15). In this sense fashion histories require—as much as they allow—scholars to write in such a way that readers grasp the conceptual formations in the textures of the material itself, in the way designs are created and produced, in their assemblage and their wear. In different ways the contributors to this volume allow these concepts to materialize through the practices and sensitivities of the individuals and communities constituting the narrative of their texts. Ultimately, it is through this kind of engagement with its subjects that Contemporary African Fashion is able to expand a vision of the dimensions of African fashion, and therefore the meanings of fashion in a global context.

Anna Arabindan-Kesson
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology/Department of African American Studies, Princeton University