Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 25, 2016
Victoria L. Rovine African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear African Expressive Cultures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. 328 pp.; 100+ color ills. Paperback $40.00 (9780253014139)

Fashion, by nature of its universal presence, countless manifestations, ephemerality of material, and inclination toward rapid and constant change, presents a daunting subject of academic research. The study of fashion requires mobility between the fields of history, visual and material culture, and anthropology in their various methodologies and theories. African fashion demands this mobility and more. Coming from the discipline of art history with a specialization in West African textiles, Victoria L. Rovine is a scholar with the rare combination of expertise to give the subject of African fashion its due attention. The book benefits immensely from Rovine’s academic background, as each garment or design she references is elevated to the status of a fine-art “sartorial equivalent,” in order, as Rovine explains, “to demonstrate this medium’s relevance to the study of modern and contemporary African expressive cultures” (22). Her latest book, African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, deepens our understanding of the world of fashion through a well-executed study of its African counterpart and the plurality of meaning carried by the African label.

Rovine presents several carefully selected case studies that, rather than attempt encyclopedic coverage of the subject at hand, offer insight into the histories of specific indigenous garments, the practices of contemporary designers, histories of fashion icons, and the start of an important discussion of thematic and theoretical common threads that situate African fashion in the academic discourses on tradition, modernity, and globalization. The resulting story defines the broad notion of African in African fashion without interfering with the term’s potential for expansion, change, and plurality. As the title imparts, the relationship of African fashion to global style is explored in a number of ways. First, African fashion is put forth as a source of innovative fashion design and production that draws on the many histories, localities, experiences, and contemporaneities of the African continent. The strategies adopted by designers to infuse their work with the content that makes it African are a recurrent focus throughout the text. Secondly, as an important source of inspiration, whether real or imagined, for fashion designers outside of Africa, particularly in the historical center of the fashion world, Paris, the connections between African and Western fashion are mapped out, while the power of dress in the historical contexts of colonialism and apartheid surfaces as an element that enriches the broader discussion.

The book draws on a considerable amount of interviews, information, and imagery that Rovine has conducted and collected since at least the early 1990s. Divided into five chapters, the first three address the many ways in which indigenous African cultures have been key components in African fashion as well as muses to the idea of Africa and African culture constructed in the Western imagination. The first chapter, titled “Indigenous Fashion: Embroidery and Innovation in Mali,” works to expand the notion of a global fashion by focusing on two embroidered forms of men’s dress: the tilbi or boubou and the “Ghana boy.” These two garments rely on the application of embroidery to communicate a message on behalf of the wearer, as well as to aesthetically enhance the garment and add to its value. Though both are embroidered garments with origins in Mali, they each occupy very different places in the hierarchy of textiles in Malian culture. The tilbi is a prestige garment associated with a local practice of Islam; it is hand embroidered with silk on luxury imported fabric. The Ghana boy, however, is a tunic embroidered by Malian men who have migrated to Ghana in search of work. Their experiences and impressions of a foreign land are recorded in figurative imagery embroidered on the plain cotton surface. The tunic, in the process of its embellishment with interpretations of foreign cultures, becomes emblematic of the men’s journey from home and the increased status this journey endowed.

Through a comparison of these two divergent styles of indigenous fashion, Rovine highlights the ways in which both garments are products of migration, vast trade networks, and multiple ethnicities and cultures, while at the same time drawing on their specific localities. This examination serves to expand the notion of a global style beyond its association with contemporary fashion, as well as to assert the continued relevance of indigenous forms of attire. Furthermore, the tilbi and Ghana boy present a framework for the case studies in the following chapters whereby contemporary designers both in and out of the African continent frequently turn to the past and the complex, troublesome notion of tradition in the making of modern African fashion.

Icons of so-called traditional African visual culture were adopted as symbols of a supposedly primitive or backwards society to serve as a foil to European modernity. Advertisements, magazine covers, and promotional posters borrowed African forms freely and seemed to invent new ones at will. Chapter 2 explores these appropriations, linking them to the French colonial ventures of the mid-eighteenth century. Yet, examples provided in the text from the recent collections of Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent indicate that Africanizing fashion through designs that often have little or nothing to do with Africa but represent an idea of Africa nevertheless is a continuing practice.

The invention of Africanisms by French designers provides an interesting starting point for the in-depth discussion of individual designers that follows. Chapter 3 examines the work of designers who draw directly from sartorial practices of specific African cultures and people, from the Yoruba to the Tuareg, and rework their textiles, beadwork, and jewelry into contemporary forms fit for the runway. Two South African brands, MaXhosa by Laduma and Sun Goddess, draw from the beaded adornments of Xhosa dress. Visually, some of these designs are not so different from the French designs discussed in the previous chapter that feature beads as a way of alluding to Africa without specific content. MaXhosa and Sun Goddess products, however, are rooted in specific rituals and practices that locate the designs in a time, place, and culture. For the makers of these brands, designing is a process of transforming visual culture from the past for the preservation of tradition, heritage, and memory. Such an approach is a rather straightforward method for the inclusion of distinctly African material.

The final two chapters explore alternative, conceptual approaches to African fashion that demonstrate a divergence of methods, yet each example nonetheless draws on specific locations or histories that root it culturally within the continent. As a whole, the text makes clear the individual creativities and innovations that are contributing overall to the growing field of African fashion as a vital element of global style. The discussions of the clothing are enhanced by biographical information about the designers, excerpts from their interviews with Rovine, full-page color illustrations, and a contextualization of their work on local and global scales. However, while the designers’ approaches and designs may offer diversity, like many books treating the production of an entire continent, the areas of the continent that are represented are comparatively less diverse. Francophone West Africa is well represented, likely because of Rovine’s earlier academic interests in Malian textiles, and the entire fifth chapter is devoted to popular designers and brands of South Africa, which speaks to the country’s status at the top of Africa’s high-fashion industry.

Rovine explains that the focus was reduced to two locations—Mali and South Africa—for the purpose of a comparison of two centers in which there is a rich variety of material, while the inclusion of a sampling of designers from other parts of Africa served to underline common themes and connections beyond these two regions. Geographical locations aside, Rovine makes clear that she focused her attention “on designers whose work bears analysis as African,” formulating a selection criterion based on content rather than location (8). The criterion is logical when paired with the thematic structure of the text, which attempts to unfold the layered complexities of the relationship between African and Western fashion worlds, and the relationship of the designer to Africa’s traditions, cultures, and specificities. It is nevertheless disconcerting and reminiscent of the continued issues of the terms of inclusion and exclusion that confront contemporary artists from Africa or of African descent in the global art world, identified by Olu Oguibe as “the culture game” in his 2001 catalogue essay for an exhibition of the work of Yinka Shonibare (Olu Oguibe, “Double Dutch and the Culture Game,” in Yinka Shonibare: Be-Muse, exh. cat., Rome: Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen, 2001).

Do African fashion designers, like African artists, operate in a world in which they have to engage with their Africanness in their work? Rovine suggests that they do not, citing Azzedine Alaïa as an example of an African designer whose work does not reference his African or Tunisian heritage, and yet who has garnered immense success in the fashion world. The questions then remain: Do African designers have to engage with their Africanness to be included in African fashion? Does the application of the label African necessarily come at the exclusion from other fashion worlds? Such weighty concerns are given only passing consideration in the final chapters through the remarks of the designers Sakina M’Sa and Angelique Diedhiou, who both express a wariness toward the African label, and with the example of the short-lived collaboration between the South African brand Stoned Cherrie and a local retailer, which some believe failed because the brand was too overtly African for South African consumers. I was left wanting a deeper discussion of these issues, a discussion that perhaps could fill an entire second book but that would be incomplete without the designs of those who deliberately or inadvertently eschew all traces of African.

African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear provides a much-needed start to these conversations and is one of the only resources for substantial research and analysis on individual African designers. Rovine’s book, though only the tip of the iceberg, is a significant contribution to multiple disciplines and will appeal to readers of diverse interests.

Erin M. Rice
PhD candidate, Art History, Free University Berlin