By: Emmanuelle Adjima Assy*
Needless to say, first impressions do matter. Human beings seem to be sociologically modeled to judge a book by its cover when it comes to social interactions. The fact is that any form of non verbal communication and exterior appearances constitute a distinctive way to self introduce to others before spoken interactions.
Clothing by its own represents a distinguishable means of communication. It does not merely serve its primary protective purpose against an outer environment, but meaningfully conveys messages about personality, identity, history, religion, social class, gender, and culture. Bohn (2004), in her article Clothing as a medium of communication, acknowledges that “clothing is a proof of accordance between the interior and exterior of man [and women]“. This means that these originally individual and perhaps innocent choices of exterior presentation open up accessible windows to the inner selves.
When discussing the politics behind clothing, Allman (2004) acknowledges that dressing choices might convey tacit or explicit political messages about the user. At a larger scale, clothing can reveal “how power is represented, constituted, articulated and contested” in a society.
In this article, I focus on dressing used as a political instrument in colonial and postcolonial Africa. From that, I question its relevance in the contemporary discourses of African identity.
Clothing and revolutions in colonial and postcolonial Africa
Purposively, dressing was used by several newly independent African states as a way to support broader revolutionary programs. For instance, Thomas Sankara, president of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987, recommended that Burkinabe’s public servants wear traditional tunics, made from Burkinabe cotton and crafted by Burkinabe sewers. By doing so, Sankara sought the reaffirmation of Burkinabe cultural identity as well the establishment of a transformative economic model sustained by the consumption of locally produced good and art. Mobutism in Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, advocated the rejection of western modernity and fought for African authenticity. Mobutu, the leader, after which the Zairian “revolution” was named, banned western outfit and established a Zairian national dress code. Similarly, former Zambian President, Kenneth Kaunda, popularized the Kanda suit all over the African continent while in South Africa, Nelson Mandela introduced the “Madiba shirt”, which signaled a subversion of the traditional Western dress etiquette as Madiba assaulted Western sensibilities by refusing to tuck-in his shirt (Kiapi, 2004).
In a certain sense, those very dress code initiatives could be interpreted as responses against a colonial power that consistently contested African culture value and worth. Contextually, clothing has been manipulated to not only impose European culture to African populations, but also to segregate local populations by creating a basis for internal discrimination. To illustrate, the French and Belgian colonial power created a social class of Africans, the ”assimilated”, and granted them with special privileges such as access to land ownership or job market. Of course, the new class members had to adopt the European dress code and mimic western mannerism to accede the privileged sphere.
Besides the prominent political leaders aforementioned, different African actors also decided to dress up or undress to make their voices heard. Jean Alleman (2004) in the book Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress recounts how, in Nigeria and Zanzibar, women used clothing “not only to create unity among themselves, but also to make visible to others their rejection and transcendence of the barriers of race and caste”.
Whether understood as personal styling initiatives or as structured symbolic complex, vestimentary choices have served as channels to convey various political claims in colonial and postcolonial Africa. Trough clothing, political leaders championed the reconstruction of an African identity, cultural dignity and black self-esteem at times when Africans were looking for independence from the imperialist power. Through clothing, alternative economic models were designed to empower local populations. Again, through clothing, gender recognition has gained salience and non conventional ways of thinking have blossomed.
Free to wear what I like in foreign lands?
Should the clothing question then be part of discussions on African identity or African Renaissance? Obviously, it is a distinctive trait of the cultural and historical heritage of the continent. Yet, the struggles associated with the redefinition or the construction of an African identity is also projected to the clothing question.
As African and as international student living in the United States, I found myself sometimes wondering whether or not was it appropriate to wear African clothes. Apparently, I was not alone with that question. I realized or more precisely overheard during some discussions that for various reasons, African clothing would not fit in any circumstances. First, it can be perceived as loud, not discrete enough or unprofessional for formal occasions. It is of course important to mention that loudness or discreteness in terms of mode is socially constructed following Eurocentric standards. For some, it was already a hassle to be discriminated by the color of the skin or the origin. Others mention the desire to mingle or embrace the new culture they were living in or to easily adjust to a new cultural space. Also, the weather constraints limit the promotion African outfit abroad. For instance, West African cotton made clothes like the “bubu” are designed for tropical weather and are not warm enough for colder temperatures.
About wearing the African clothes at African festivities, two different points of view arose at an African students’ association meeting I was attending. A first group suggested that doing so represented a way to value our culture in the place where we do not have much space. The second group claimed that the outfit was not a costume and therefore, it should not be a requirement to wear it on purpose, especially just to show off.
Interestingly, even in Africa, in Cote d’Ivoire precisely, some private and public companies implicitly or explicitly prevent employees to wear clothes made with African graphics. While new generations of youth wear time to time locally-designed and made clothes (as long it is designed in a “fashionable way”), African-based dress is still considered outdated or not modern as everyday wear. When it comes to contemporary political leaders, with the exception of few like Joyce Banda, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Alpha Omar Konare, most current and former African presidents prefer to dress up in suits, abroad or at home. I witnessed few, if not no independence parades for instance where official governments were dressed up with local clothes.
The very contentions and discomforts presented in this article reveal shared concerns about the attitudes of African people toward their clothing. As those (micro) discussions illustrate, personal preferences, social constructions of mode and modernity, globalization (meaning here homogenization of tastes), the economics of the clothing industry, are among the limiting factors that certainly reduce the systematic adoption of traditional clothing by Africans. Nonetheless, due to the close connection between clothes choices and political expressions, clothing can play a more significant role in today’s Pan-Africanist cultural identity reconstruction.
*Emmanuelle Adjima Assy is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum Contributor. Read her short biography and previous articles here.
Allman, J. (Ed.) (2004). Fashionning Africa: Power and the politics of dress. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Bohn, C. (2004). Clothing as Medium of Communication. Retrieved from http://www.unilu.ch/files/clothing-as_medium3.pdf
Kiapi, M (2010-04-28). The politics of dressing. Retrieved from http://www.observer.ug/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=8284&Itemid=70
Lewis, M. D. (1962). One Hundred Million Frenchmen: The “Assimilation” Theory in French Colonial Policy, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 129–153.
Shuffield, R., Writer & Director (2006). Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man. France: ZORN Production
Turner, T. (1997). Zaire, Flying high Above the toads: Mobutu and stalemated democracy”, in Clark J. F. & Gardinier D. E. (Eds.), Political reform in francophone Africa p. 70. Boulder, Co: Westview Press.