Words by Kelebogile Motswatswa

There is a socio-political discourse around fashion and dress, particularly where Africa is concerned. Dress transcends mere global trends, and there is more to it than meets the fashionable eye; it is a language of self- expression and a tool of both denigration and resistance.

 

The Power of Dress

In order for this discussion on the politics of dress to be constructive and relatable, I deem it necessary to explain what politics means in this context. In this instance, by using the term “politics’, I am referring to the issues surrounding a particular social phenomenon. This article will focus on the issues surrounding style of dress – issues such as power, culture, and identity.

The politics of dress are ultimately politics of identity. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the politics of identity as “politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.” The politics of dress and the politics of identity are not mutually exclusive. In a mission to promote their identity and ways of being, the West used dress to denigrate Africans and exercise their power.

 

Power is an interesting social phenomenon that has perplexed even the most erudite of social scientists. But one thing that is clear is that power requires a level of subjugation and domination for it to be attributed to one group. Similar to how darkness is but the absence of light, power comes about through the disempowerment of one group by another. Colonists, for example, were not born with power; they made themselves powerful by subjugating the people of the countries they were colonising.

 

The politics of dress are ultimately politics of identity

 

In her paper exploring the politics of dress in countries such as South Africa, Swaziland, and Tanzania, American academic Giselle Aris notes how the colonists in each country used dress as a tool to exercise their power and thus dominate these African nations. “In different ways, power is represented, constituted, articulated, and contested through dress. In Africa, dress provided a powerful arena for colonial relations to be enacted and challenged, and served as a method of cultural expression and resistance.”

Dress forms an integral part of people’s identity, and different patterns and fabrics have significant meaning. So the colonists were very astute in their recognising that dress could be used to disempower and vilify individuals; it could be used to demonise their identity and develop in them some form of inferiority complex. Their aim was to impose their own ideas of decent and acceptable forms of dress; this disavowal of “the natives’” aesthetic was aimed at convincing them that they were the subaltern other that needed to be refined in order for them to be considered civilised. However, this tactic did not work as planned. In African countries such as Swaziland and South Africa, individuals found ways of using Western fabrics and styles of dress for their own cultural agenda. As noted by Giselle, “through unique combinations of Western garments, the Swazi created their own fashions in ways that were original rather than imitative.” Dress thus became a powerful form of resistance that spoke to Africans’ refusal of being stripped of their dignity by Western influence.

 

 

“THE WAY PEOPLE CLOTHE THEMSELVES, TOGETHER WITH THE TRADITION OF DRESS AND FINERY THAT CUSTOM IMPLIES, CONSTITUTES THE MOST DISTINCTIVE FORM OF A SOCIETY’S UNIQUENESS, THAT IS TO SAY THE ONE THAT IS MOST IMMEDIATELY PERCEPTIBLE…GREAT AREAS OF CIVILIZATION, IMMENSE CULTURAL REGIONS, CAN BE GROUPED TOGETHER ON THE BASIS OF ORIGINAL, SPECIFIC TECHNIQUES OF MEN’S AND WOMEN’S DRESS.” – FRANTZ FANON

 

The Future of the African Aesthetic

The ways that we adorn ourselves, whether it is with fabrics or accessories, is an expression of who we are, the aesthetic we value, and what we believe in. As an African, I take pride in wearing garments that are distinctly African – for me, it is both a celebration and a form of resistance. It is a celebration of the kaleidoscopic beauty of the African aesthetic, and a resistance to Western notions of being that have, for centuries, framed “Africanness” as uncivilised.

In regards to our identity as Africans, what does the evolution (maybe transformation is the better term) of our sartorial expression indicate? Are Africans who incorporate Western fashion into their style of dress less African? Is their adoption of a more Western aesthetic a repudiation of the African aesthetic? Have we reached a point in history where fashion has transcended its role in representing the collective, considering the fact that representation is such an important issue?

The way that a particular group in society dresses distinguishes it from another; cultural forms of dress are what make a group unique. As the world becomes more and more homogenised and cultural exchanges occur across localities, is cultural distinctiveness becoming irrelevant? Certainly not. In fact, it has become even more important for us to celebrate our uniqueness and dig it up from the grave of colonial vilification. Perhaps dress is the shovel with which we can do that.