Western cultures have long viewed African nations as exotic, pure and a rich source of inspiration. Their continuous trade and bartering with locals influenced visitors to imitate the beadwork and woven patterns of traditional African garments. Over the years, African women were likewise influenced by Westerners and implemented their fashion — T-shirts, purses and tailored dresses — into their everyday wardrobe. Yet, even when Western style has been adopted, formal occasions such as weddings still see customary African clothing worn.
Religion and Chastity
The arrival of European missionaries to South Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries sparked a change, not only in the region’s religious beliefs, but in their culture as well. A greater number of women adopted European dress as traditional African garb was considered vulgar. Women “scantily clad” as a relief from the heat or for formal occasions were chastised as crude. High collars, structured bodices and long skirts were adopted as reformation.
Westerners not only ushered in changes to religion and dress, but local crafts as well. Magazines from overseas showcased the style of that time and were shown to African women who were fascinated by the “fancy dresses.” Locals disregarded their woven garments and beadwork in favor of the new styles. For instance, when mini dresses and high heels first appeared in Africa they were a huge hit and inspired many a copy cat around local villages.
In the 21st century, fashion on an international level is still making steps towards the acceptance of African fashion. Centuries ago, Africans were persuaded into believing that Western styles were superior to their own. Today that thought process can still take hold, as there is a fear of being considered “too ethnic” by many African designers. For the few designers that are celebrated, it seems to pale in comparison to the numerous Anglo-Saxon designers who are praised on the runways. Those who are celebrated, seem to become noticed for their adaptation of Western style dress infused with traditional fabrics.
Just as African textiles were considered exotic in the days of early European settlers, so they have become again today. As the international community becomes fascinated once more by traditional African garments, there has been a rising conscientiousness of Africans to embrace their heritage by way of looking internally towards their own rich heritage of clothing. Women again are being seen wearing tunics in vibrant colors with elaborate beadwork adorning their necks and customary headwear.
References and ResourcesFashion Encylopedia: African Fashion Change
The Guardian: African Fashion
University of Southern California: Clothing Identity Africa