Street Style in Senegal

This excerpt and photos are by Emmanuelle Courreges, an independent journalist in Paris, and featured in Fashion Tribes: Global Street Style by Daniele Tamagni.

Perched atop six-inch heels, legs sculpted in leather leggings or strapped into XXS dresses, metallic color block eyelids and glossy lips- this is what the creatures of Dakar’s nights look like during Fashion Week, founded in 2002 in Senegal’s capital. Like everywhere, you have to be there. And they’re all there, in front of Barramundi, a fashionable lounge-bar in the Almadies neighborhood. Inside, popular bloggers and TV fashion hosts try to snag spots next to top models arriving after the shows. The model Fleur Mbaye, her head topped with an orange crest, and the very popular Sachakara Dieng, queen of the Senegalese catwalk, turn heads. Dieng, her head partially shaved and topped by a thick ponytail made from long braids interwoven with blue and gold mesh, defies the laws of traditional Senegalese femininity. With her Grace Jones air, her futuristic haircuts, her androgynous look, Dieng leaves no one indifferent. She also has emulators: "Today, half the girls have cut their hair, " says the twenty-two year old. "And when I do something new on my head, I'll see it within a few days on beginner models. I love it. Because, thanks to me, they're daring to."

There’s no wind of revolt blowing through Dakar. Neither the models nor the girls that emulate them follow any particular ideology. But a new generation, born in the 1980s and 1990s- these are girls of the Internet age and globalization- is bringing new life to the Senegalese identity. It’s about much more than clothes. These girls want to reinvent themselves, to express their individuality. Many of them are fashion designers, but they’re also bloggers and photographers. Some work together. Some have studied in Europe or the United States. They’ve traveled. And from these geographic and cultural comings and goings, fruitful mash-ups are born. While staking claim to their African roots more than ever, they draw their inspiration from everywhere- the alternative scene in Senegal to Beyonce’s music videos, from English-language fashion blogs to TV series.

Whether self-taught or not, they have that quality of daring. The movement’s leader, the young designer Selly Raby Kane, creates an urban world influenced by cartoons, pop art, and film. “For many, the point of fashion is to enhance the body,” she says. “The people who wear my clothes prefer to enhance themselves through the discourse of what they’re wearing. And this discourse is most of all about freedom.” A new aesthetic is set in motion. The Afro has made its comeback; color is sculpting funky silhouettes; jeans are blended with wax; basin flirts with plastic. Of course, not everyone can afford the clothes of a young designer yet. And although imitations of these designs are on the market, they’re still discreet.

Working women, the ones who have gone to college- they hold positions in the government and the cultural industry, or in liberal professions- are also looking to set themselves apart. But they do it with subtle flourishes. The youngest have raffia added to waxed boleros; they get blouses and dresses made from the cloth tchoup; they dare to wear their motorcycle jackets over their pagnes or pair their color-block head scarves with their skinny jeans. Their elders prefer a contemporary traditional fashion. While they wear Senegalese basics like the taillebasse (a tight-fitting blouse matched with a skirt or page) or the boubou, they bring in sophisticated and very subtle details in terms of cut or fabric choice. They buy the finest basins on the market and often bring home textiles from their travels throughout the world. And although, like many women, they have their own tailors (to whom they leave little of the decision making), the most fortunate among them also like to dress in clothing by the stars of Senegalese couture, such as Oumou Sy and Colle Sow Ardo.

When it comes to purely traditional fashion, it’s all about the dirriankhe, those often very round women who represent the ideal traditional Senegalese woman. And they’re not ready to let go of their wardrobe. Even if some have updated their taillebasse by adding metal epaulettes or by opening the back, the ndokette dresses, boubous, tunics, pagnes, and scarves remain the same. Just as the xaley-fashion do, these elegant women (from all walks of life), love fashion. And nothing is left to chance. The quality of the fabric, the number of flounces, the shape of the neck, the size of the kerchief- everything has a meaning. A thirty-year-old woman and a fifty-year-old woman do not wear the same outfits. The younger ones let their bine-bine ring; the mamans (mamas) wouldn’t dare to anymore. The secrets of dirriankhe charm are something all Senegalese girls learn as part of their heritage. Regardless of whether they follow these precepts or not, every young woman knows how to prepare thiouraye, the incense that fills their house and perfumes their clothes. They all know how to tie the scarf, even if some might go to the salon to get it done for ceremonies- it’s just like going to the hairdresser for a bun.

Suspended in time, the Miss Diongoma competition, founded in 1992, is once again the especially beloved dirriankhe event, particularly among the working classes. Religious leaders disapproved of the theatrical display of these plus-size women, but this pageant- where women walk the runway in several traditional outfits and reveal their skills- is also a way of resisting the flattening effects of globalization. At the tailor, women can afford pret-a-porter but often prefer to wear their own fabrics, which they buy at the community market. The dirriankhe often design their own models, drawing inspiration from what local stars like Viviane and Coumba Gawlo are wearing. Their tailors might suggest some embroidery or a beaded bustier, or give advice on the length of a train. For major holidays, like Tabaski or Korite (at the end of Ramadan), wealthier women may spend as much as fifty thousand CFA francs. Like Miss Diongoma, which is broadcast on Senegalese television, these soirees kick off seasonal trends in the neighborhoods.

In Dakar, an inexperienced eye might see the abundance of color, pattern, fabric, and scarves as a long parade without any logic, but Senegalese fashion has a very rich vocabulary. Every Friday, the day of prayer, it is customary to wear traditional dress (a cultural custom shared also by Christians). Young modern women are no exception- and Friday boubous are just as subject to trends as the rest of their outfits. As for Sachakara Dieng, she doesn’t follow this movement. “Traditional dress is only something I wear exceptionally for ceremonies, but in those cases, I prefer to put on a big boubou for the men, which I adjust to create a bit of a masculine look for myself.” The world has changed. The imams (leaders) may grumble sometimes, the mamans sigh at the sight of their daughters, but in the end, they all accept this joyful and hybrid transformation.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published