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What is African fashion? What a difficult question to answer. Africa, a population of over 1 billion gorgeous souls, surviving the horrendous tragedy of the slave trade, continues to grow with 100’s of thousands of different tribes, loving, warring, mixing and creating. African fashion isn’t one thing. It is the beautiful chaos of a million ideas combining to express the feelings, intentions and confidence of a continent that birthed the human race. African fashion is the story of Africa.
Interestingly enough, this story of Africa has grabbed the attention of the entire globe. World-renowned designers continue to add elements of African culture into their hit, new fashion lines. From Christian Louboutin collaborating with Senegalese artists to create a line of Africaba Tote Bags, Marc Jacobs showcasing gele’s in his spring collection for 2018’s Fashion Week, or English designer Stella McCartney’s controversial use of Ankara prints in her 2018 Fashion Show. For better or worse, African fashion has a place on the world stage and is firmly cemented in the minds of designers and creatives everywhere. But how did this well-deserved fad even start?
Some theorize it’s thanks to the new generation of African youths. Mostly starting in Europe but it’s safe to say it’s a worldwide phenomenon; this new wave of young Africans started craving a connection to their ancestral past. We live in a time that things move and change so fast, it makes sense that a growing youth trying to find their identity would look within themselves and within their past to find their anchor, their roots. And if you weren’t aware, wherever a large group of influential youths go, global trends soon follow. Didn’t you hear—our children are our future?
So what is this history of African fashion that breathes life into our African children, and pushes innovation into the designing community? Well, it’s a humble beginning. Way back when, way, way back when, clothes weren’t really much of a priority. The hot climate left little reason for layered outfits. Ancient men were fine with a loincloth and women fine with a wrap to cover their bottom and a thinner wrap covering their chest. Things didn’t really kick off until the 1500’s when trade routes opened up with Europe and eastern nations. Now, exotic materials were introduced into the populace and new ideas started to form. Suddenly accessories like head wraps and jewelry were made from seashells, bones, ostrich egg shell pieces and feathers. A list of weaving techniques were developed in different areas of the land, using fibers like cotton, raffia, silk and wool. A tribe’s status was soon measured by the clothing of their tribesmen. Socioeconomic standing, culture, environment, even the climate a tribe endured, was all expressed in clothing. Animal skins were chosen for symbolic reasons like showing tribal allegiance or personal totems. Certain garments were worn to showcase a ritual or a change in one’s life.
African Fashion became a form of nonverbal communication.
With so many different cultures packed into one continent, not every piece of clothing is saying the same thing in each place. But there are some themes that are shared throughout. Let’s focus on color.
Blue: Symbolizes love, peace, and the sky
Gold: Symbolizes wealth and fertility
White: Symbolizes spirituality and purity
Red: Symbolizes tension in the spiritual or political world and is seen as the color of blood
Green: Symbolizes prosperity, life and is also a medicinal color.
Today, African fashion takes the traditions of the past and incorporates them into the present. Modern day outfits hold root to their history during ceremonial occasions but have evolved to combine the same rules for street ware. Some of this may be noticed in the form of the ever-popular Ankara fabric and designs. Ankara is a topic that will be explored in-depth in another post, but simply, they are a vibrant material with rich, colorful patterns.
So what is African Fashion? It’s Africa’s beginning, its future, its people, its culture. African Fashion is Africa.