Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  January 2, 2017

Creating African Fashion Histories: To Collect and Display

The Creating African Fashion Histories conference was held in Brighton on the 2nd of November, in conjunction with the exciting Fashion Cities Africa exhibition (fig. 1) which is currently on show at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. According to the museum, this is the first UK exhibition dedicated to contemporary African fashion. Four cities feature throughout the exhibition: Casablanca in Morocco, Lagos in Nigeria, Nairobi in Kenya and Johannesburg in South Africa. The exhibition intends to create and symbolise new meanings within African fashion, establishing a broad and enlightening collection of African dress to add to the museum’s collection, loaded with social history.

One panel, hosted by Professor Lou Taylor, discussed issues surrounding both the collection and display of African fashions. In the past, African fashions have been placed within ethnographic collections – rather than in their costume and dress counterparts. Why has this happened? Why has there been a historical reluctance to acknowledge African fashions?

Perhaps it is too critical to fault the past collecting practices and policies of Western museums. As fashion anthropologist Angela Jansen suggested, non-Western fashion has often been regarded as traditional or native dress, rather than fashion. The full story of African history has not been told in Western institutions, and in many cases a Eurocentric approach has been taken towards dress collections. Historically, this has resulted in the exclusion of African fashions from costume collections. African fashion operates in a different way to American and European fashion systems. As Jansen explained, it is often the case that these systems are used as pre-packaged blueprints to understand and explain non-Western fashion systems. This ignores that African fashion contains its own complex and cultural meanings which can only be understood by the wearer within particular societies and cultures.

Through her ethnographic and anthropological work, Jansen identified a range of issues which have become apparent within the Moroccan fashion system. These include displays of national dress that demonstrate a desire for independence from colonial powers and the arrival and popularity of modern European fashions and foreign markets. Cultural heritage is played out through the reinvention and deconstruction of Moroccan fashion (fig. 2) by a new generation of twenty-first century designers, who incorporate both Moroccan and European fashion influences into their work (fig. 3). Moroccan fashion has crossed various cultural boundaries whilst simultaneously using fashion to relate and remember the country’s own social, political, and economic history.

Fashion theorist and curator Erica de Greef solemnly reiterated to the audience that art can be used to both heal and question often painful memories, and turbulent historical pasts. De Greef explained that South African museums have often preferred to place a main emphasis on European dress within their institutions, creating an unfortunate segregation between Western and African fashions, treating one as costume, and another as art. This echoed painful memories surrounding apartheid and colonialism. African fashions have often been confusingly designated into different museum collections – ethnographic, fine art, or costume. However, as de Greef has argued, museums have taken a different perspective towards the collection of African fashion, rewriting social histories. Historical mistruths and false misinterpretations can all be dispelled or questioned, by retrospectively confronting the past through the study of African fashion and dress.  

Exciting opportunities lie for the discussion of African Fashion. This December will see the opening of the Black Fashion Designers exhibition at the Fashion Institute Technology Museum, presenting a global history of black fashion designers from the 1950’s. With the success of Brighton Museum’s Fashion Cities Africa, one can only anticipate further research into the stimulating field of African fashion.

Ruby Helms, Costume Society Ambassador, 2016.

  • View of Fashion Cities Africa exhibition, photographed by Judith Ricketts, 2016. Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. JPEG.
  • Zhor Sebti dress. c1970-1980. Silk fabric, silk thread and black beads, a caftan, a shirt (khmis), a belt (mdomma) and a shawl. The Victoria
  • Zina Guessous dress. c1960-1980. Synthetic material with metal thread embroidery, European-style sleeveless underdress and long-sleeved kaft