Africa Fashion opens at the V&A: the power of cloth

By Babette Radclyffe-Thomas

In this week’s blog, Costume Society News Editor Babette Radclyffe-Thomas reviews the V&A Museum’s blockbuster fashion exhibition Africa Fashion.

The UK's most extensive exhibition on the African fashion stage opens at the V&A this summer featuring over 250 objects, half of these coming from the museum’s own collections including 70 new acquisitions. 45 designers from over 20 countries are featured, with striking garments from designers such as Kofi Ansah, IAMISIGO, Chris Seydou and many more. The Costume Society attended the preview and heard about the origins and staging of Africa Fashion from the V&A’s curatorial team.

The exhibition celebrates the diversity and innovation of pan-African 21st century scene showcasing fashions from Morocco to South Africa, from Ghana to Kenya. Dr Christine Checinska, Senior Curator African and African Diaspora:Textiles and Fashion, said: “Our guiding principle for Africa Fashion is the foregrounding of individual African voices and perspectives. The exhibition presents African fashions as a self-defining art form that reveals the richness and diversity of African histories and cultures.” Multiple African voices and perspectives are profiled and “each cut, line, drape and stitch, every fabric and fibre reveals a tale of agency and abundance told from varied African perspectives” Dr Checinska added in a recent curatorial talk.

Africa Fashion is held across two floors of the V&A’s Fashion Gallery space. The ground floor details the mid-1950s to mid-1990s, which is parallel with the Independence era. Visitors can experience the African cultural renaissance through room sets showing Drum magazine and other items of popular culture, view a range of historical photography and explore how the wearing of certain textiles became a political act. Textiles from the V&A’s extensive archive that have rarely been displayed before are on show including highly symbolic cloth such as the ABC cloth that signifies the importance of education to the wearer. The collaborative relationship between maker and wearer is also celebrated throughout the exhibition especially with a stunning outfit created by an unnamed tailor. This outfit, quite typical of the late 1960s style, highlights the fashionable significance of these dressmakers who've been forgotten but were seen as pioneers of fashion. The role of photography in capturing change is explored and this section includes an engaging array of images sourced from the public call-out.

A wide selection of fashion photography is on show upstairs also exploring the role of portraiture in photography and fashioning self-representation. The upstairs section of the exhibition celebrates contemporary cutting-edge fashion in Africa. Approximately 50 dress mannequins represent the work of menswear, womenswear and gender fluid designers across 21 countries. These are divided into six key themes - such as ‘the minimalists’ and ‘the mixologists’ - that emerged through conversations between the curatorial team and each designer. These trend-led themes and conversations are echoed throughout the gallery space, as reflective quotes from the designers adorn gallery walls.

The final section upstairs is Global Africa which examines the power of the digital world and explores how we are all part of the African fashion scene. A film by Lakin Ogunbanwo, in collaboration with NATALL and the V&A is projected across the ceiling is a joyful must-see. The ‘Who dey shake’ film is inspired by Yoruba Bata dance and ‘cultural days’ in Nigerian primary schools.

The exhibition design draws colour palette inspiration from different regions across the continent, from desert sands and coastal regions to lush, forested areas. The mannequins are based on Adhel Bol, a celebrated model used frequently by many of the designers included in the show and the curatorial team developed four different skin tones to represent different ethnicities. The curatorial team comprises Dr Christine Checinska, Senior Curator of African and African Diaspora Textiles and Fashion assisted by project curator, Elisabeth Murray.

In our Costume Society 2022 Year of Menswear it is good to see the range of menswear on display in Africa Fashion including Kofi Ansah and Moshions. A publication ‘Africa Fashion’ detailing the exhibition is available now at the museum’s store.

Africa Fashion demonstrates the power of fashion and textiles and is open till 16 April 2023.

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