In my previous post, I stated that the idea of wearing ASOS Africa makes me feel compelled to "bust out some bananas and a kanga and burst into song and dance." I would like to state that I have no qualms with ASOS, and I buy their non-African things as often as my student budget will allow.
What makes me feel so uncomfortable is this notion that "African" clothing must either be bright and colourful (obviously to embody the vivacity and bombacity of the colourful tropics and vibrant peoples) or it has to have prints (obviously to capture the spirit and appearance of the wild animals that run rampant in our backyards).
Am I being over the top? Absolutely. Why? Because I'm annoyed with feeling like a caricature, and feeling the need to conform to a stereotype in order to represent my continent or country.
I often ask myself, what is African fashion, really? One would think that if the designer hails from anywhere on the continent of Africa, then the fashion is African (except Western Sahara, they're like the weird kid in the corner and no one knows what their deal is). Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many designers get criticised that their work is "Western" if it has no colour, or no print, or no traditional inspiration that you can tell from just one look.
You made a geometric monochrome dress? Was it inspired by the calabash? No? Sorry, that's just not African, darling.
Seriously? It creates a pressure to conform to a whimsical idea of African Fashion. Said pressure is mostly on designers, but even I, as a fashion aficionado and self-declared ambassador of the peoples, feel the pressure to "look African" if I want to claim my African authenticity in an international sphere.
What's even worse is when the culture is passed on, and non-Africans take it upon themselves to wear some generic colourful garments (and sometimes animal print, like we would EVER be caught dead in dead animal, darling) in homage to, and sometimes in mockery of, Africa. It would be like if someone put a red skittle on their head and called it a bindi, or wrapped a floral tablecloth around themselves and called it a kimono.
Even we as Africans are not blameless, we all go to markets and pick up the same prints that we have tailored into pretty clothing, yet most of us don't even know where the prints come from ("Uhhh, West Africa" is not good enough, and I too am guilty of this).
Ultimately I think that the problem stems from the absence of singularity with regards to fashion on the African continent. We are not, and never will be one homogenous tribe with the exact same clothing. There has been a bright-washing of culture across the continent, a sweeping generalisation that has turned dashikis and generic West African-ish print into the bastion of African fashion, which is especially worrying considering that African print doesn't really come from Africa.
Unfortunately, what has happened is that in our attempt to be unified and celebrate in each others victories continent-wide (creatively speaking, that is, we all know that politically we're like Mean Girls on Amarula) we have been viewed by the outside world as one unified thing. African Fashion as a concept arose as a necessity, a proud unity amongst ourselves.
Now it has become a yoke on our shoulders, and we are criticised by the outside world and are ostracised by one another if we try to cast the yoke off. We're stifling each other, when we should be supporting one another's brave attempts to redefine what African Fashion means.
The only person who should be able to say whether or not a design constitutes as African Fashion is the designer, and no one else. We should put emphasis on creating environments in which we can use colours and patterns because we want to, and not because we feel obliged to in order to assert our African identity.
That's not to say that bright colours and prints are wrong, not at all. I believe that the beautiful clothing we do have is incredible, and gives me immense pride to wear. Colours and prints are an integral part of us, our tradition and our future, but they do not have to be the only thing we're known for. We don't have to be a one-trick pony.
My love for our continent includes the love of colour and vibrancy, but it also includes diversity. One of my favourite quotes about Africa describes it as a "varied, immensely rich cosmos," and I don't believe this definition is limited to the number of different fabric prints you can pick up in the local market.
Pepper & Söl