On​ 9 June 2020, two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, a photograph appeared on my Twitter feed of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives. She was wearing a stole made of Ghanaian Kente cloth, its bold yellow and black geometric design set off by her red suit and heels. She was surrounded by a group of Democratic congressmen and women, including Chuck Schumer and Kamala Harris, all similarly dressed and looking, as one commentator put it, like a Wakandan chess set. The occasion was the introduction of the Justice in Policing Act: the group proceeded to kneel, backs bent, for a minute’s silence in order performatively to honour the lives of Black people murdered by the police. The cloth had been provided by the Congressional Black Caucus and wearing it was a dubious gesture of solidarity or Black ‘pride’. The response was largely critical, but the photograph drew attention to the history and significance of Kente, both to Ghanaians and the African diaspora, and the cloth’s role in contemporary ideas of ‘Africanness’.

Kente was for centuries woven on handlooms by men from the Asante and Ewe kingdoms of present-day Ghana. They created fabrics with brightly coloured geometric designs, constructed with horizontal weft floats on vertical warp strips which were then cut and sewn selvedge to selvedge to make a cloth big enough to be draped across the entire body. The cost and difficulty of its production meant that Kente was historically worn only by royalty. Today it can be seen everywhere and has come to stand, at best, for a Pan-African sensibility and, at worst, for a generic Africanness. Its contemporary symbolism is rooted in a key moment in the continent’s history. On 6 March 1957, Kwame Nkrumah stood alongside other statesmen to declare Ghanaian independence. They were all dressed in agbádás, Kente, dashiki and fugus.

It is this cultural influence that the curators of Africa Fashion at the V&A (until 16 April) set out to trace. The show looks at fashion’s relation to the continent and situates cloth and clothing within the cultural context of several post-colonial countries. It would be foolish to expect every African country and the many peoples within them to be represented in a single exhibition, but the curators cast their net wide and do well at choosing particular moments to represent wider trends. A video of Aimé Césaire taken at the First World Festival of Black Arts, a month-long Pan-African festival held in Dakar in April 1966, opens the show. Twenty-five thousand people attended talks, dance, music and theatre, and it attracted superstars from the diaspora, including Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker. Other festivals soon followed: the First Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers in 1969, Zaire 1974 and the Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture in Lagos in 1977. In vitrines beside the Césaire video are issues of Drum, ‘the first black lifestyle magazine in Africa’, showing Nnamdi Azikiwe on the cover in 1961 and Miriam Makeba (in a tight-fitting green dress) as one of its stars of jazz in 1957.

Kofi Ansah's ‘Indigo Couture’ (1997)

The mood of the exhibition is celebratory. The curators refer to the 1960s as the ‘African Cultural Renaissance’, and the evidence they have amassed is convincing. Fashion wasn’t considered superficial or thought of as a lesser art. As Shade Thomas-Fahm, a Nigerian designer whose work is displayed in the ‘Vanguard’ section of the exhibition, writes: ‘It was the time of Fela, and Wole Soyinka’s plays … It was a time of Nigeria evolving. We were bringing in new ideas … Arts and culture were very rich. Lagos was swinging!’ Africans were looking forward, but this was also a time of looking back, of reappraising the entwined histories of cloth and colonialism, and of adapting textile traditions – some of which had begun to die out under colonialism – for the modern African consumer.

The exhibition stages this dialogue through artefacts. One mannequin wears a gele (headscarf), a blouse with cropped billowy sleeves and a modest A-line skirt. The look is simple and dignified. She reminds me of someone’s mother on her way to church. It is a classic example of an outfit made using ‘fancy print’ or Dutch Wax Print. These cloths were manufactured in Europe but sold on the African market and decorated with animals, humans and inanimate objects. Commemorative made-to-order fabrics documented significant events (Nelson Mandela’s face is featured on one, next to the ANC spear, shield and wheel). Àdìrẹ is a cloth made from a Yorùbá resist-dyeing technique passed from mother to daughter: first is the making of the resist from raffia and pebbles or cassava paste, and then the dyeing, a process of dipping, oxidation, drying and rinsing that results in rich shades of indigo. The popularity of àdìrẹ has risen and fallen: recently it has been claimed by big fashion designers. (The difference in status between unknown artisans and international designers is rarely parsed in the show.) Bògòlanfini is made by the people of Mali and Burkina Faso. Single strips of cloth are woven on treadle looms and then sewn together to form a larger textile. Its dramatic appearance is achieved through discharge dyeing: Bamana women dye the cloth yellow using mashed and boiled leaves from the n’gallama and n’tkemlara trees, and then hand-paint stylised animal, human or symbolic forms using a mud dye that is collected from large ponds during the rainy season and left to ferment for a year. These patterns are not only decorative, but were thought to have protective powers that kept the wearer safe. Like adìrẹ, bògòlanfini was dismissed as the tradition of backward villagers, but the technique has been imitated outside of Mali. International fashion designers like Oscar de la Renta and Norma Kamali appropriated it in their collections without crediting or rewarding the Bamana women. It took the work of cultural activists and researchers, such as Kandioura Coulibaly, and designers – in particular Seydou Nourou Doumbia (aka Chris Seydou) – for the textile’s historical origins and the skill involved in its making to be more widely known.

A Bògòlanfini ensemble by Chris Seydou (1991)

Part of the way through the exhibition, the focus moves from history and tradition to the professionalisation of the fashion industry. Tanzania opened five new textile factories between 1961 and 1968, in direct competition with producers of Dutch Wax such as Vlisco, which had until then maintained a monopoly in the country. This industrialisation was the backdrop to the emergence of a new figure: the African fashion designer. Shade Thomas-Fahm opened her first factories and boutiques in the 1960s, combining local textiles with contemporary designs and making clothes shops places to see and be seen. She was an innovator, inserting a zip into the ìró (skirt) so that women could hop on the back of a motorbike and didn’t have to worry about their skirts falling down when the harmattan winds blew. She favoured muted colours in fabrics that had fallen out of fashion: aso-oke, òkènè and akwete. Her aesthetic catered to the women who didn’t crave embellishments but wanted their clothes to speak for themselves. Twenty years later, Chris Seydou’s pillbox hat and skirt suit were equally novel: exaggerated 1980s shapes realised with bògòlanfini fabric. Designers from the 1970s and 1980s, including Kofi Ansah, Alphadi, Zina Guessous, Naima Bennis and Tamy Tazi, took advantage of the growth of the textile industry to manufacture clothes for a growing middle class who wanted a European shopping experience, American styles and African textiles.

‘Untitled’ by Seydou Keïta (c.1955)

Africa Fashion leans heavily on words such as ‘diversity’ and ‘multiplicity’. We have become so good at talking about African countries as distinct and heterogeneous that we have lost the ability to describe what unites them, the way making practices exist in relation to one another or ideas develop and spread. There are passing references to the popularity of the boubou, originally from Senegal but now worn throughout West Africa, and the ubiquitous Kente, but in general African nations and their fashions are siloed.

How does the ordinary African conceive of their style? How do they dress? The closest the show comes to answering this is the section devoted to the studio photography of Hamidou Maiga, Rachidi Bissiriou, Sanlé Sory and Seydou Keïta. In one photograph (by Keïta), we see a dandyish young man with a shaved head, large square black glasses and a smart white suit. He is holding a flower and half smiling. It’s a tragi-comic romantic image: is he dressed up for a particular person, or is this self-fashioning a case of art for art’s sake? In another black and white photograph, two women ride a scooter in printed dresses, one wearing sunglasses and one without; elsewhere, a man with black bell-bottoms, a black turtleneck and blazer carries a guitar slung across his shoulder. These pictures suggest a before and after: the subjects are on their way somewhere. Their clothes tell us something about trends – which continued to be imported as well as self-generated – but also about social life, identity, money. Fashion here is part of everyday life.

The exhibition is at its best when the clothes are viewed not just as objects or textiles, but as aesthetic choices on the part of the designer or consumer. Photography is a far more intimate form than clothes displayed on a mannequin. In the last few years African photographers have turned to fashion as a way of exploring expressions of gender. Gouled Ahmed’s subjects wear ornate gold jewellery and traditional clothing (sumptuous muslin) that disguises their gender by accentuating both masculine and feminine features. Stephen Tayo works in a similar mode. During the 2020 lockdown, Tayo photographed members of Lagos’s drag and gender non-conforming community, duplicating and collaging the photographs into composite images on which phrases such as ‘na dress I dress I no kill person!’ and ‘To wear wig na crime ???’ are written in colourful ink. In Nigeria, clothes can be the difference between life and death. Police officers are known to target individuals whose clothing they deem subversive or queer; death threats, extortion and violence soon follow. (Such attacks formed part of the impetus for the #EndSars movement against police brutality in 2020.)

Africa Fashion shows a continent in the midst of great change. African designers and textile workers increasingly face environmental and sustainability issues more commonly associated with Asia or Eastern Europe. Labour regulations leave much to be desired. But much about fashion in Africa remains different from the West. Most Africans buy their clothes second-hand, and many still have them made by a tailor. There is less of a use-and-discard mentality. In this respect, the exhibition presents fashion as a utopian endeavour, with African producers and consumers offering new ways of making and relating to the clothes we wear.

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