What is African Attire?


LONDON – “African Attire” or African fashion are the two terms often used to describe the clothes of Africa. As an African British now living in the UK, I have been trying to understand what that means to Africans.

In the African Diaspora communities “African Attire” is the buzz word, the very answer to trendy African fashion.

Everyone wants to have “African attire” and there are enterprising designers and dressmakers that have emerged to meet this desire and demand. Some of the clothes are being imported from Africa because apparently there are no authentic “African attires” in the western world.

Now when I see these “African attires” advertised everywhere on line and on various social media sites I struggle to pinpoint the uniqueness or difference with any other clothes around.

What I see is a basic dress, skirt or jacket made from a patterned, very colourful cotton fabric, which makes it different from the clothes in high street shops.

In my opinion, I am made to believe that, it is the fabric that determines African Fashion and not necessarily the designs or styles of the garments.

On the international stage, African fashion and the inspirations are making a massive impact with emerging top African designers showcasing creations of African identities and fabrics.

African fashion weeks are staged in many countries in the west and in Africa where designers from the diverse cultures and traditions parade their innovative creations inspired by the acculturisation in most modern societies.

To the African designer, contemporary means using the basic silhouttes for the design but made using a fabric with African prints and expressions.

For a majority of the African countries like Nigeria and Ghana the contemporary designs are just a change or alternative from their customary clothing and traditional dress. In other words the designs are modernising the traditional dresses and also creating every day, ready to wear clothing.

There are other countries that do not necessarily have a national dress and I am now referring to those in the Sub Saharan Africa.

Countries such as Zambia and Congo have fabrics of distinct prints or colours that are used for and worn as the traditional dress to give the country the national dress identification. In Kenya, Swaziland and Lesotho it is the accessories of hats and jewellery that show the identity.

I was born in Zimbabwe, a country that does not fall anywhere in the two categories. For some reason there is no traditional dress or fashion brand identity or any widely recognised type of fabric to give Zimbabwe some kind of fashion identity.

I’m not sure what happened during or after colonisation and why the country was oddly left with no national dress identity. While other African countries enjoy the best of both contemporary fashion and national dress identity, Zimbabweans have been left in what I call a “fashion identity crisis”.

By trying to have some identity they have naturally taken onto other countries’ traditional dressing and conveniently calling it “African attire”. While there might be some comfort in this sense of belonging to Africa, there is still a desire for a national fashion brand identity.

The “African attire” trend is now influencing some top, renowned designers who are producing these contemporary designs in the African fabric. Stella Jean of Italy and Lena Hoschek of Austria have entered the “African attire” buzz with impeccable tailoring.

The many small and emerging African and African Diaspora designers and tailors cannot compete or meet the high standards of manufacturing, due to lack of or no sufficient formal fashion training.

It seems like the term “African attire” is here to stay though it is not clear what it refers to, whether it is African contemporary designs or African traditional dresses. While it is easy to identify the Japanese kimono, Indian sari, Scottish kilt or Chinese qipao, the same cannot be said of “African attire” a continent of 54 countries with a myriad of tribes and traditions. As for Zimbabweans especially those living in the diaspora, the identity crisis becomes real when attending cultural days and events. I remember once a British lady from my church telling me about the World Cultural day and that I must come in my traditional dress. She was surprised when I replied that Zimbabwe does not have a traditional dress because she was made to believe by my fellow countrywomen that there was one, yet what that they were referring to was the “African attire”.

Is it time to redefine the term “African Attire” and make sense of its reference? Yes I believe so and time for Zimbabweans to wriggle out of this African attire cocoon we are swallowed in and come up with our own fashion brand and identity.

She is a graduate in BA Hons international fashion business with first class honours from Nottingham Trent University.  With the qualification, Sylvia has progressed into fashion consulting in branding, trends forecasting, design inspirations and theme development, market and customer researches, marketing and fashion directing.

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