“Why is it that the conscious African tends to dress like the conscious American who’s trying to dress African?” a friend vented after seeing a picture of a popular “Afro-chic” musician.  What is “African” style anyway?

The first of it’s kind; the Soweto Fashion  Week will premiere on the 24th of May 2012 in the heritage rich township. The event will showcase works of never before seen designers from Mzansi and beyond. So what can we expect? Dare we presume, African inspired design?

Considered the birthplace of civilization, Africa is the home of over 50 nations, some countries with up to 20 ethnic groups within their borders, hundreds of languages, foods and skin tones.  So how is it that African identity has been squeezed into the bottle of homogeneity? It appears African fashion houses that are praised for representing the continent’s identities often have one thing in common – the fusion of traditional prints with Eurocentric design. Disagree? Pick a design, any design, now throw in a traditional print – et voila! That’s African.  Or so “they” say.

Experts have coined the terms chic, Avant-garde; urban, classic, bohemian in an attempt to categorize personal style.  But how does the individual process their preference of one look over another? Some argue that exposure and marketing has everything to do with it. Media tells us what to wear and when, who to like and who not to – but not everyone listens.  There are those who pore over magazines for guidance, those who couldn’t care less and others that are schizophrenic about the whole affair.  But most of us will admit that there is some value in being told what’s what. I don’t want the Fashion Police making an example of me, that Joan Rivers is one scary chick.  Being told is handy; it helps us recognize things, like the fact that vintage is usually a style that’s based on early twentieth century trends.  So Zulu beads or Shwe shwe dresses that the older African generation wore in the same era are vintage too right? Nope. Vintage is normally attributed to American and European style, not even Asia makes the cut. From the looks of things, African fashion does not register on the radar unless it’s coupled with a non-African identity.

Erykah Badu in her impractically massive head wraps was called Afro-chic; the term African-couture is reserved for the likes of Lira in her short hair and earth toned frock? With her risqué dress sense and rebellious music, Brenda Fassie earned the title of “the Madonna of the Townships”. And it seems few Africans have a problem with this narrow minded thinking. Some of us will go as far as using this same bar to evaluate our own acceptability. We don’t look to the Masai’s body wraps for inspiration or give traditional Shona Nhembe a second glance, not even Mbuya Nehanda wore those things – they’re primitive! Right? (Nhembe are materials often made of animal skins that were worn by the Zimbabwean Shona and were designed to only cover the essentials – think bikini meets mini skirt.)

But for those who are responsible for creating what we wear, sometimes the things we discard are the very treasures that inspire a collection.  A designer will typically look to nature, architecture and culture for inspiration. History, identity and meaning is repackaged and given a new purpose. The crucifix is no longer the image of the worst kind of torture, it’s jewellery; eastern temples are no longer places of worship, they’re hats; nose rings are no longer symbols of marital eligibility, they’re an accessory for the Punk Rocker.

Cultures are ever evolving and with globalization we are constantly borrowing ideas from one another. So to hold on to “Africanism” in the name of being authentic is impractical. I might be Shona, but rocking a cute nhembe outfit in the Johannesburg winter isn’t going to work for me. There are innumerable sometimes-debatable elements that make an African an African; we just need to look beyond the obvious. Why not look at things like biltong and boerewors for example – darn it, besides being obvious, Lady Gaga did that already.

So why is it that the conscious African tends to dress like the conscious American who’s trying to dress African? Assuming that this in fact is the case, maybe it’s the way the conscious American unapologetically finds synergy between the ethnic and the modern (in the Western sense of the word) and wears it as a crown. Who else in the world will give their kids names like Shaniqua and Bonquisha in a bid to stay in touch with their roots? Wrong or right, for most of us, modern is what’s normal. Perhaps the designers at Soweto Fashion Week will shake things up a little. If you come through, look out for me and come say “yo.” I’ll be the Afro-chic gal with the Erykah Badu head wrap, Shwe shwe boob tube and skinny jeans.

-Tendayi Nyeke

Categories: Fashion