Like a snowball down a mountain or a Taylor Swift song, the influx of African print patterns into menswear is getting hard to avoid. And this writer is not a fan.
Before you head to the comments section to angrily type ‘you iz racist n a hater’ hear me out. I have lots of African friends, so it’s ok. I’m also of Nigerian descent myself, which means my hate of this trend comes from a personal place. There’s a number of issues with this trend that, at best, can be irksome and, at worst, fall into one of the many tone deaf ways that fashion deals with co-opting items that have cultural meaning.
Fashion magazines aren’t great with context or nuance, with the ‘that’s amazing!’ side of things overshadowing the smaller things. So it’s almost forgivable that the phrase ‘African inspired’ appears so readily in print. Almost, but a writer saying a collection that was inspired by, say, a remote French village was ‘European inspired’ wouldn’t be acceptable. And neither should the vague ‘African’ inspired term either. I’ve seen phrases like ‘totally ethnic’ used by designers to describe a collection, which sounds like a Godfrey Bloom quote. But it’s not all bad. Trine Lindegaard’s Spring/Summer 2013 collection involved work with traditional Ghanaian fabric weavers that avoided lazy descriptions didn’t diminish the importance of that influence in the collection. Also, it would be unfair to make out like this is the first time fashion has co-opted something and either totally ignored or stripped away any semblance of context and social importance.
While I understand people wanting to subvert and make new ideas from old ones, stripping of context is another issue entirely. It cannot be removed from the bigger issue of ethnocentricity and how it affects our daily lives. Going back to Lindegaard, one quote stuck out to me. In an interview with Style Salvage she said this:
“The collection is rooted in these African fabrics. I wanted to take them away from their traditional use, the wraparound dresses and headpieces, and their links to social status. I wanted to make them more accessible but still keep the traditional influences.”
And here’s where context becomes important. Subversion is, has and always will be an important part of culture. It’s why people are interested in groups like Morrissey’s Latin American fans or inner city Ralph Lauren devotees (an article that tends to get recycled every three years or so). But subversion without context, which most people don’t have when it comes to any sort of African fabric, becomes appropriation.
Not only is it appropriation, but subversion of this kind is a near impossible task that’s only achieved by the wearer themselves. So if I wear anything Kente inspired, very few people will think I’m subverting anything. They’ll just assume I’m wearing traditional garb. Which isn’t to say they’re wrong or they’re racist, it merely points out the futility of empty subversion. Context is key, otherwise actions become meaningless.
Putting all this talk of subversion and cultural appropriation to one side, the main reason I don’t like this trend is a personal one: There was once a time when a non-African person wearing African print patterns meant they’d married into a family. There was a respect there. They’d met the aunties, they’d met the uncles. They’d sat down at a dinner and ate Egosi soup laced with enough scotch bonnet peppers to make you dive into the Thames. They’d been through some things. Now it means nothing.
While I understand you seeing an aunty on Kingsland road one day and wanting to subvert her attire, there was a time when me wearing these patterns meant nothing but the worst. Let me take on a trip down memory lane (you can play the Nas song of the same name now if you want).
When this writer was around ten, being African wasn’t really the thing to be. Being Caribbean was cool, people had positive associations when they thought of the Islands. People instantly thought you were cool if you were Caribbean. Being African carried no such associations. It was mainly, thanks to Live Aid, associated with flies, mud huts, famine, war and Bono. Wearing any sort of traditional African attire was a dicey proposition at best. You could walk down the street in regular clothes and pass under the Caribbean banner that most people automatically put you under without any trouble. But if your African connections got out, prepare for a whole host of “African booty scratcher” taunts, ‘Did you have a mud hut out there?’ questions and other types of assorted nonsense.
I could always pass for Caribbean pretty easily. I even had some people speaking to me in Patois, which always left me doing the Homer Simpson blank stare. I’d grown accustomed to people saying “I know where you’re from… Barbados!” and “You’re Nigerian?! But you don’t look African” (which is, was and always has been offensive). I was safe in my assumed identity. But one day my mum decided that we’d be going to a wedding and that I’d have to wear (insert horror movie dun dun dun sound effect here please) traditional Nigerian attire. Hat and all.
I wasn’t happy as my cover would’ve been blown. I didn’t know how to voice that at the time, being ten and not as linguistically dexterous as I’m attempting to look right now by using the phrase linguistically dexterous. I tried to kick up a fuss and refuse, which didn’t work. I went to a shop and got my attire and went to the wedding wearing every last inch of that outfit, including the hat. As it wasn’t the 1970s, I didn’t get bananas thrown at me, but still, I’d rather not have worn it at the time. It meant something that I wasn’t prepared to take on at the time; a deep cultural significance that I had unknowingly been trying to shake off. The outfit didn’t even cost that much, which brings me to another reason to skip this trend.
Imagine seeing your parents. Now imagine seeing them wearing an expensive re-appropriation of something you used to kick up a fuss about wearing. You’d never live down the shame, would you? While the “traditionally made in collaboration with local artisans” shtick works when selling a collection, it doesn’t go down so well with family members. I’d be the laughing stock of the household turning up to a family event in a £250 Missoni ‘West African inspired’ shirt. Especially when aunty Obi could’ve personally tailored one for me for a quarter of the cost.
So, add up the the awkward ways this trend is covered, the appropriation conversation, the price and, most importantly, the deep seated memories and you’ve got a trend I’ll give a miss. Don’t take this as a ‘holier than thou’ article though. I’d wear a Kimono quicker than you could say ‘Visvimcoststoomuch’.
Jason Dike is a london based writer who’s contributed to the likes of Esquire UK and Men’s Health amongst other publications. He has a highly entertaining (his own words), but sporadically updated (our words) website at jasondike.co.uk and you can follow him on twitter at @jasondike.