Art of African Fashion

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9780865437265: Art of African Fashion

This book was published to mark the presentation of the Principal 1998 Prince Claus Award to the Art of African fashion, honouring the arts of fashion design, textile design, hair design and indeed all related arts. It highlights various facets of African fashion and couture and surveys the works of a number of contemporary African models and fashion designers including Abraham Pelham, Alphadi, Katoucha, Makeda and Oumou Sy. In addition to the foregoing the book provides social commentary on the general attitudes and behavioral patterns in specified African societies with regard to the development of new fads and styles.

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This publication marks the presentation of the principal 1998 Prince Claus Award to the Art of African Fashion, researching the arts of African fashion design, textile design, hair design and body decoration - in short all arts relating to the decoration of human beings and the expression of the self.

The contributing editors are Aimanata Dramane Traore, Minister of Culture and Tourism, Mali; Hudita Nura Mustafa (South Africa); Mounira Khemir (Tunis/France); T.K. Biaya (D.R. Congo/Senegal); Salah M. Hassan (Sudan/USA); Marie-Amy Mbow (Senegal); Renee Mendy (Senegal/France); Anna Getaneh (Ethiopia/USA); Els Van Der Plas and Marlous Willemsen (Prince Clause fund, The Netherlands) are the editors. Among the African fashion designers presented are Abraham Pelham (Liberia/France), Tetteh Adzedu (Ghana), Joel Andrianomearisoa (Madagascar), Alphadi (Niger), Katoucha (Guinea/UK), Martin Kapfumvuti (Botswana), Mickael Kra (Ivory Coast/France), Aya Konan (Ivory Coast), Oumou Sy (Senegal) and Xuly Bet (Mali/France). Among the contributing photographers are Eric Don-Arthur (Ghana), Alan Herman (France), Mamadou Toure Behan (Senegal), Karin Duthie (Botswana) and Bruno De Medeiros (Ivory Coast)

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From Chapter 2: Sartorial Ecumenes: African Styles in Social and Economic Context- Pageantry, Power and Imitation - Pageantry has always been crucial to the definition, exertion and contestation of power in Africa. In ritual contexts, key players in the spirit world or state power perform and publicly reaffirm their power through dress display. Prestigious dress, as with the exercise of power more broadly, represents the capacity to mobilize material resources, productive labor and a community of recognition. The regalia of Ashanti kings with their tremendous gold bangles and the multiple swathes of woven cloth worn by pre-colonial Wolof aristocracy are vivid reminders of their wealth and power. Throughout Africa, artisans are linked hierarchically to courts or important families. Thus, the moment of pageantry crystallizes a society's aesthetic and social values and hierarchies.

In today's Senegal, the beauty of objects and people incites powerful emotions of admiration and desire, rivalry and ambivalence. Gold jewellery, luxury cloth and regal conduct are still the ideals of beauty. Old proverbs warn against admiring beauty at the expense of goodness, yet, in practice, beauty is seen as a kind of goodness. The topical issue at the moment is the source of wealth and beauty. Is the most expensive cloth the most beautiful? What sacrifices were made to finance that dress? Who dresses for whom? And should it really be so very important? The minutiae of style make it forceful for both inculcation into and contestation of domination. Contemporary African fashion relies on local proclivities towards bodily adornment, current economies of circulation and key social restructurings. In South Africa, both the white media and black politicians proclaim that the new South African black elite is squandering money on Escada at a time when the children in Soweto have no schoolbooks. In Senegal, dirriankhes are denounced in music as well as in everyday discourse for dressing themselves in the latest boubou while their children eat porridge. Yet, everyone is keen to find whose boubou was the most spectacular at a particular event and whether it was a good copy of the President's wife's. Such are the contradictions of modern pageantry. The ruses of ordinary people's pageantry, 'sanse' (the Wolof word for fancy dress), are imitation and valorisation. Ordinary tailors and their clients take their stylistic leads from ceremonies and television celebrities. For them, East Asian cloth doubles as Austrian damask, and Nigerian polyester thread as French silk embroidery threads. Trims of eyelet embroidery is now in vogue in deliberate opposition to the former fashion of ostentation, but tha aim remains to make cheap cloth look expensive. As one friend explained to me about a necklace made of gold polyester beads, 'it looks like gold from a distance'. For instance, a gold spun embroidery thread for boubous was introduced by a well-off woman who brought Pakistani tailors to Dakar and charged CFA 20,000 in 1993. Within six months, this had been copied by elite Dakar designers and then by neighbourhood tailors who, as cheap thread was found and imported, were willing to sell it for CFA 7,000. Tailors are inspired by cloth motifs to produce embroidery patterns and so create original garments.

The boubou, once the dress of powerful men, marabouts and princes, today indicates the redistribution of symbolic power through gender as well as income groups. Display is seen as a practice of disguise and even false pretensions and fallen morals. This is often a gendered critique which poses dress as narcissism and disregard of familial duty, often linked with prostitution or sexual promiscuity. It reflects an ambivalence towards the new mobility of small businesswomen and their role as the sole breadwinner in a household. Similar ambivalence exist around the familial ceremonies (xew in Wolof) that form a major site of pageantry. Since the 1980s, both old and new elites have used ostentatious weddings and naming ceremonies as a means of displaying their wealth and competing with each other. Ordinary people follow suit in the name of tradition or honour, relying on savings, community aid, loans and enormous sacrifice. These events are organised by and for female in-laws. In earlier times these were generally feasts to which kin and neighbours contributed and modest amounts of cloth were given to key relatives. Cloth, as a gift embodying the giver's spirit, was meant to bind social ties. Individual happiness went hand-in-hand with the celebration of community, it is now claimed. Today the success of a day of feasting, dress, dancing and ritual gift exchange is measured by the quantity of gift exchange and by the number of guests and the dress which they choose to wear. Even middle-class women feel that they cannot wear a robe more than four times and must then relegate it to casual wear or to a relative. The risk is that their peers would consider them to be in financial trouble or disregarded by their husbands. Xew are in effect, as much fashion contests and wealth circulation as community consideration.

From Chapter 3: 'It is, yet it is not; Water cannot wet it, Sabres cannot cut it' and 'A casket of saffron spread over the land, No sultan or bey can turn it to his hand' - these are two popular Tunisian riddles which reflect the wealth of meaning contained in the two eternal paradigms of shadow and light, of whaat is hidden and what is revealed - in other words, the importance of suggestibility as the primary dimension of an aesthetic. While the veil, through its links with the Islamic world, apprears in Western eyes to be replete with meaning, its significance extends beyond the notion of covering the female body and re-emerges in a number of exteremely varied forms as an essential component of a culture. In architecture, the veil denotes an entire relationship to space, evoking secret and magical writings of all kinds, links with the sacred and the spiritual.

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