Fashion is not for African women

Despite the ‘trend’ for black models, racism in the fashion industry is still fashionable.

Last week I attended the intelligence squared Fashion Maketh Woman debate. For the motion was the stylish team consisting of Madelaine Levy, Britt Lintner and Paula Reed (style director of Grazia in an Oscar de la Renta frock on the evening) and against the motion was Stephen Bayley, Susie Orbach (author of “Fat Is a Feminist Issue”) and Grayson Perry (England’s favourite transvestite and also Turner prize winner). The opposing team proposed that fashion is harmful for the modern day woman, setting ideals that enslave her, rather than free her. The fashionistas debated for fashion being fun, something every woman should enjoy without discerning looks from feminists.

In response to a question from the public – namely what the pro-fashion girls thought about the obsession with fashion in the West transporting to Africa for ex, where women traditionally have proudly worn African attire?, Paula Reed suggested that all was OK, after all there is a widened perception of fashion now, a democratization of beauty.

I didn’t hand in my voting card at the end. As a feminist and fashionista, I felt the discussion lacked the viewpoint that fashion on its own, as an artform, is worth celebrating. However, fashion integrated with beauty and body ideals, unarguably influences our perceptions of beauty, body, age and race.

So despite this ‘democratization’ of beauty, the commercial and haute couture fashion industry still resembles a parade of white, skinny teenagers. The fact is, black models still find it hard to get a job. Check out the short documentary, The Colour of Beauty, directed by Elizabeth St. Philip.

By the way, why is an African woman’s clothing referred to as ‘attire’, whilst a western woman’s clothing is referred to as fashion?
Something about labeling African styles ‘African attire’ rather than ‘African fashion’ rubs me the wrong way. It sounds like African women go through elaborate mechanisms to get dressed.Do you get this vibe too, or is it just me?

One Pingback/Trackback

  • Empress

    yeah the lines between black and white are still there although blurred still quite visible. And labeling of attire versus fashion is a slap in the face…is African Attire not fashionable???

    True Queen

    • MsAfropolitan

      They seem blurred just enough for many to think they no longer exist.. Progress in the make though, through mags like ARISE etc

  • Chic Therapy

    that must have been one hell of a debate…

    • MsAfropolitan

      It was so interesting

  • Vickii

    I love your posts because they always challenge me to think about things I’d never even given a second thought to; like this!

    I can’t seem to form my thoughts into a coherent response that won’t read like a short novel but ultimately I’m with the ‘For’ team. I think fashion as an idea and ideal is one of the ways of really expressing freely (I guess ‘freely’ is relative) and creatively our perceptions of beauty, body, age and race.

    Ha ha, the only thing I think wrong with labelling African clothing attire is that I think it assumes all African fashion is elaborate, traditional wear. I think the word attire is actually the perfect word to describe trad as it endows the clothing with a nuance of respect and to me, it implies elaborate (like you said) and purposeful while the word fashion implies to me fleeting/for a season. I guess to sum it up, I think the word ‘attire’ suits iro and buba while a playsuit made in ankara should be described as fashion. Just my own warped logic 😀

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks Vickii, I guess it’s my warped logic to an extent too :)

      Your response is very coherent, and valuable tot he debate.

      I looked up the definition of ‘attire’ and ‘to dress, esp in fine elegant clothes; array’ is a nice description for some traditional African fashion, such as that which may be worn to a wedding or ceremony of some sort.
      The problem I have is that ‘attire’ is used across the board, for ankara, for headties etc. A woman who wears an African print top, skirt and headtie (iro and buba in yorubaland for ex) on a regular basis isn’t making an elaborate purposeful statement I don’t think, she is wearing what is in fashion where she lives.

  • fabladyH

    fashion is fun, and every woman should express it her way..

    • MsAfropolitan

      Absolutely, but let’s also be aware as we follow trends that the industry can be racist, sexist, ageist etc etc… Appreciating the art of fashion, and not the ideals that come with it, can be tricky but very worth aiming for :)

  • teachermrw

    Your post makes me think of the times when teachers or students at my school wear clothing associated with their ethnic culture, and how it precipitates an “ooh, ahh” response, i.e. evoking the exotic. It’s not perceived as simply clothing, but something of a costume. I also recall the time when I was in college, and resided in a dorm with a number of international women. We had a dinner, and women were encouraged to dress up. A woman from Cameroon wore a dress common in her home country, but, again, it was seen as something other, beautiful, but other.

    • MsAfropolitan

      I’m intrigued with the ooh ahh response to ‘ethnic’ fashion, well unless it’s something that’s trendy.
      There’s a think line between genuine fascination and condescending appreciation

  • chomy

    thought provoking post. I could care less about Fashion and its standards really. The fashion industry is built on trends and fads which come and go. right now ‘ ethnic’/tribal is in apparently, African influences are being exploited and abused by the mainstream fashion media as if to say “see we are totally down”. classic tokenism. but like every trend , this too shall past and we will return to the status quo, of skinny non ethnic perspectives showing us what’s hot.

    I don’t blame them really, i blame us. Black, African, Ethnic, Coloured whatever you want to call us. we need to stop expecting that others represent us and start representing ourselves. Just because there aren’t any visible black presence in the fashion world doesn’t mean that black women aren’t stylish or fashionable .The voice has been muffled by years and years of self doubt and lack of confidence and even in todays world, things haven’t changed much.

    The time for pointing fingers is OVER, we have made the case, now is time to actually do something about it. Thanks to the internet, anyone can join in the conversion and actually act instead of sitting in the comforts of their own home and deal out criticisms.

    We have to stop putting expectations on the fashion world and start taking the responsibility. If they won’t put us on the runway orfront row then we gotta create the environment to make it happen. How many black designers are out there, and of the many other there, how many are actually doing anything progressive and bold to change the industry, not many. we all talk a good game and when given the opportunity, the desperation for acceptance kicks in and they all allow their perceptive to be diluted. there is a chance to make a change but alot of us unfortunately aren’t doing anything but whining.
    black women are not usually supportive of each other we all know that, we tear down when we could build up. Everyone is too busy competiting with one another when they could be contributing. black women need to stop compromising and readjusting their identities both individual and collective in order to appeal to the mainstream.

    I don’t think we need role models to make a change, we all need to try to be the change we want to see. Instead of constantly complaining that there aren’t enough black faces out there in the fashion world, we could be trying to bridge that scarcity. It is not up to others to accept ours, we must first accept ourselves and say FUCK it if/when the rest of the fashion world doesn’t get in line. I could care less about Fashion and its standards. Fashion is relative, Style transcends… Black women need to redirect their perspective that’s the Style is Universal, it is like music it doesn’t need words, or debates or full blown editorial pages to deliver a message.

    we can sit about and talk about all the things that is wrong with the fashion industry and how ‘white washed’ it continues to be, but until we actually do something about it, until we actually start contributing instead of bringing each other down, until we start supporting those pioneers who are bold enough to blaze uncharted trails, we will continue to be unrepresented and undermined.

    when there is a black presence in the Fashion inner circle with enough clout to start a change or contribute to one, what do they do?? they allow themselves to become tokens, they downplay their individuality just so they can blend in and be accepted into the mainstream. It pushes back the movement ten fold when the ppl who actually have the influence and power to do something sit about in cushy little ‘editor at large positions’ and keep mum . They don’t represent me, i represent myself.

    we can’t expect the rest of the world to love us, if we can’t even love ourselves . Forget their rules, blaze your own trails, if they won’t let you in thru the door, brake a window no matter how little, it all adds up.

    • MsAfropolitan

      thanks for sharing your equally thought provoking response

      I will reciprocate thoughts in more length soon, as you bring up some truly valid points.

      In the meantime, I’d like to acknowledge appreciation for your blog as it relates to this post in terms of an Afropolitan woman embracing and creating a unique style

    • MsAfropolitan

      So many things I want to say, this is such a BIG topic.
      Firstly, agree that we definitely need to represent ourselves to the extent possible, not only as a group but individually. Create your own look, and be your own beauty and body ideal for real
      I stopped buying the classic women’s glossies long time ago, not so much as a political statement though but there’s only that many times I can pointlessly read how to go from blond to brunette.
      However, everyone is not inclined to make minor or major politically charged fashion choices and that’s fine with me.
      The ‘culture critical’ discussions need to take place, because as long as we operate with purchasing power in a fashion world that is dominated by white people, then we need to be critical about the fact that a black model can’t get a job, or that she can only when she is a trend.
      Fashion icon Michelle Obama for ex does not primarily buy clothes from black designers, and neither do most of us.

      When the day comes that we either school the industry or ditch them to depend on a black fashion industry, then we can stop being critical

      Until then would be great if people support those who support them.
      Don’t get me started on the token black presence in the fashion industry…

    • MsAfropolitan

      Feeling this
      “Forget their rules, blaze your own trails, if they won’t let you in thru the door, brake a window no matter how little, it all adds up.”
      This mantra of yours reflects in your style, keep it up

  • chomy

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts and your insights on them. Please keep up the great work that you have been doing so far!! As my Nigerians would say “more grease to your elbow” :)

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks girl, you just made me smile, and rub my elbows 😉

  • Talibah Rasheed

    The fashion industry has always disregarded Black women and I love to disregard them and their trends. I shop in second hand stores and I wear what I want to wear because I am seriously tired of them trying to control what I put on my body. For years I have loved the Harajuku kids for the way they create their own fashion.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hi Talibah,
      I prefer to shop from independent labels and second hand shops too. It’s much more uplifting and also a way to support labels that might be trying to do something different.
      Harajuku kids are awesome!

  • pr0file

    Im late im late im late!!!!

    Attire: Dress; clothes; headdress; anything which dresses or adorns; esp., ornamental clothing.

    Fashion: how something is done or how it happens; the latest and most admired style in clothes and cosmetics and behavior

    So, African attire can be used in fashion. and incidentally so can western attire. Now the bone of contention comes when you look at your surroundings. In a western country? trousers, shirts, jeans are the norm. is this fashion?? No. are they attire? yes. In an African country? iro and buba, shokoto, head tie, gele, wrapper, ankara are the norm. Are they fashion? No. Are they attire, yes.

    How these clothing items are worn determine if they are fashion(able) or not. ripped jeans – Fashion. ripped jeans tank top, arafat scarf – fashion. Segun Gele – fashion, Zedeye’s ankara MC Hammer pants on Kelis – Fashion. (incidentally the same pants on your main-guard would just be considered odd.) Go figure..

    So question. is the Fashion industry “ignoring” black women? or is it ignoring African attire?? food for thought people..

  • Pingback: Fashion Maketh Woman? The Verdict « Uplift Magazine()

  • Jonathan Updike

    great post

  • Li

    on ‘attire': spot the number of times African clothes are described as ‘robes’ or my personal favourite, ‘costume’.

  • Renee

    I love, love this blog!!! Such thought-provoking issues. I will be visiting again

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thank you Renee! I am humbled.

  • MissFLondon

    Attire is a polite euphemism for costume. The implication being that it is a great source of wonder and it can be removed so that the wearer can return to their normal state.

    It does not dawn on these people that this is the normal state and we as a group are forever linked to the cloth style etc.

    I’m no longer irritated; I just feel pity for those who haven’t a cultural dress or attire to fall back on.