Fashioning Africa: performance, representation and identity 
Harriet Hughes (University of Sussex)
Pamela Kea (University of Sussex )
Brunei Gallery - B204
Sunday 3 June, 15:30-17:00 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

There are a growing number of African fashion cities emerging. Designers employ transnational networks, as well as indigenous art practices, techniques and skills. The panel explores how fashion throws up issues of display, representation, materiality and identity within post-colonial contexts.

Long Abstract

There are a growing number of fashion capitals in Africa reflecting the history of textiles, dress and style as forms of art. Despite this there is a lack of empirical studies of emergent African fashion worlds, and their social and historical contexts. Moreover, African fashion has been excluded from fashion theory perpetuating binaries between the west and non-western, which are only recently beginning to be questioned. African creatives and designers are seeking to position themselves on a global platform through networks, self-presentation and numerous fashion weeks. Today African fashion might be seen as agentive in terms its potential for re-imagining identities within post-colonial contexts and for self-representation. In addition, in recent years designers have become interested in reworking indigenous techniques and designs, throwing up issues relating to art and authenticity, authorship and the entanglement of high end, commercial and artisanal practices. This panel explores African fashion, identity and representation and asks how designers are engaging in forms of self-representation. Designers may respond to the material qualities of fabrics, whilst drawing from traditional and historical ideas, as well as being informed by transnationality and mobilities. Fashion identities might also serve to subvert or renew ethnicities. Papers might explore the emergence of new communities of designers, the relationship between fashion and identity, or how ideas about 'heritage' and contemporary identities are co-constitutive offering potential for African museums (which are reflective of colonial categories of dress) to renew their presentations of fashion and dress.

Accepted papers:


Amah Edoh (MIT)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines how the rebranding of the oldest producer of wax cloth from a manufacturer of textiles for Africa into a global fashion and design brand manifested in the material and visual reworking of the company's textile designs.

Paper long abstract:

Wax cloth, commonly known as "African print" or pagne, was introduced to West African markets by European manufacturers in the late 19th century. Since that time, the cloth - in particular the variety produced by its oldest manufacturer, the Dutch company Vlisco - has become a signifier of West African cultural identity and heritage, within Africa and beyond. In 2006, in response to sustained and overwhelming competition on its African markets, Vlisco initiated a shift in its business strategy, aimed at remaking the company from a manufacturer of textiles for Africa into a global high-end fashion and design brand. Design practice was one of the areas affected by this strategy. A series of changes meant to bring Vlisco's new textile prints in step with global fashion trends while building on the company's long history of producing for West Africa gave rise to prints with a noticeably different design aesthetic, widely deemed unrecognizable by the cloth's seasoned users in key West African markets. The material and visual reworking of wax cloth designs in Vlisco's reorientation from African to global markets is the subject of this paper, which is based on 13 months of ethnographic research conducted between 2013 and 2014 in Holland and Togo. Reading these textile designs as visual testimonies of ongoing negotiations of Africa's place in the world order, the paper demonstrates how design and fashion discourses, practices, and objects participate in projects of world-making.


Erica de Greef (University of Cape Town )
M. Angela Jansen

Paper short abstract:

The paper aims to show why fashion in, and from, Africa is gaining attention, not because new fashion capitals are emerging, nor that systems of reference are included in the creative process, but instead, that perhaps, new terms are emerging for thinking about fashion in the 21st century,

Paper long abstract:

False assumptions are made that African fashion capitals are only just emerging. Due to fashion's perceived eurocentricity, 'African fashion' has largely been excluded from the discourse of fashion and the canon of fashion theory. This paper aims to argue how African fashion has long been a powerful tool used to negotiate continuity, change, tradition and modernity both within local and global networks. Mixing local crafts and aesthetics with foreign materials and symbols, or re-inventing functions, shapes and meanings of fashion objects, has meant that African fashion has continually innovated and engaged with broader social, political and cultural influences .

As a positioning paper, we at the Research Centre for Decolonising Fashion aim to use a critique of contemporary fashion in Africa , as a means to re-think fashion from a non-Western perspective. The question, 'What's with the Fashion Capitals in Africa' aims to re-position, and re-frame, the dialogue about African fashion delivered from new perspectives. Key to 'decolonising' is the need to dismantle the 'epistemic violence' of institutions, discourses and knowledge structures that perpetuate the hierarchies, disavowals and 'orders' sustaining largely Western forms of power and control. The western fashion system is no different in trying to maintain control, and in need of 'decolonising'. Following decolonial theorist, Walter Mignolo, this paper proposes ways in which to question the control of knowledge, and the control of ways of knowing and being, and in this way, considers ways of changing the terms of the conversation about African fashion, not just the content .


Sarah Worden (National Museums Scotland)

Paper short abstract:

Ugandan born, London-based fashion designer José Hendo is reframing the centuries old tradition of Ugandan barkcloth production and use in both aesthetic and commercial contexts. In this paper the role of contemporary fashion in the construction and expression of new identities will be explored.

Paper long abstract:

Barkcloth, a material which before the wide availability of cotton cloth played a vital role in Ugandan life, has in recent years enjoyed a resurgence of attention. A variety of artists and designers from Uganda, are exploring its physical and symbolic properties. This paper focuses on the work of Ugandan born, London-based fashion designer José Hendo, who has brought barkcloth to haute couture. Her experimentation with this material has led to innovative and unique collections which push the boundaries of design and construction. Inspired by her Ugandan heritage, she is also an activist for the revitalisation of the traditions of barkcloth production in Uganda. 'Barkcloth to the Roots'(B2TR) is Hendo's initiative 'to promote the use of barkcloth globally in the modern world, anchored in the ethos of sustainable development goals … to preserve both our heritage and the environment', and brings together people working with barkcloth, including those who farm, harvest and process it.

Not only has her work featured internationally, including Kampala Fashion Week, but a piece was also recently acquired by the Museum of Uganda. In this context her work is an expression of a commitment to promoting and regenerating local barkcloth industry, and symbolic of collective agency in fashioning notions of tradition, authenticity and identity. Her reframing of this centuries old tradition in both aesthetic and commercial contexts provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of contemporary fashion in the construction and expression of new identities.