Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa

By Kratz, Corinne A. | Anthropological Quarterly, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa


Kratz, Corinne A., Anthropological Quarterly


Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa. Edited by HII.DI HENDRICKSON. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1996; 261 pp. (paper).

Clothing and difference brings together an engaging and useful set of case studies that detail how clothing, toilette, and related body practices become ways to constitute, challenge, signal, and inculcate social identities and differences. Drawn from a range of African settings, they illustrate the changing nature of such practice and identities and the subtle distinctions of meaning encoded in variations of style. Most relate their concerns to recent work in cultural theory and cultural studies. A few go further to demonstrate how careful ethnographic analysis and cultural history provide a firm and fertile grounding for critical engagement with contemporary theory as well as an avenue for its creative reformulation.

Hendrickson's brief introduction emphasizes the socially constructed, historically particular, and semiotic nature of clothing practice and the body surface. She defines the book in relation to three literatures: recent studies on fashion and dress, particularly feminist and cultural studies; social science analyses of dress; and Africanist scholarship. These are treated more like isolated traditions than theoretically and historically entwined endeavors, but the short discussions highlight basic questions that show the importance of comparative work stretching beyond Europe and North America. Hendrickson emphasizes their eclectic mix of material and methods in the papers and the counterpoint of perspectives that this often allows.

The eight case studies are divided into three sections. The first groups three papers under a very general rubric, "Creating Social Identities." Elishe Renne considers changing meanings of virginity, as represented by special white cloths and as a bodily state, for Ekiti Yoruba in Nigeria. She shows how "enlightened" behavior became defined this century in relation to education, elite status, and alternative kinds of sociality, reversing other Ekiti understandings of marriage arrangement and young women's physical states and status. Deborah James' fascinating paper about northern Sotho-speaking communities in South Africa describes the dynamics of setswana and sekgowa (Sotho ways and White ways). By tracing the history of women's dress over three generations, James explains how the former incorporated aspects of the latter and how gendered shifts in the political economy of labor, financial obligation, education, and marriage have been intimately related through clothing. She also examines how women in a local dance group forge temporary economic solidarity and community through performance and dress. Adeline Masquelier closes the section with a paper on Bori spirits and their mediums in southern Niger. She outlines not only how different costumes identify deities, but how mediums build, display, and break their relations with deities and others by means of cloth.

Misty Bastian's marvelous account of fashion history and the daring stylistic maneuvers of youth in Onitsha, Nigeria, begins the second section, "Challenging Authority." Bastian explores the way young women and young men alike adapted particular senior male styles in the late 1980s, questioning notions of power, wealth, and morality in the process. Her creative use of diverse sources, close attention to particular cases of stylistic choice and innovation, and perceptive commentary on consumption-based theories of fashion and identity make this a particularly compelling essay. One other paper is included in this section, though its relevance to "challenging authority" is less than clear. Bradd Weiss' fragmentary account of Haya death shrouds and funeral dressing in Tanzania touches some classic anthropological themes but is rather disengaged from Haya social experience.

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