Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress

By Hendrickson, Hildi | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress


Hendrickson, Hildi, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress. Edited by Jean Allman. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004. Pp. 247; 46 photographs. $21.95 paper, $50.00 cloth.

This collection is unusually satisfying in its substance, breadth, and balance. It represents a firm stride forward from where my own volume on dress in Africa began eight years ago. Eleven authors drawn from the fields of history, anthropology, art history, and communication studies offer abundant new data and challenging theory to both casual and scholarly readers. On view are cultures in Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zambia from the nineteenth century to the present. Added dimension comes through papers on dress among transplanted Somalis in Minnesota, African-American consumers of African textiles in the United States, and African cloth in the international fashion market. Data are drawn from oral histories and interviews, photographs, government documents, elicited essays, African newspapers, and American magazines.

The volume sets and achieves important goals. In her Introduction, Allman writes that dress is an "enormously valuable yet largely untapped archive" (p. 4) that can teach us about "bodily praxis as political praxis" (p. 1). Struggles for power between people and the state, women and men, trendsetters and conservatives, old and young, are foregrounded in every paper. Allman notes that "the divide" between analyses of fashion in cultural studies and of dress in anthropology "has proven quite stubborn" (p. 2). She argues, and the collection demonstrates, that if African histories are taken seriously, this apparent dialectic can be overcome. Similarly, the "tradition vs. modernity binary" is up-ended by scholars who delve into "specific local contexts where vernacular modernities were forged" and "disassemble the binary in broader global contexts" (p. 5).

The papers are divided into four sections. The first highlights the self-conscious use of dress by women creating "Swahili" identities in early twentieth-century Zanzibar (Laura Fair), protesting taxes in post-World War II Nigeria (Judith Byfield), and articulating Somali identities in the United States (Heather Marie Akou). Next, the interplay between ideas of "nation" and "modernity" are explored in papers on the changing meaning of Kenyans wearing European clothes (Margaret Jean Hay), cosmopolitan dress styles adopted by young Angolans (Marissa Moorman), and debates aroused by Tanzanian government efforts to ban "indecent" clothing (Andrew Ivaska).

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