- Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress
Jean Allman's Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress is a collection exploring the "ways in which power is represented, constituted, articulated, and contested through dress" in Africa and in the diaspora (p. 1). Formerly, Allman says, studies of African clothing were more narrowly ethnographic and did not recognize the political and historical importance of clothing in Africa, a shortcoming Allman sees as a manifestation of a "failure of scholars to take African history seriously" (p. 2). Although Allman acknowledges the richness of the corpus of research devoted to African dress, including works that address the complex relationships among colonialism, Western expansion, dress, fashion, and modernization, she has chosen the present articles because they address certain political themes: dress as a visual archive, a window into social change; dress as a way to highlight women's roles in public and political domains, challenging the Western view that politics is a male domain; clothing as a multilevel link between the personal and the public, linking the individual to the community and contemporary political currents; the simultaneity of tradition and modernity; and the contingency of fashion, so that the interpretation of a particular style may vary widely across locales, times, and political atmospheres.
The eleven articles in the collection are grouped into four sections: "Fashioning Unity: Women and Dress; Power and Citizenship," "Dressing Modern: Gender, Generation, & Invented (National) Traditions," "Disciplined Dress: Gendered Authority and National Politics," and "African 'Traditions' and Global Markets: The Political Economy of Fashion and Identity." These sections lend structure and highlight the editor's focal themes, but most of the articles address and interweave a variety of overlapping themes—a feature I found stimulating and appealing. These themes are not new, but they are brought together here in contexts and ways that are interrelated, thought-provoking, and focused on Africa. The reader longs to jump into the discussion. The time period is primarily the twentieth century, but the cultures and locales are broadly representative, including Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana, Angola, Somalis in Minnesota, and the contemporary global fashion world.
All the articles discuss clothing as an expression of identity. Clothing is a readily accessible, visible, and easily changeable indicator of individual [End Page 130] "identity, character, and status" (Byfield) which can facilitate the assertion of identity when people are living in heterogeneous or rapidly changing situations. Thus, Fair describes women's use of clothing styles in early twentieth-century Zanzibar to express their "new definitions of self" as free and cosmopolitan, and several authors note the role of clothing in proclaiming one's status as "civilized" and literate.
Perhaps more politically significant is the role of clothing as an indicator of group identity and as a means of developing and strengthening ethnic, religious, or political solidarity. Several authors address the importance of clothing and fashion in creating solidarity within ethnic groups (Fair in Zanzibar, Byfield among Yoruba women, Akou among Somali women, Allman in Ghana). Hay discusses the use of clothing for religious group identity by Mumboists and Christians in Kenya, and Akou discusses the problematic use of Islamic dress by Somali women in Minnesota to express their identity as Muslims, though specifically rejecting the full facial veil to avoid being identified as Arab in post-9/11 United States. Similarly, as Renne explains in her history of military vs. civilian regimes in Nigeria, clothing has been used in Africa both to announce one's political persuasion and to disguise or deny it.
Most of the articles discuss the role of clothing in the creation and maintenance of women's solidarity. Byfield recounts the role of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti's abandonment of Western clothing in favor of Yoruba clothing in order to develop a spirit of unity between Yoruba market women and the Abeokuta Ladies' Club, resulting in the creation of the Abeokuta Women's Union, a powerful political voice for all women in western Nigeria. Fair discusses a similar use of new clothing styles to blur distinctions among Zanzibari women after...