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  • Introduction: United in Dress: Negotiating Gender and Hierarchy with Festival Uniforms
  • Ute Röschenthaler (bio)

Through the intricate interplay of quality, form and decoration, cloth accomplishes far more than protecting the body.1 In many African societies, cloth is a store of wealth, a means of exchange, a bridewealth payment (Picton 1995; Steiner 1985), and, when transformed into clothing, a vehicle of complex messages that relate to individual beauty and rank as well as the social tensions that exist in interpersonal relations when it is decorated with proverbs and symbols (Beck 2001; Domowitz 1992). Cloth is a complex medium that is used to both construct and contest social and individual identities (Allman 2004; Hendrickson 1996) and to bring out one’s true self (Miller 2005); to mobilize politically and for camouflage and carnivalesque disguise. This themed part issue explores examples of particular types of uniforms, how people use decorated cloth, and the projects for which they use it when they wear dress with the same decoration for specific, often recurrent, events.

Such decorated uniforms made from industrially produced fabrics have been observed at naming ceremonies, funerals, chiefs’ installation festivities and weddings, at political and religious events, concerts, commemoration ceremonies and festivals at least since the early twentieth century. Participants at these events wear uniforms of decorated wax, fancy cloth or T-shirts, some of which also have printed photographs, brands and/or logos on them. Depending on the context, some of these uniforms resemble each other quite closely, while others allow for individual differences. With their uniforms, the participants visualize a sense of belonging to a community that reflects different degrees of association, ranging from casual gatherings at these events to more rooted and longer-term affiliations.

Uniforms reduce visible differences in a group (Allman 2004; Joseph 1986). They also create difference with non-members, such as other social and professional associations and groups that wear a particular ethnic or national dress (Eicher 1995; Hendrickson 1996), regardless of whether the uniforms comprise hand-made fabrics, individually tailored dresses, or industrially produced apparel. Uniforms emphasize sameness and consolidate group membership [End Page 628] (Allman 2004; Joseph 1986) while participants’ individualities retreat into the background. The meaning of such clothing shifts again and symbolizes an asymmetrical relationship when a group wears dress that is decorated with photographs and/or specific logos. This suggests that decoration does something important to the cloth and that it conveys particular meanings to participants and observers. It is on this meaning of ‘uniformization’ and the ideas and projects behind it that the contributions to this issue offer insight in their discussions of social associations (Fokwang) and of large groups of people who celebrate annual events wearing a particular and uniform outfit (Adrover; Pommerolle and Ngaméni; Röschenthaler, this issue).


A closer look at African cloth practices will provide a better understanding of the present-day meanings of associations’ decorated uniforms and of the dress that bears the photographs of individuals. The possession of cloth is a visual assertion of wealth and power. In most African societies, kings and chiefs had (and often still have) a prerogative to receive and own the most precious, rare and decorated objects and the most elaborate costumes,2 some of which they were expected in turn to redistribute and provide to their subjects. In many societies, the men’s prestige depended, and still depends, on their capacity to dress their women and children. In some contexts, women owned and hoarded hundreds of locally produced or imported fabrics as a store of wealth (Cordonnier 1987; Picton 1995; Spencer 1982; Steiner 1985; Sylvanus 2008); they received these from their husbands, or, depending on the context, produced and/or traded them themselves (Denzer 1994).

Cloth reflects the wealth of the elites, but styles, tastes and fashions differ locally and in different times (Adenaike 1998: 260–1; Martin 1994). As a medium to indicate social distinction or as a social skin (Turner 1993), cloth is the visual expression of complex social differentiation. A good example is the study by Renne (1996), who examined the distinct categories of women and men in a part of Yorubaland who, according to...


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