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  • African Dress: fashion, agency, performance by Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Madisoni
  • Hans Peter Hahn
Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Madison, African Dress: fashion, agency, performance. London: Bloomsbury Academic Press (hb £60 – 978 0 85785 380 6; pb £25.99 – 978 0 85785 381 3). 2013, 224 pp.

This book presents original and empirically rich research on clothing with a strong focus on West Africa. The book combines contributions by younger scholars and by more established anthropologists, and all contributions are well written and offer vivid images of dressing practices. In her introduction, Karen Tranberg Hansen sets out the key reasons why dress studies are so important in anthropology. First, clothing is a means of mediation between the individual and society. Second, dress has a double function: it changes the body and supplements it. And third, clothing can be found in an endless number of different contexts.

The book is divided into four sections, shifting from a focus on the individual experience to more general meanings of clothing in the public sphere. Parts I and II deal exclusively with female dress in Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Senegal and Mauritania, whereas Part III describes male costumes from Senegal, Mali, Niger and Kenya. Part IV does not address actual practices of clothing but [End Page 218] rather media representing fashion and clothing, with case studies of men and women from Senegal, Mali, France and the US.

Part I begins with a chapter by Misty Bastian on appropriate dressing for festivities in Southern Nigeria, which illustrates both the importance and the limits of attaining social acknowledgement through clothing. Nina Sylvanus’s contribution explores the increasing availability of cheap Chinese fabric, which means that Vlisco Dutch wax is no longer a widely acknowledged marker of prestige. This development is a challenge for upper middle-class women in Togo, but it is also an indicator of the impact of global flows of goods on the social order. In a discussion of Ghanaian branded T-shirts, distributed for free at festivities organized in honour of specific chieftaincies, Lauren Adrover suggests that there is no uniform evaluation of the impact of global brands. While some chiefs consider such T-shirts inappropriate, it is difficult to organize feasts without sponsorship.

Part II starts with a discussion of bazin riche, a costly fabric used by women in Dakar, by Kelly Kirby. Referring to Deborah Heath’s 1992 article about clothing and heteroglossia, Kirby nonetheless interprets the fabric as part of a hierarchy of cloth. Katherine Wiley’s chapter on Mauritania explores the veil as central to women’s national and religious identity. However, its meaning is not only related to its costliness, but also to the motifs printed on the cloth. The veil is also the focus of Elisha Renne’s chapter on Northern Nigeria, where increasing pressure on women to wear the veil or even the niqab raises the question of how clothing relates to women’s intentions. Instead of fashion, the current veiling practices could also be considered as ‘anti-fashion’. In this context, clothing does not primarily enable social interaction but defines its limits.

Part III of the book begins with a report about the military uniform of the so-called tirailleurs sénégalais. Keith Rathbone argues that the willingness of young men from West Africa to join the French army during World War I reflected a widespread appreciation of the uniform. However, methodologically, the author fails to acknowledge that those who survived are likely to represent their choice as positive. This chapter is followed by Victoria Rovine’s contribution on the lavish dress of Malian migrants, who return home wearing djellabas richly decorated with motifs from their host country, Ghana. Dealing with the stylish outfits of those younger men (and women) who can afford expensive clothing in Niger’s capital Niamey, Adeline Masquelier returns to the importance of cost. The efforts of those who wish to create the impression of affluence suggest that self-fashioning is hard work, but it is also an expression of fun and creativity. Tina Mangieri’s chapter explores the dress choices of Kenyan Muslim men, whose religious identity can be expressed both through clothing with a...


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pp. 218-220
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