The association of Africa with aridness, helplessness, and poverty dates back centuries. It’s an ongoing battle to reestablish the continent as one with its own norms, ideologies, traditions, and of course, fashion.
As do those in other regions, the many nations of Africa have its own stylistic approach to clothing, though inspiration continues to go unnoticed. Elements such as patterns, textures, embroideries, and even accessories have been shipped abroad and replicated to be sold and marketed in a different milieu. African styles continue to be tapped for high fashion, seen in collections belonging to the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs. Still, the continent remains “poor, little Africa.”
There’s been an especially concentrated emphasis in recent years, with the reintroduction of the dashiki, borrowed mostly regarding patterns, from Africa. Now, beginning with Black Panther, attention to tradition and an elaborate culture is receiving mainstream resurgence.
The film literally uncovered a land of rich tradition. Behind the impoverished and destitute Wakanda known to the rest of the world, there’s a hidden, eco-conscious, culture-rich, resourceful, fashion-forward land, held as exclusive knowledge to its natives. It’s not defined by a history of enslavement and colonization because there is none. The presentation is both theoretical and a physical manifestation of ceaseless defense by Africans everywhere of their multifaceted homes.
The continent, home to 54 countries is still thought indiscernible to many. But there is variety, even within a country, which the film zeroes in on with its tribes. Designed by Ruth Carter, each tribe was actually clad in attire native to different countries and/or territories in Africa. To name a couple, the River Tribe’s outfits were inspired by the Surma of Ethiopia and the Dora Milaje’s outfits were inspired by the Maasai people.
Lupita Nyong’o is known for donning hairstyles that are inherently African. The Academy Award-winning actress of Kenyan descent spoke with Allure early last month about her all-too-familiar struggle with embracing her hair. Like many black women, she went from relaxing her hair to starting over, to attempting to start from scratch, and then again to submitting to its “difficulty.”
Nyong’o’s hair journey is similar to and symbolic of a culture where the elevation of Western styles and the shunning of others is normal, though recently there is a noticeable increase in the embrace of curlier hair textures. The actress talks about learning that your hair is to be cared for as an individual entity and not compared to others. In her interview, she states that “it’s like clay in the right hands.” And the availability of hair care knowledge is inarguably more readily available to black women than it’s ever been.
The revival carried itself to the red carpet of the 90th Academy Awards on Sunday (Mar. 4). Tiffany Haddish, who spoke about her father’s Eritrean heritage recently, donned a traditional Eritrean dress called a zuria. The comedic actress told daily talk show host Michael Strahan, “My father is from Eritrea and he passed away last year. He said one day I would end up here and if I ever end up at the Oscars to honor my people, so I’m honoring my fellow Eritreans.” This follows Haddish’s recent trip to Eritrea where she connected with family.
Nyong’o wore a gold, Versace gown, and an equally as stunning hairstyle. The 35-year-old’s hair was styled in three, asymmetrical braids, accompanied by accents of golden thread. Simple but elegant, Nyong’o’s hair was styled in an Amasunzu. The style, native to Rwanda, is typically elaborate and worn by unmarried Rwandan men and women. It was traditionally a reflection of social status and elegance. Often shaved into their style, Nyongo’s stylist opted for braids for less permanence.
The two actresses are not the first to make statements with African attire but the Oscars red carpet is a big deal. The two called upon normal, fashion-related elements of culture in two African nations, spreading knowledge of rich tradition without saying a word.