READING FILES: VICTORIA ROVINE, AFRICAN FASHION, GLOBAL STYLE (2015)

So I got back to doing my thing after a year of maternity leave. It’s been intense and I missed blogging, but at the same time I couldn’t bring myself to devoting the little free time I had to writing. But since I have more time on my hands now (things aren’t properly ‘busy’ at work, read: I lost my job), I plan to revive this space, if only to have an excuse to take care of myself, write and hopefully network along the way.

It makes sense to begin from where I left, that is from reading academic works about fashion from Africa. I have been re-reading Victoria Rovine’s African Fashion, Global Styles: Histories, Innovations and Ideas you Can Wear (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015) (the topic of an old post) with the intention of using it as a reference in a paper I’ll be co-authoring with a friend and African fashion enthusiast. The paper is about celebrity culture and African fashion. The abstract is still under review but I think it works and would fit into the book’s framework on fashion studies. Either way, accepted or not, I have a good excuse to lock myself up in the studio and do some studying while Ella is asleep.

Victoria Rovine

Rovine (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is an art historian specializing in the study of African textiles and dress practices. Her publications include a monograph on Malian clothing and textiles, a guest-edited issue of the journal Fashion Theory, and many papers that bring together anthropology, fashion studies and African art history. African Fashion, Global Style is her second book.

I read this tome again because it is full of information and interesting insights for those who, like myself, are interested not only in “runaway fashion”, but in fashion’s “other” manifestations that emerge in the everyday, vernacular, and unconventional spaces of the street and the internet. Every time I look at blogs and publications that use dress to address identity, cultural and social issues in Africa and the diaspora I ask myself how this mediatization of fashion from the continent affects self-identification and race relations at a time when Africa is, indeed and controversially, ‘trending’. What I would like to argue in the submitted chapter is that fashion and fashionability are means of legitimation that may attest to a celebrity’s art and street knowledge, and help building his/her social and cultural credit.

Rovine proposes an inclusive idea of fashion that spans the runaway and the street, the continent and Europe, past, present and future, “looking beyond the branding systems that chracterize [the European and North American] markets”. She regards inventive dressing as an art form expressing a blending of cultures: “layers of significance may be folded into the seams of garments, incorporating styles, media, and meanings from local cultures as well as national, regional and international sources of inspiration”. This commingling of ideas, goods, and histories reflects Africa’s participation to the global fashion culture, dismantling the presumption that the fashions from the continent are either ‘traditional’ or merely derivative.

Rovine focuses on the visual aspects of this universe. She discusses the formal elements that make up a heterogeneous dress culture, owing as much to the creativity of diasporic Africans as to Africans based in the continent. Such aspects may directly reference local cultures and traditions, or they can express locality in more allusive ways. While “classical” African fashion embeds key visual markers of the local and the traditional while employing the methods of the global fashion industry to foreground a sense of locality, “conceptual” designs evoke an African “structure of feeling” that requires interpretation and a knowledge of histories and cultures.

These styles account for individual and collective experiences that act upon entrenched colonial and neocapitalist views of the continent as a passive recipient of Western styles and goods and, at the same time, as a place outside of history and therefore, as fashion is ontologically forward-moving, unable to be “in” fashion. The numerous case studies that enrich Rovine’s theoretical argument that African fashion is global fashion prove that that the continent is a hotbed of innovation and the nexus of undergoing negotiations of power. Nowhere is this more evident than when designers work with recycled clothes. When designers like Lamine Kuyaté (France, Mali) and Darkie (South Africa) adapt second-hand garments, they are literally handling history and attempting to reroute the flows of neocapitalism. The way these creatives assemble scraps of worn cloth and individual parts of garments gives them a new life that bears a distinct, often autobiographical imprint that can “subvert colonial temporality” and produce distinct “African localities”. Indeed, Rovine calls this pratice a “repurposing of the past” that has a positive and empowering effect on self-awareness as it makes room to the silenced and overlooked histories of the continent.

Ultimately, fashion is, to Rovine, a narrative medium, a tool of storytelling that, as it reflects “multifarious” views of the continent, produces Africa’s own “modernities”. Such modernities do not follow the Western teleology but productively incorporate historical memories and past lives into the present, yielding innovations that attach new meanings to local cultures and traditions, at the same time reworking entrenched meanings and visuals forms into complex views of what it means to be African today. Indeed, the historical subtext of African fashion design is an engagement with modernity and its system of power and knowledge production that, as it consigns Africa to the timeless realm of tradition, makes it a reservoir of ready-made tropes and motifs that have often popped up on Western runaways as exotic and ephemeral additions.

African designers are appropriating the means to tell stories in their own terms, creating styles that “exemplif[y] [a] global concept of identity” and putting their dress cultures to the service of a socio-political approach to influencing and trend-making.

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