African Dress Cover Image

African Dress

Fashion, Agency, Performance


Karen Tranberg Hansen and D. Soyini Hansen (eds)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Dressing Out-of-Place

From Ghana to Obama Commemorative Cloth on the USAmerican Red Carpet

D. Soyini Madison

Book chapter

DOI: 10.2752/9781474280068/HANSEN0020
Pages: 217–230

Like words, clothing images become significant only when they are used in a specific social context.

This chapter examines the firestorm of controversy that arose when the African American actress Victoria Rowell walked the red carpet at the 2009 Emmy Awards, in New York city, dressed in an evening gown made of Barak Obama commemorative cloth from Ghana. Focusing on the charged reactions against the Obama cloth as well as Rowell’s own response to the controversy, I will discuss the dressed body as both a provocative sign and a critical performative when what we wear is transformed into a symbol that is “out of place” or outside its normative context and usual purposes. This essay will then take a turn to argue that the appropriation of African aesthetics and reclamations of African identities—by Americans wearing Africa dress—might consider the hidden abode and political economies of how African textiles are imagined, produced, distributed, and consumed.

The dressed body is always worn somewhere. It enters a social space with others and where other dressed bodies entered before it arrived. If we believe Rubinstein (1995; see introductory quote), that the dressed body is “like words” and it is “significant” only within a particular “social context” then it follows that the dressed body becomes either more adored or more contentious in some surroundings and under certain conditions than it does in others; like words, dress is a communicative sign that is understood or misunderstood, valued or devalued and felt to be pleasing or displeasing depending on the location and the other social actors present. When we equate dress as a sign, conjoined by communication and context, it opens up larger questions of meaning and value as well as the social and political effects of the dressed body, particularly when it is worn “out-of-place.” Jean Allman states: “And it is precisely because of this strategic positioning that dress functions as a salient and powerful political language—one comparable in eloquence and potency to the spoken words of the most skilled orator or the written words of the most compelling propagandist” (2004a: 1–10).

If we think of dress as a communication system—a “language” or a sign constituted by particular geographies, communities, social customs, and desires—what happens to the expectations and assumptions about the clothes we choose to wear when we travel across unfamiliar terrain, when we enter different domains of meaning, or when we willfully (dis)place what we wear from its expected social context to an unexpected, perhaps, contentious one? This examination of dress that serves as a kind of “matter-out-of-place” invokes prior conceptualizations of dress as a sign as it also extends our understanding of dress to theories of the performative. The question I explore is, What is performatively affected/effected when dress, as sign, is worn out-of-place?

Because dress as a sign has a specific purpose, function, or role within a particular context, it does something and therefore creates certain effects. According to Rubinstein, dress as sign is “task-oriented or instrumental; having one primary meaning; being generally recognized as a sign by those who wear it.” She goes on to state, “Clothing signs make visible the structure and organization of interactions within a specific social context” (1995: 7). Categories of clothing as a sign represent or become codes for authority, gender, politics, class, geography, sexuality, power, ethnicity, ideology, and so forth. The question becomes, what is revealed when we move from dress as a sign to dress as a performative? In employing the term performative, I draw from J. L. Austin as well as contemporary theories of performance in conceptualizing the performative not as an utterance that refers to an extralinguistic reality but as a heightened or symbolic act that makes something happen, disturbs, reinvents, or creates—large or small—a consequence. In other words, a performative serves as a distinct moment, punctum, or rupture from the ordinary and familiar that results in a specific causal effect (Austin 1975; Conquergood 1991, 2002; Diamond 1996; Hamera 2007; Johnson 2003; Madison 2010, 2012; Rivera-Servera 2011). I use the performative to illuminate how the dressed body, in certain instances, becomes a spectacular act that yields new meanings and possibilities and that yields a distinct action that creates, imagines, or disturbs a particular social phenomena.[1] This chapter examines dressing out-of-place as a cross-current of identities and belongings when Ghanaian commemorative cloth literally crossed the Atlantic at the 2009 Emmy Awards: a West African textile depicting an East African-descended USAmerican[2] president and worn by an African American actress that sparked antipathies over politics, taste, and race.

The Obama Cloth on the Red Carpet

When Victoria Rowell walked along the glamour and glitter of the red carpet—where celebrity dress is elaborately staged and where fame and fashion are high drama—her “Obama dress” set off strong responses. The celebrity and fashion blogosphere had much to say:

The Young and the Restless actress Victoria Rowell made quite an impression on the red carpet at the 61st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards 2009 … She was wearing a blue strapless dress with oval photos of Barack Obama adorning the tablecloth-like fabric. The bizarre fashion has likely earned her the distinction of topping the 2009 Emmys Worst Dressed list.[3]

There is nothing remotely glamorous about that Obama dress. The print looks sort of like a tablecloth fabric, only no one with any taste would put something like that on their table.[4]

It’s great to have beliefs. And it’s sometimes good to wear something a little bit different, especially when everyone else at the Emmys is sticking to the same old script. But there’s really never a good time to wear someone else’s face on your torso. Or your legs. Or … well, all over your body.[5]

Wow! That’s a statement.[6]

The dressed body as a social-political act was unleashed as responses to the Obama cloth on the blogs surged—other comments were more pointed in reflecting racial bigotry, cultural taste, and partisan politics—and, therefore, reminded us of the implications of dress as “social skin.”[7] The sampling below represents a series of postings (from September 20 to 22 of 2009) geared to a primarily black readership. The Hinterland Gazette,[8] the site of these postings, describes itself as a source for a “daily dose of community and social and political breaking news for African American centrists.” The postings read as follows:

What was she thinking?

Victoria’s dress is cute but Obama’s face is messing up it. I’ll never wear something with someone’s face on it!

I’m VERY, VERY upset that Victoria had the nerve to wear that dress! I mean I’m just as happy as the next person that Obama is in office as our Prez, but does she have to be so tacky and extreme with it??!!

The fabric Victoria’s wearing is extremely popular in West Africa. In addition to Obama’s picture, it’s decorated with Ghanaian adinkra symbols. It’s so easy to not be ignorant people … Google it and learn something!

I can appreciate the African fabric but maybe not for an Emmys dress. Yeah I actually dig the dress. I thought it was a clever choice and I got it. African style dress with an African on it and adinkra symbols on it. I think what would have elevated the dress more to couture level is if it had some sort of organza or toule (sp?) fabric underneath and ruffles and more sculpture to it, but I can appreciate the black conscious effort statement nonetheless.

The next series of postings (September 20–21) represent a more general USAmerican readership from three blogs:,, and[9]

Typical. Hey, I’m black, Obama is black, let me prove a point by being a stupid black attention whore. What’s the point? That black people actually did something. Wow.

If the president was white and she voted for him, I am sure his picture would not be on her dress … The only reason he is on her dress is to promote that he is black.

I agree that the dress is (a) ugly and (b) cult-like, but there’s no cause to bring her race into this.

Why is she wearing a table-cloth to the Emmy’s?

She needs a goofy donkey hat to complete the outfit.

There is nothing remotely glamorous about that Obama dress. The print looks sort of like a tablecloth fabric, only no one with any taste would put something like that on their table.

The controversy over the Obama dress was not purely grounded in racial bigotry and anti-Obama sentiment. It was also a matter of “taste” and the social and cultural implications of how taste is formed. In the mix of all the heat was the taste factor and the belief that this “tablecloth” fabric was out of place among the more proper and elegant attire where “screen gems cloaked in dazzling gowns to marquee hunks donning tuxes” looked their dressed-up and cosmopolitan best (Byrd 2009).

One of the more balanced and informative responses to the dress was on the Essence Magazine website:

Victoria Rowell marched to the beat of her own hem, so to speak, when she arrived on the red carpet in the boldest of fashion statements—a strapless dress emblazoned with President Barack Obama’s face. Rowell admits that her favorite designers off stage include b. michael, Jane Wilson Marquis and Carolina Herrera and onstage Colleen Atwood and Ann Roth. But last night’s ceremony wasn’t about high-end labels she might have been sporting. When media inquiries on the CBS Primetime Emmy red carpet begged the question of her designer of choice, she proudly replied, “A statement” (Byrd 2009).

The “statement” Rowell was referring to was President Obama’s controversial health care reform initiative which was hotly debated across the country at the time. Rowell’s participation in the red carpet spectacle of fun, fashion, and fame—a showcase intended for posh, not politics—transgressed the expected dress code of high fashion formal wear for the rich and famous. Her dressing for the purpose of dissent to make a “statement” was roundly considered out of place. For many, the dress spoke the wrong language—it was a distasteful and misstated language; it served less as a “statement” and more of a misstatement in support of the public option for Obama’s health plan. Dress as a sign is always a layered and complex “language” about identity, context, and communication. Yet, what is most significant in the Rowell case is not only how she staged her dressed body as a performative act of dissent, as a sign out-of-place, but also her rhetorical response to the question when asked about the designer of the dress. Calling it a “statement” was on one hand courageous, but on the other hand deeply problematic. In naming this performative act “a statement” she ironically, and, I would argue, innocently and unintentionally, became complicit in not stating a particular kind of U.S. hegemony. The irony here is that the “language” of the dress, and its potential to make a more effective intervention, was silenced by Rowell’s word “statement.”

Communication and Dress as a (Non)Statement

Karen Tranberg Hansen describes the “efficacy of surfaces” in noting that the dressed body “materializes as a surface that constitutes meanings and relations and states of being” (2004a: 372). In Rowell’s later elaboration of the dress as a “statement” for health-care reform, she commented: “Yesterday, the opportunity presented itself. Lights, camera, and no health care action?” (quoted in Byrd 2009). She went on to add: “Setting the ruffles and caviar dreams aside is but a meager gesture to echo the herculean efforts of a health care reform package long overdue and one which President Obama is introducing for all Americans” (quoted in Byrd 2009). In her role as an advocate for children, particularly under the foster care system, Rowell eloquently expressed a personal thought: “I spent 18 years in foster care, enduring inadequate health and dental care and unforgivably turned away more than once at a doctor’s office. Nationally, 25,000 foster youth annually emancipate from foster care without health coverage” (quoted in Byrd 2009). She went on to attest to her own survival: “I emerged from Washington, D.C. Health and Human Services as a proud American citizen—an advocate not a victim” (quoted in Byrd 2009). When attacked, at that time, by the right-wing radio host and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, Rowell’s intelligence and poise was further demonstrated, in sharp contrast to the fear mongering, hate speech, and race baiting for which Beck is known. When Beck stated that all of President Obama’s policies are about “one idea” based on “conspiratorial ulterior motives” to transform America so that black people get “reparations,” he perpetuated racial division and anti-Obama sentiment by suggesting that white Americans will lose everything, including their country to “a new America, a new model, a model that will settle old racial scores” (quoted in Byrd 2009). Rowell, taking the high ground and further substantiating her dressed body as a “statement” responded to Beck:

This has nothing to do with reparations, Mr. Beck, and everything to do with all things American … Health care shouldn’t be divided or thought of as the young and some of us. I have witnessed Black and White foster mothers struggle to raise children, choosing food over medical needs. That does something to a child. At least it affected me most profoundly. And if a frock [on the Emmys red carpet] donned with the President’s face sparks dialogue about health care, a life-and-death issue, so be it. I was taught, “If you don’t stand for something you’ll lie down for anything.” (quoted in Byrd 2009)

Rowell’s dressed body certainly made a statement on several levels. At one level, wearing a gown adorned with Ghanian cultural symbols of Gye Nyame (adinkra) and Asante stools with President Obama’s face superimposed upon red, white, and blue West African fabric not only served to communicate support for the first African American president and his health care bill, but also the choice of the red, white, and blue fabric was in keeping with Rowell’s own expression of patriotism in voicing “all things American” and being “a proud American citizen.” It was also a performative symbol illuminating the efficacy of surfaces against assertions of being “true” and “real” by those who denigrate the patriotism of citizens (like Rowell) who were on the other side of the health care issue. The cloth, boldly set against a red, white, and blue background, was a conscious choice by Ghanaian designers to honor the colors of the United States—making it a distinctly USAmerican iconic feature. The draped cloth wrapped around the body of this African American woman voicing her citizenship and American pride, in her own terms, became a counterclaim to right-wing, anti-American name calling. The second level at which Rowell’s choice of dress made a statement is related to her advocacy agenda. Rowell is known to be an outspoken and socially conscious actor. She does not shy away from issues of social justice, as evidenced in her New York Times bestselling book, The Women Who Raised Me: A Memoir. Because Rowell is no neophyte to pursuing just causes, wearing the “Obama dress” to make a statement about health care, particularly as it relates to the disenfranchised within the foster care system, is not inconsistent with her advocacy agenda. Rowell’s dressed body was layered with qualities of performative spectacle: It was charged by public dissent; it traversed from one context to another as matter out-of-place; it was a sign transformed into a symbol inciting race, taste, and rumblings of a left-against-right divide—all for a just cause.

However, one question arises from this dressed body as a performative of dissent: Can an analysis of the Obama cloth be contained by reactions to the mere appearance of a dress? The major criticism and opposition to the cloth was clearly about race, culture, and anti-Obama sentiment, for racial bigotry and cultural tensions are part of the USAmerican landscape, and anti-Obama sentiment was becoming a growing presence. It is clear that much of the firestorm was about the sociality and politics of taste, race, and difference, particularly as it relates to Africa and, I would argue, resonances of abject blackness. If the same dress design replaced the Obama cloth for a shiny, shear, and shimmering one, the dress would be speaking the appropriate language in its proper social context of glamour and fame. The design or lines of the dress—strapless with a low-cut, fitted bodice and flowing skirt with train—are familiar on the red carpet. When Rowell was asked about the designer, the question was more about the anomaly of the fabric that was superimposed upon a classic style. The numerous comparisons to a tablecloth, the aversions to the “strange” cotton print, and the disdain for wearing a “face” are criticisms of the cloth, specifically. So, the question regarding Rowell’s designer of choice was more a question about the fabric and its origins (see Figure 14.1): “Where did it come from?” “How or who conceived of it?” “What does it mean?”

By responding that her choice of dress was a “statement” was to claim an advocacy position, which many considered noble and brave, but in doing so, Rowell also dismissed a history, economy, and geopolitics of West African fabric that is just as complex, contentious, and deeply relevant as health care is in the United States. In that particular and strategic moment, by not stating who the designer was, by not indicating the dress’s origins, and by not recognizing the fabric as a “sign” within a particular history and location, her “frock” was open to more insults as some kind of ambiguous, “tacky,” up-in-your face, strange black costume than might otherwise have been the case if its cultural relevance were named and claimed as commemorative cloth from Ghana. Or, perhaps the criticisms might have been even more robust if explicitly linked to Africa and explicitly made more black and more foreign. The point is that the lack of awareness toward the Obama cloth—its origin and production—was upheld and became a missed opportunity to actually make a statement about the fraught geopolitics and imperial machinations relative to African textiles and the “designer of choice.”

Figure 14.1

Barak Obama commemorative cloth from Ghana. Photo by D. Soyini Madison.

Perhaps it is asking too much of Rowell to make a statement that gestures toward a political economy of African textiles. Why should it matter that this smart, beautiful, talented, and committed advocate for social equity did not address the question of the fabric’s origin? It matters because there are significant implications for wearing African textiles in the United States that beg questions of exploitation. It matters because there is a timeworn history in the political economy of fabric and fashion in Africa that separates its producers from its consumers (White and White 1998; Boateng 2004; Hansen 1994; Holsey 2008; Madison 2005a; Nielsen 1979; Picton 1995; Rabine 2002; Rovine 2009; Skoggard 1998). It matters because there is an American and African American legacy of appropriating and adorning African material culture that lacks an awareness of the uneven and contradictory factors of production, trade, labor, and capitalist expansion (Boateng 2004). When Rowell wore the Obama dress, it certainly unleashed a firestorm about the appropriateness of the fabric that was fueled by class, race, partisan politics, the foreign, and cultural taste. The debate about where and how the fabric came to be produced went unstated, albeit for noble reasons. What I want to now enumerate is an alternative firestorm that could (or should) have also been unleashed that day when the Ghanaian commemorative cloth was worn but unstated.

Traveling Cloth and Diasporic Consumption

Contemporary African commemorative cloth is part of the larger category of printed textiles. Since the nineteenth century, it has represented a visual communication that conveys and records a special event, individual, institution, or location that is meant to be commemorated (Bickford et al. 2007; Owusu-Ansah 1990; Madison 2005; Picton and Mack 1979; Rovine 2004; Spencer 1982). Since commemorative cloth is worn for specific reasons at a specific time, it follows that the efficacy of its surface is most graphically illustrated through the printed photographic images. Anne M. Spencer describes an observation by a British manufacturer in the early days of independence who stated, “In the absence of television and with the high level of illiteracy, a portrait on cloth enabled many more Africans to see the leader who had led their country to independence. It was good publicity” (Spencer 1982: 7).

Various forms of commemorative cloth are worn across the continent. One popular example is the rectangular shape kanga cloth of East Africa, with its decorative borders that frame elaborate designs and colors that inscribe greetings, well wishes, and congratulations, as well as political affiliations, development projects, and public health campaigns. “When words are difficult to articulate with a mouth, inscribe them on kanga and wait for a response” (Zawawi 2005). Just as the Obama cloth was proudly worn during Obama’s visit to Ghana, Obama proudly wore the kanga while in his father’s home county. With few exceptions, both the Obama commemorative cloth from Ghana and the kanga cloth from Kenya are primarily designed in bright red, white, and blue to celebrate the new American president, who has been described as the “illustrious son of Africa.”[10] Rowell’s cloth was specifically produced in Accra, Ghana, at Akosombo Textiles to commemorate the inauguration of the forty-fourth president of the United States and his visit to Ghana in July 2009.

The Obama cloth embodied a polyvocal layering within African, African American, and black diasporic relations. When draped around Rowell’s African American female body, the cloth became a visual marker for “black Atlantic” diasporic pathways of belonging. By “black Atlantic,” I refer here to J. Lorand Matory’s conception of “Afro-Atlantic dialogues,” which “highlight the ways in which the mutual gaze between Africans and African Americans, multidirectional travel, and migration between two hemispheres”—as manifest in “the movement of publications, commerce and so forth”—have consequently “shaped African and African-American cultures in tandem, over time and at the same time” (quoted in Holsey 2008: 162). This “multidirectional travel” that constitutes Afro-Atlantic dialogues is described by Bayo Holsey in terms of a “back and forth traffic between Africa and the diaspora” (2008: 152). What I want to examine are the tensions of reciprocity and the hidden consequences that result in this back-and-forth traffic or these Afro-Atlantic dialogues—for example, culture, products, ideas, behaviors, discourses, economies, and so forth that are in circulation between Africans on the continent and African Americans in the United States (Matory 1999). What are the consequences for continental Africans when this “multidirectional travel” is mostly a one-way affair? What happens when the back-and-forth traffic becomes an uneven exchange? How encompassing is African American belonging for the “motherland” in the face of capitalist expansion?

This Afro-Atlantic dialogue became another instance of an Afro-Atlantic performative, rich and complicated in its black diasporic layering: an Afro-American woman, wearing the language of West African adinkra symbols, superimposed over a red, white, and blue Ghanian textile of USAmerican colors, framed the image of a black North American president. This triad of African, North American, and African American diasporic presences were made possible on the red carpet that September afternoon because the Obama cloth, in the words of Leslie Rabine, was a “traveling text.” It was a traveling text that Rabine describes as intertextual in its “web of intersecting semiotic symbolic elements” (2002: 176). I will now turn to how these intersecting semiotics of diasporic layers must necessarily include an added materialist layering of economic exchange and value.

When we consume African artifacts in USAmerica and proudly wear African fabrics, the question that arises is whether or not the economic exchange is as informed and ideologically considered as the cultural exchange. When the desire to possess African artifacts is usurped by the demand for fair trade, how are we participants in unequal power relations? In examining the “symbolic links established through the use of textiles by Diasporic Africans to create an African identity,” Boatema Boateng states that these connections are not only about symbols of culture, “but are also mediated and affected by globalization in its current form of accelerated capitalist expansion” (2004: 212). When asked who the designer was and the response was “a statement,” Rowell was reflecting (or stating by her ironic nonstatement) the prevailing silence that does not “account for conflicts between symbolic economies and political economies,” particularly as it involves African textiles (Rabine 2002: 195). The argument against separating the product from its processes of production, or the production of meaning from the production of its object, is not new. This argument is classic and timeworn, yet it is also ironically new and compellingly urgent as capitalist expansion has taken different forms through the ages and as each of its iterations is differently and uniquely manifest in the social world, whether it regards the food we eat, the machinery we depend on, the water we drink, the oil that allows for transportation, or the clothes we wear.

Rowell may or may not have known that day when asked about her designer of choice that the Obama cloth she was wearing was designed at Aksombo Textiles Limited (ATL) and that it was the only major textile manufacturing company still operating in the country at that time. Ghana Textiles Printing (GTP) and Ghana Textiles Manufacturing Company (GTMC) shut down their spinning and weaving departments because of cheaper imports from abroad, particularly China.[11] According to an editorial in the highly respected and award-winning Ghanaian newspaper The Public Agenda, “These defunct sectors were employing a chunk of the labour force in the industrial economy.” The editorial goes on to state, “Total local production of textiles which peaked at 130 million metres per annum in the 1970s has dropped to below 39 million metres per annum currently and the labour force in the industry has consequently reduced from 25,000 workers in the 1970s to less than 3,000 as of now” (Public Agenda, October 9, 2009, editorial). The problems in the Ghanaian textile industry are certainly indicative of problems throughout Africa and the global South; the popular Ghanaian scholar and journalist Kwame Osei, states: “The reason why Ghana has to go cap in hand to the IMF/World Bank is quite simple—this is because Ghana as a country does not earn enough from its exports in order to invest in schools, roads, transport, local government, healthcare and so forth.”[12]

Boatema Boateng, in her book The Copyright Thing Doesn’t Work Here: Adinkra and Kente Cloth and Intellectual Property in Ghana, calls for a “consumer consciousness” particularly on the part of “African Americans in their use of African products” (2011: 182). This is a call for attention to the issue of trade and exports and, moreover, for African Americans to support and lobby for Ghana’s copyright laws of 1985 and 2000 which were revised and amended to include folklore. The law stipulates that folklore extends beyond oral narratives and music to include material culture, specifically textiles. The revision of the copyright law was established in great part because imitations of local, handmade adinkra and kente textiles were being mass-produced by East Asian textile factories without the payment of royalties to Ghana or local producers (Boateng 2004: 212). Boateng states, “Informed and activist African American consumer organizations acting in concert with African textile producers could join indigenous peoples in lobbying for broader definitions of intellectual property.” She goes on to state, “A pan-Africanist consumer lobby could also hold individual African nations accountable to the artisans who make the products that constitute their national heritage” (2004: 225). Boateng asserts that this “activism” already exists for those African Americans who want to “ensure that the African products they procure and sell are made by African Artisans who benefit from their sale.” She adds, “Such a lobby could play a crucial role in moving Africa beyond its current status as a market and source of cheap labor in the global economy” (2004: 226).

When the Obama cloth, as a traveling text (literally and figuratively), landed on the red carpet creating a controversy, some of it rooted in shades of bigotry and some of it rooted in affinities of taste and appropriateness, the language of the cloth spoke to an embedded tension that was less bout the responses Rowell encountered and more about the questions she left unanswered: Who is the designer? Where do these fabrics come from? The point is that where these fabrics come from carries with them a political economy of the Global South too often hidden and unspoken. The Obama cloth controversy opened larger and more urgent issues as it travelled between hemispheres: indigenous People are required to work longer, harder, and faster for less—often beyond human capacity—because transnational corporations compete for mass-produced cheap products; factories close down and hundreds of thousands (Boateng 2011; Amankwah 2009; Kopytoff 1986; Rabine 2002) of workers lose their jobs under free-trade policies; local weavers and artisans suffer because local people can buy cheaper cloth dumped from abroad. If we believe that “clothing matters and dress is political” (Martin 2004: 227), then the controversy emanating from the symbolic economy of the Obama cloth is inseparable from the question of capitalist expansion which was literally left unstated. That the dressed body was that of an African America woman on USAmerican soil further complicates this instance of dressing for performative dissent because it reflects the legacy of African Americans adorning African artifacts while, most often, being unaware and uniformed of processes of production of those artifacts and the consequences of this production for local Africans.

The social statement Rowell made by wearing the Obama commemorative cloth was an admirable and courageous performative act of dissent, against the rising voices castigating public health care. Her dressing for dissent spoke to one of the most important issues of our time within the USAmerican political landscape, yet it left silent one of the most important issues on the shores of the African continent.


Dress is a communication system and, like language, may be constituted as a sign. Dress as a sign is always already situated within particular associations or contexts. This chapter discusses what happens when the sign moves or is strategically displaced from its specific association for the purpose of dissent. Dressing for dissent becomes an effective performative when the dressed body is out of place. The Obama commemorative cloth demonstrated that dressing out-of-place is certainly provocative and draws attention, but its production and where it “belonged” reinscribed the classic disconnect between wearing African dress and the political economy of its production. To what ceremony in Ghana or to what occasion does the Obama cloth belong? Rowell’s dress was considered out of place, but where was its place? When the question was posed, the response that it was a “statement” ironically became a nonstatement relative to meaning, context, history, and the economies of African products and producers. We might trouble the question, Would the cloth, as a traveling text and as a spectacle of dressing-for-dissent, have been an effective “statement” and performative tactic if the West African origins of adinkra and commemorative cloth been familiar or understood? The Obama cloth complicates this question because some people did appreciate it within the context of a West African aesthetic, and others for its rhetorical and symbolic support of the president. For many others it was disparaged for those very reasons, while for most, the negative reactions stemmed from issues of cultural taste and appropriateness and were not necessarily influenced by an aversion to Obama or an African aesthetic. What did happen was that there was a missed opportunity to make an explicit statement about why “clothing matters and dress is political” (Allman 2004b); in this instance, it affects political economies and material intertextualities of African cloth that travel across the Atlantic. What is certain is that dressing out-of-place and African dress understood as traveling texts open the possibilities for other and more iterations of performative dissent.

Dressing Out-of-Place: From Ghana to Obama Commemorative Cloth on the USAmerican Red Carpet

[1] The “performative,” unlike performativity, extends beyond (performativity’s) repetitions that stabilize, fix, or naturalize identity. The definition of performativity as the stylized repetition of acts—not a singular act but “always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms”—does not include the interventionist potential of the performative, which punctures and disrupts the expectation or naturalized behaviors. This is what I want to emphasize relative to the dressed body (see Diamond 1996: 1–2).

[2] I write USAmerican instead of the more common usage of “American” in referring to the United States to recognize and honor other nations, histories, and populations that occupy the North American continent. I prefer the term USAmerican instead of United States or United States of America to avoid length, redundancy, and cumbersomeness and to more pointedly demarcate (and decolonize) the term America and American.

[3] “Victoria Rowell Obama Dress Photos, Worst Dressed Emmys 2009,” Bitten & Bound,

[4] “Victoria Rowell: Obama Dress—Emmys,” Freedom Eden,

[5] “Victoria Rowell Wears Barack Obama Dress to the 2009 Emmys,” The Fashion, September 21, 2009,

[6] CakeGrrl, “Wow! That’s a statement,” Democratic, September 20, 2009,

[7] I am referring her to Karen Tranberg Hansen’s elaboration of social skin (Hansen 2004a: 369–392).

[8] Janet Shan, “Actress Victoria Rowell Wears Obama Dress to 2009 Emmy Awards Ceremony,” Hinterland Gazette, Janet Shan

[9] Emmy Awards 2009 – No Effort Required,”, September 20, 2009,; “Victoria Rowell vs Sarah Silverman: Ugly Dress @ The Daytime Emmys Matchup,”, September 21, 2009,; Ronda Racha Penrice, “We love Obama too, but what was Victoria Rowell wearing at the Emmys?”, September 21, 2009,

[10] See The Public Agenda, July 2009. This is an award-winning and progressive weekly newspaper published in Accra. Available at

[11] Ama Chaiaa (2009). “Smuggled Textiles Still Killing Industry.” The Public Agenda (October 9). Available at:

[12] Kwame Osei (2009). “Ghana and Africa Trapped by IMF/World Bank.” Public Agenda (August 28). Available at:


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Find in Library Austin J. L. 1975. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Find in Library Bickford Barbara, Randall E. Peter, and Tim Gaudreau. 2007. An African Portrait Revisited. New York: Randall Publishers

Find in Library Boateng Boatema. 2004. “African Textiles and the Politics of Diasporic Identity-Making.” In Jean Allman, ed., Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress, 212–226. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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