African dress offers a spectacular kaleidoscope of forms, materials, textures, and colors, in some instances combined on a single human armature. Depending on time and place, coiffures may be sculpted into soaring shapes or compacted into intricate, tightly braided styles. Massive gold earrings eight inches (twenty centimeters) across are found in one culture, and elegant ivory ear spools in another. Amulet-laden war shirts contrast with intricate, message-bearing silk textiles. Lavish, multilayered robes characterize parts of the continent, and sophisticated, multipatterned beadwork predominates elsewhere. In addition, throughout much of Africa, virtuosic handwoven textiles coexist with affordable machine-woven, roller-printed cloths, the latter often borrowing designs and meanings from the former. While processions of traditionally adorned warriors, chiefs, and brides may still be seen, parades of uniformed soldiers, well-dressed politicians, and fashion models on runways are creating new traditions. And while influential print media have been in existence for well over a century, films, television, cell phones, and the Internet are all serving a barrage of globalizing fashion agendas in the early twenty-first century.
Until the second half of the twentieth century, few books focused in any detail on African dress, textiles, or fashion, whether in specific countries or on the continent as a whole. This volume is the first to describe, illustrate, and analyze what Africans have worn in the past, and do wear in the early twenty-first century, across a bewildering array of often-unfamiliar cultures and peoples. The intention is to stimulate readers with a general curiosity about Africa, as well as students and researchers who are looking for information about a particular country, group, textile, garment, or type of jewelry. This volume should also attract the attention of those with more specialized interests, such as a costume designer working on a play or film, or a writer attempting to evoke definitions of identity in a given place or time.
Scholars from such diverse disciplines as art history, history, anthropology, textiles and apparel, folklore, sociology, and geography have shared their knowledge. For the 85 articles within, 64 writers have contributed approximately 377,000 words and provided information for over 300 illustrations. In addition, many contributors are of African descent or are currently living in Africa. This volume covers the 53 continental countries of Africa plus the island nation of Madagascar. European colonial history and culture link the dress practices of the African island nations of Cape Verde (in the Atlantic Ocean, near Senegal), São Tomé/ Príncipe (off the coast of Gabon), and Mauritius, Seychelles, and Comoros (all three in the Indian Ocean) to those of their colonizers. Because little detailed research about or descriptions of dress appear to be available, the islands are not included in this volume. Early scholarship on Africa often linked North Africa to the Middle East by emphasizing Arab populations, thus separating North Africa from “Black Africa,” often known as sub-Saharan Africa. Recent scholarship demands that the continent of Africa be viewed in its totality, for non-Arab groups were indigenous to North Africa for millennia, and Arabs and Islamic cultures migrated south of the Sahara. In addition to country-by-country essays, articles within this volume also address topics that range across the continent, such as “Headdresses and Hairdos,” “Beads and Beadwork,” and “Footwear.”
The volume begins by covering material that pertains to the continent as a whole: political and cultural history, categories of traditional and contemporary dress, and commentary on fashion and fashion designers. An overview of textiles across the continent concludes this introductory section. The majority of the volume is divided by geographic regions and by country within each region. An alternative system of organizing by peoples was decidedly unfeasible simply due to the sheer numbers. Specific peoples, however, may be located by consulting the index. Decisions about the length of the essays on each country depended on several factors, including population size and availability of research information. Although not all countries or ethnic groups are equally represented or described in the same detail, an effort was made to provide coverage that is as balanced as possible. Contributors helped frame an article’s focus and have drawn from their own fieldwork and expertise as well as other documentation, such as evidence from early histories, explorers’ or missionaries’ accounts, anthropological monographs, photographs, drawings, and oral histories. In addition, articles on some countries with large metropolitan cities, such as Johannesburg, Lagos, and Cairo, provide data from newspapers and periodicals about fashion and dress over time.
This volume systematically attempts to organize information about how Africans engage the world in terms of dress choices, either for everyday wear or for special events, whether within the family or in public arenas. Features of the volume include cross-references, definitions of terms within the text, and an analytical index, as well as a substantial body of previously unpublished research.
We thank the support group at Berg Publishers. In addition, we would like to thank a number of people who helped at various stages along the way. Several colleagues stepped in to suggest writers for countries where we needed assistance: Shirley Ardener, Florence Bernault, Suzanne Blier, Janice Boddy, Tamara Giles-Vernick, Karen Hansen, Walter Hawthorne, Allen Isaac-man, Wendy James, Douglas Johnson, Lansine Kaba, Sandra Klopper, Alisa LaGamma, Hudita Mustafa, Elisha Renne, and Ruth M. Stone. Other colleagues providing critical support were Marla Berns, Tom Seligmann, Elizabeth Semmelhack, and Amy Staples. Our colleague Fred Smith deserves a special thank you for producing an article requested at the last minute.
As a graduate research assistant, Meriem Chida helped with the beginning stages of organizing the table of contents and valiantly pursuing contributors. Megan Wannarka and Hilary Falk, project assistants, cheerfully undertook a variety of support tasks.
Becky Yust, department chair, Design, Housing, and Apparel, College of Design, University of Minnesota, steadfastly supplied office space and computer resources in McNeal Hall. All three Eicher daughters, Cynthia, Carolyn, and Diana, along with sons-in-law Blake Johnson and Andy Zink and six grandchildren, Wiley, Spencer, Keith, Isabella, Sabina, and Violet, shared this project during summers at the Eicher family cottage in Holland, Michigan, and in Saint Paul the rest of the year. Betsy H. B. Quick provided essential research and critical review, and Diane L. Ross offered crucial support throughout. Many thanks to all.