African Influences in European Fashion Design

Elizabeth Kutesko


DOI: 10.5040/9781474260428-FPA127


Since the late nineteenth century, European fashion design has been lured by the exotic “otherness” of Africa as a source of creative inspiration and exotic raw materials, such as ivory and tropical woods, for use in luxury consumer goods. The more recent stylistic appropriation, since the 1970s, of African motifs, patterns, and color combinations has became increasingly prominent in European fashion and needs to be understood as part of the industry’s continual cross-cultural pursuit of innovation. It is also a reflection of increased travel and mobility, and the immediacy and availability of information through the mass media and Internet in an increasingly globalized world. Exotic and ethnic references to Africa can be seen incorporated in the clothing designs and accessories of fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Fendi, and Gianfranco Ferré. Although celebrated in the fashion press, these designers have adopted the visual language of Africa but often glossed over the diverse ethnic and cultural influences that originate from the continent, instead fashioning a mythical image of “Africa” as a vast, homogenous entity.

Fendi, Spring/Summer 1992.

Photograph by Niall McInerney, Fashion Photography Archive

History and Significance of African Influences in European Clothing

European intellectual and artistic circles have been lured by African aesthetic forms and stylistic motifs since the late nineteenth century as a form of exotic inspiration. This was fueled by scientific discoveries and colonial expansion. In fashion circles, Africa provided an important source for renewing European fashion design and keep up with consumers’ constantly changing taste in clothes. Louis Vuitton first produced a collection of stylish traveling bags and trunks in 1854, which were used for travel to South Africa, India, Australia, the West Indies, Canada, and North Africa. In addition, the Colonial and Universal expositions that were held in Europe throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were used to disseminate information about far-away exotic cultures, promote European colonization, and present the technological prowess of the host country. Fashion played an important role within these expositions, which often included boutiques that sold luxury goods and fashion accessories that made use of exotic raw materials extracted from the colonies, such as ebony, ivory, and horn. The Exposition Coloniale Internationale, held in Paris in 1931, included clothing by couture designers including Callot Soeurs, Worth, and Lanvin, which was widely celebrated by the European fashion press. This period also saw many African American performers and musicians move to Paris, such as the exotic dancer Josephine Baker, who was originally from St. Louis but was variously nicknamed the “Bronze Venus,” “Creole Goddess,” and “Black Pearl.” The influence of African cultural forms in fashion was not surprising within this cross-cultural environment. The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber in 1923 resulted in design motifs inspired by Ancient Egypt, including the scarab beetle, and colors such as Nile blue. French designer Paul Poiret (1879–1944) began to use hieroglyphic designs in his fashions and created hats inspired by Egyptian hairstyles, as well as capes inspired by those seen in North Africa. Restrictions and shortages of materials during the World War II put a halt to African influences in European fashion, which were not picked up again until the 1950s, with French designer Madame Carven (1909–2015) who produced flowing gowns inspired by Ancient Egypt, and bathing suits and wraps that used African textiles.

African Influences on the Catwalk

Since the 1970s, many more European designers have showcased African influences on the catwalk. This interest in Africa, seen particularly in the work of Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Fendi, and Gianfranco Ferré, has been fueled by increased travel and instantaneous communication, which has encouraged a cross-cultural dialogue between Europe and Africa.

Yves Mathieu Saint Laurent (1936–2008), who was born in French-occupied Algeria, is well known for his landmark spring/summer African collection of 1967, which showed an appreciation of graphic symbolism and featured revealing woven shift dresses made from colorful shells, beads, and raffia. The following year he produced the first safari-look suit: a beige cotton gabardine jacket with front lacing and patch pockets, accompanied by a pair of beige cotton trousers. The safari jacket reinvented the functional colonial hunting suit for women’s town wear. It was modeled by Veruschka in French Vogue in July 1968, for a safari-themed fashion story shot by Franco Rubartelli, which saw the white German model stride out with purpose into the wilderness, a rifle slung across her shoulders and a knife hooked in her decorative metal and leather belt. Successive collections presented by Saint Laurent have reimagined caftans, tunics, and djellabas (the long, loose-fitting outer garment worn by men and women in Morocco, where Saint Laurent spent much of his life) in a rich color palette of ultramarine blue and bright yellow that has evoked clichés of North Africa. His spring/summer collection of 1993 featured vibrant orange and vivid green headwraps made of natural sisal. Saint Laurent has asserted his transcultural identity, and the influence that his North African childhood has had on his designs: “As long as I live I will remember my childhood and adolescence in the marvelous country that Algeria was then. I don’t think of myself as a pied noir [European-Algerian]. I think of myself as a Frenchman born in Algeria.”

Jean Paul Gaultier (born 1952) is another French designer who frequently uses African and non-European dress references to enrich his creative process. He has explained that he believes in “the intermixing of ethnic strands to make a complete whole,” and this is evident in his brightly colored eclectic designs, which combine inspiration from his travels abroad with movies, music, and street culture. The theme of Gaultier’s fall/winter collection of 1997 was black culture, and he dedicated it to African American singer Nina Simone and South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba. The collection featured exaggerated headwraps and was shown only on black models. It gained political symbolism since it coincided with a law passed by the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, to limit immigration to France. Gaultier has continued to explore African fabrics and garments, albeit with little concern for cultural authenticity, and his 2005 haute couture show featured models wearing West African-inspired masks made of leather, Afro wigs, feathered headdresses, and carrying tortoiseshell shields, in addition to more obscure references.

German designer Karl Lagerfeld (born 1933), under the direction of Italian design house Fendi, has also produced exotic prints and multilayered color patterns that weave together influences from many African countries. A particular example can be seen in his spring/summer collection of 1992, which experimented with “tribal” influences through the use of materials, such as the graphic patterns of Malian mud cloth or bogolan (a handmade cotton fabric dyed with mud), patterns, finishes, and accessories. The collection was modeled by Naomi Campbell, who wore a skimpy monochrome loincloth held in place by a red belt, and heavy jewelry made of amber, gold, ultramarine blue, and purple beads. The black supermodel posed with a banana, making reference to Josephine Baker, the African American dancer who wore little more than a skirt made of bananas and was known in 1920s and 1930s Paris and Berlin for her sensual dances, which satisfied a European audience’s desire for the exotic.

Finally, the Italian designer Gianfranco Ferré (1944–2007) is best known for his reinvention of the simple white shirt, but throughout the 1990s his designs began to reflect more of his passion for travel and culture and included safari prints and graphic patterns inspired by Africa. His 1990 spring/summer collection featured bare breasts, extreme manipulations of brilliantly dyed fabric that flowed around the figure, and ornate embroidered and beaded collars that referenced handcrafted Masai beadwork. Like Saint Laurent, Gaultier, and Lagerfeld, Ferré appropriated aspects of African dress—whether embroidery, dyeing, weaving, printing, or jewelry design—as a means to enliven European fashion, but in the process he risked essentializing and romanticizing an enormously diverse continent.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Brand Jan , and Jose Teunissen , eds. Global Fashion/Local Tradition: On the Globalisation of Fashion . Arnhem, Netherlands : Terra, 2005.

Find in Library Fisher Angela. Africa Adorned . New York : Abrams, 1984.

Find in Library Hendrickson Hildi , ed. Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa . Durham and London : Duke University Press, 1996.

Find in Library Jennings Helen. New African Fashion . Munich : Prestel, 2011.

Find in Library Knox Kristin. Culture to Catwalk: How World Cultures Influence Fashion . London : A. & C. Black, 2011.

Find in Library Loughran Kristyne. ““The Idea of Africa in European High Fashion: Global Dialogues”.” Fashion Theory 13, no. 2 (2009): 243–272 .

Find in Library Maynard Margaret. Dress and Globalisation . Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2004.

Find in Library McDowell Colin. Jean Paul Gaultier . London : Cassell, 2000.

Find in Library Paulicelli Eugenia , and Hazel Clark , eds. The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, Globalization . London : Routledge, 2008.

Find in Library Rabaté Marie-Rose. Costumes Berbères du Maroc: Décors traditionnels . Paris : Courbevoire, 2007.

Find in Library Rabine W. The Global Circulation of African Fashion . Oxford : Berg, 2002.