Mar 6, 2021
On March 6 in 1957, Ghana was declared independent from British colonial rule. The first sub-Saharan nation to achieve this, it marked the beginning of a trajectory that granted autonomy to over 50 countries on the continent. But the question of what constitutes true African independence is a complex one. Is it just political autonomy? Is it economic freedom? Or is it the reclamation and self-determination of misguided narratives?
As a whole, the continent continues to be perceived as poverty stricken by the rest of the world. This has fuelled an insidious culture of aid, contributing to an infantilization of Africans, and even leaving some countries debt-laden and at increased risk of civil conflict and unrest—all elements not only hinder true independence but perpetuate the notion of the African “other”. Surprisingly, through embracing and reinventing traditional styles, ensuring their practices serve a greater purpose of empowerment, and advancing a design narrative that rejects stereotypes and champions innovation, African fashion has been quietly and steadily playing a role in the advancement of what can be considered true independence.
As anyone who has ever typed “African fashion” into Google can attest, non-distinct, colorful patterned fabrics are what the western world seems to associate with garments originating from the continent. And while these are certainly ubiquitous on the continent, Ghana’s handwoven tapestry of Kente, which an examination of the nation’s traditional attire would be remiss to exclude, is also closely associated with African fashion identity.
Strip Weaving Kente. Photo: via @projrctbly
Historically, woven textiles have long been part of West African culture, but the distinctive, colorful Kente cloth—believed by some to have originated by Ghanaian ethnic group the Ewes as far back as the 17th century, with the Akan people later incorporating different colors into what was initially a black and white fabric—became associated with the ideas of national identity and pride after Ghana attained independence. Handloomed through a process known as “strip weaving”, the fabric is produced by sewing together strips of textile woven from cotton, silk, or rayon yarn. In Kente weaving, each color and pattern carry a specific and symbolic meaning. The cloth would later go on to achieve international relevance with students at some Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other universities in the United States incorporating strips (known as stoles) in their graduation attire. In the 1980s American Hip Hop artists like Salt ‘n Peppa and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince incorporated it into their widely emulated styles. "It went from being a Ghanaian symbol to being a symbol in the United States of asserting African and African-American identity," senior curator and cultural heritage specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Diana NDiaye, explained to NPR.
But it wasn't just Kente cloth that underwent something of an image makeover post-independence. According to curator and photographer Christoper Richards, who in 2015 guest-curated the exhibition Kabas and Couture: Contemporary Ghanaian Fashion at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at University of Florida, Gainesville, by the early twentieth century the kaba was largely associated with illiterate women, or women without formal schooling. Kaba, essentially the upper half of a top and skirt (called a Slit in this case) one of the most recognizable form of women's attire in Africa, but it was following an urging by Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, to embrace indigenous forms of dress that it experienced something of a revival, and women across classes began to adopt the style. In this way, fashion became kind of a nationalist symbol, a method of asserting a post-independence Ghanaian identity.
The revitalisation of kaba has also been attributed to Ghanaian designer Juliana Norteye, aka Chez Julie. Widely regarded as Ghana’s first professionally trained, post-independence fashion designer, Norteye’s reimagining of historical forms of dress married traditional styles and fabrics with global trends. In 1961, she returned to Ghana from Paris where she had spent three years studying fashion and dressmaking at the École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode, or ESMOD; and though a vibrant and complex fashion culture was already established in Accra by then. Norteye’s subsequent work would redefine these customs, creating a Kente kaba and slit which stands out as one of her more significant and impactful designs. Consisting of a top with a low-cut back and a wide strip of material that forms pockets along the hemline, her use of Kente to make kaba and slit presented a unique and contemporary take on Ghanaian historical dress practices.
Fast forward a few decades and the Ghanaian fashion scene looks rather different; for one, the number of local designers has increased significantly. In many ways though fashion’s status as a symbol of national pride endures, with modern designers continuing to reinvent traditional clothes and fabrics. Since 2008, Aisha Ayensu’s Christie Brown label has led this charge. Taught by Joyce Ababio (the celebrated designer and educator responsible for training a generation of fashion creatives at her College of Creative Design in Accra), her brand quickly took off, and since its founding, Ayensu has gained international relevance and racked up awards—including the Glitz Style Awards’ African Designer of the Year in both 2018 and 2019. Widely considered a pioneer of ready-to-wear in Ghana and a reputable veteran player in the local fashion industry, her fusion of modern design elements with wax print exemplifies more a newer approach to revitalizing traditional fabrics.
Ghanaian designers are also making strides toward a different kind of independence, their business models offering disadvantaged communities opportunities of financial freedom and upward mobility. Founded by Abrima Erwiah and Rosario Dawson, the Accra-based, sustainable fashion brand Studio 189 works with artisanal communities that specialize in traditional craftsmanship techniques including hand-batiking, Kente-weaving and more. They’re also heavily focused on job creation and reducing poverty, as well as supporting education and the upskilling of local Ghanaian women.
“The whole idea behind [Studio 189] was essentially to use fashion as an agent of social change and that’s our mission,” Erwiah said in an interview with Vogue Australia’s Sustainability Editor-at-Large, Clare Press. “The biggest thing is that working together to build a local fashion industry can be more economically-beneficial than aid and it can create jobs that create dignified work for people that are working within the ecosystem of fashion in developing economies.”
Other brands including Larry Jay, Atto Tetteh, and AAKS, the accessories brand founded by Akosua Afriyie-Kumi are also carrying the baton of community impact. Established around the idea of introducing the world to traditional Ghanaian weaving techniques while also creating sustainable jobs in Africa and preserving what the designer has called “a dying art”, AAKS’ raffia bags are handmade by a women’s cooperative in the Northern Region of Ghana, a choice that has created sustainable jobs within the community. Harnessing an ancient skill of weaving, her employment of local women not only helps them, it also aids in the preservation of an age-old practice. “Everyone I’m working with… didn’t have a job beforehand,” Afriyie-Kumi told Afriquette in 2018. “They had been sitting at home for a few years after graduating, without being able to find work… now they have steady income. Recently when I went to visit, one of my weavers had been able to build a house, others… had been able to finish school.”
For African nations the concept of independence is one that is constantly in flux, something better viewed as a process rather than a fixed status. It’s an idea echoed by former President Nkrumah: “Independence is only the prelude to a new and more involved struggle for the right to conduct our own economic and social affairs,” he said in 1963—and though Nkrumah’s legacy is a complicated one, it appears that Ghanaian designers have heeded these specific words. From pushing against a tired global narrative and creating opportunities that are making a tangible difference within the lives of citizens, they’re forging a new and fruitful path to independence.