Meggie Schmidt
CCTP725: Cultural Hybridity
December 11, 2012

The Role of Sub-Saharan Africa in Hybridity and Globalization of 21st Century Fashion

McDowell: “The exotic and the ethnic have, to varying degrees of intensity, become a permanent element in the structure of fashion.” (“The Idea of Africa in European High Fashion” 247)

Identity and simulation of Sub Sahara African fashion has been an influential resource for contemporary fashion designers. “In New York City, Paris, and other centers of Western fashion, designers have long been inspired by, borrowed from, and appropriated African forms.” African styles have a distinguishable appeal for diverging from western cultural norms that encourage exploration of new forms through creating fashion in genres of exoticism, romance, and identity (“Fashioning Africa” 189-90). The fresh styles reflect the globalization and hybridization that has occurred due to the technological advances of the 21st century. Fashion remains a western terminology, as non-western cultures use the words “costume” or “garb” when referencing attire; through attire a universal communication can occur. According to Craik:

“Symptomatically, the term fashion is rarely used in reference to non-western cultures. The two are denied in opposition to each other: western dress is fashion because it changes regularly, is superficial and mundane, and projects individual identity; non-western dress is costume because it is unchanging, encodes deep meanings, and projects group identity and membership” (“Fashioning Africa” 190-191).

The argument that will be dissected is the recent cultural exploitation of forms and styles from Sub Sahara African by western society. During the beginning of European colonization, eastern cultures were known as exotic civilizations, and generalizations emerged that have continued into today’s society. This can be based on the notion that throughout history preconceived prototypes of eastern cultures have been viewed as strikingly different from western cultures, thus reflecting the exotic terminology. By specifically looking at the western fashion system, a dialogue of the symbolic value of clothing is created in relation to what is recognized as “African.” This dialogue stems from the historic generalizations by the west. The prototype of African culture involves one that is dependent on the land, a relationship with nature and animals, and a civilization that is not developed. The generalizations turn into a dialogue through the western world’s interpretation of African culture in the appropriation of their styles and forms in clothing. Designers’ interpretations of African culture, through their clothing lines, communicate their understanding of what is “African” from their cultural context.

The exoticism associated with eastern cultures throughout history began with the first contact Africa had with Europe. This continues in the 21st century as western cultures appropriate African forms for the symbolic value of “otherness.” The geographic divide between the east and the west that took place in the past resulted in an imaginary line dividing the two hemispheres and the belief of what is “ours” and what is “theirs.” The Europeans started the trend of defining themselves in the context of “others,” meaning those cultures residing in the eastern hemisphere (Khalid 1-2). This notion continues to impact society today. The appropriation of “their” styles and forms in the western fashion system is a dynamic of the historical associations of the east versus the west. Through the dialogue created in attire, it has resulted in a hybridity of cultures. The global market and economy has been influenced in the 21st century by travel and the Internet, and the impact of globalization has created a “universal fashion system” (Loughran 263). Western cultures reproduce eastern styles and forms, and eastern cultures reproduce western styles and forms. The blending across the geographical line is representative of the advances of technology in the 21st century.

A “universal fashion system,” through generalizations of different cultures around the world and the borrowing between the east and west, has led to the mainstream phenomena (“Clothes Go Cross-Cultural”). The dialogic component in the 21st century western fashion system sends the message of hybridity, in images that spread across the globe through technology, communication, and the media (Loughran 244). Hybridity, consisting of ethnicity and culture, has created new cultural norms. Deviances from culture through various ethnicities keep cultural norms fresh and new while encouraging diversity. African influence in western fashion plays a large role in this process. The fast turn around in western culture results in designers constantly in search of new forms and styles. They look to historical sources on the other side of the globe for inspiration and creativity in the production of new fashion (Loughran 243-5).

The beginning of this process started with designers gaining an awareness of trends originating from street venders who would sell items from countries across the globe in large cities such as New York and London. Thus, designers began a modern revival of aesthetic African forms and styles in clothing, accessories and jewelry based off of the cross-cultural influences on the streets. African appropriation in western fashion has been going on for centuries. However, a recently explosion with the turn of the 21st century has changed fashion into a cross-cultural hybrid and a mainstream global phenomena (Loughran 243). This globalization trend in western culture can be identified as retro. In understanding how globalization and the cross cultural influence has led to a “universal fashion system,” the definition of retro is essential:

“relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past: fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

The definition provides the context to the premise of this paper: the appropriation of Sub Sahara African cultural trends becoming prevalent in the mainstream western fashion market due to exotism and the concept of “otherness,” the significant role in generalizations and the dialogue that is created in the context of what is recognized as “African” in the west, and the primitive aesthetic foundation of historical sources in clothing that has resulted in a mainstream phenomena of a “universal fashion system.” Three areas that African design motifs and ideas have been reproduced in western society and a hybridity of forms has been created include: the types of cloth such as fabrics and patterns, the color of clothing, and the types of clothing including embellishments such as beads or feathers. Each area provides context in understanding the framing of the argument.

TYPES OF CLOTH: Fabrics and Prints

In a post-modern society, fashion is a dynamic of the culture. It is a cultural expression, “because fashion is closer to personal identity than other material objects, it reveals significant social change at several levels, and subtle links change in individual and historical processes…” (“Fashioning Africa” 5). A piece of clothing is distinguishable because it serves as a representation of the people within a culture and ethnicity. It illustrates an identity that may be true or one that is fantasy. When comparing attire between western culture and African culture, several statements can be made. Clothing allows people individual expression in western society; however, in Africa, a deeper symbolism is used in production of clothing (“Fashioning Africa” 5). There are different types of cloth in Africa, each of which carries different traditions and values. Cloth consists of several types. Woven cloth includes: bogolanfini, aso oke, ruba raffia, and kente. Tie-dye includes: indigo cloth, and batiks include: wax prints (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). By examining the types of cloth, the traditions and values associated with each are understood. The replication in western culture falls short of African symbolism and holds different connotations in production and design.

An example of African symbolism through clothing is in bogolanfini tunics, also called bogolan or mud cloth. The name means “to be made of mud.” This is associated with the Bamana tribe of Mali and represents group identity and membership. This is a type of woven cloth and is one of the most difficult and time consuming to produce. Made from cotton and decorated extensively with geometric patterns, the bogolan tunic carries meaning and history through the generations through which it has been passed down. The pattern, color, and type of thread all carry different levels of meaning and value (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). The bogolan tunics are a source of spiritual protection, as well as being a local costume. For hunters, they protect against the wilderness, and, for woman, they protect during phases such as womanhood, marriage, and childbirth (“Fashioning Africa” 194). In one of Ralph Lauren’s recent designs, he emulates the thread and geometric pattern of the bogolan tunic in creating a women’s dress. He has his own interpretation of what is “African” and is communicating the appeal of the exotic in an attempt to sell dresses based on African motifs and cloth.

bologan.png African bogolan.jpg
Ralph Lauren, "Blue Label Raina Linen Dress Bogolan Print"--------------------------------------------------------------------------------Bogolan, Bamana tribe of Mali

Aso ebi and Kuba raffia are two other types of cloth found in Sub Sahara Africa. Aso ebi is associated with the people of Yoruba of Nigeria. It means “uniformed solidarity dressing” and it translates as “family cloth” (Nwafor 493-4). It can symbolize many life events including naming ceremonies, engagements, weddings, funerals, and religious events. Recently, aso ebi has been used to associate people of a particular family as they will wear identical attire (Nwafor 494). There are 3 different kinds which include etu, sanyan, and alaari. Each is made with a different color scheme, dying process, and amount of silk. Because silk is not a common fabric, only a small strip is sometimes incorporated into the design (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). Typically, aso ebi dresses are made out of wax print textiles. Along with family identity, the dress among the Yoruba people is associated with class or social importance (Nwafor 494-5). In the west, replications are seen when families wear matching colors or styles of clothing to appear as a unit and connected. They want to appear identical or uniform and are using their attire to communicate this dialogue to the world.

Kuba raffia is associated with the Kuba people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). This particular cloth is widely used by western designers and is incorporated in the actual piece of clothing or as a trim to a garment. Various western designers have incorporated this form of cloth into their garments as is exemplified later in types of clothing.

Kente cloth is associated with the Ashanti people in Ghana, although it has been found over other regions in Africa. The fabric includes the colors gold, yellow, red, black green, and blue. It is woven into a piece of fabric that symbolizes a message about history, culture, religion, morality, or philosophy. It is used in ceremonies to symbolize status and rank within society. Today, cheap adaptations are created in coats, shirts, dresses, ties or even shoes (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). Western adaptations of the Kente cloth can be seen on the runway of Burberry’s Prorsum SS 2011 Collection. This line uses kente inspired designs to create various clothing items. Steve Madden has consistently used kente fabric in creating different styles of shoes. This cloth is distinguishable in western cultures for its bright and vibrant patterns. It conveys the message that it is foreign or exotic and entices people with the symbolic feeling that it was created in a different region of the world, making it unique. By purchasing a replication which makes one stand out as “individualistic,” the individual drives supply and demand of the market in western culture.

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Kente Cloth, Ashanti People of Ghana

Burberry Prorsum SS 2011 Collection

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Steve Madden 2012 Collection

Another form of cloth is tie-dye, commonly known as indigo cloth (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). This practice has been around for centuries, and fashion designers have incorporated the indigo tie-dye cloth in their lines. Herve Leger by Max Azria RTW Spring 2010 incorporates the indigo tie-dye in its runway dresses. The line was praised for having texture and earthy tones (Show Report, Clark). Texture and earthy tones are some prototypes identified by the west when describing characteristics of what they identify as “African.” It is based on western historical understanding of a garment in “their” culture and the standard generalizations that have been associated with Africa.

African indigo tie-dye.jpg Herve Leger Indigo Tie-Dye.jpg
Indigo Tie-Dye, West Africa------------------------------------ Herve Ledger by Max Azria, RTW Spring 2010

Batiks are associated with people from different areas of Africa. The Yoruba people of Nigeria are most commonly connected with Batiks. They are made from cotton and include a mechanized technique of wax to illustrate a design. The design is mainly hand drawn and often involves the passing down of a design from generation to generation (“Batik in Africa”). Although tradition is a large component of the Batik, the cloth is also common in contemporary African clothing production. Depending on the design, batiks are distinguishable by event, including special celebrations or every day attire (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). L.L. Bean continues to copy the batik fabric in styles such as shorts, skirts, dresses, and even backpacks, laptop cases and lunch bags. The symbolic value of the cloth in Nigerian tradition is not interpreted in any context with the west. Although the person who came up with the idea to use batik fabric for L.L. Bean products may know where the cloth originated and its significance within Nigerian culture, the average individual in the west will likely be unfamiliar or unconcerned with that information and will see the design as just another option to choose from when selecting merchandise.

Batik-Yoruba.jpgll bean batik-skirt.jpg ll bean backback-batik.jpg
------------------------------------Batik, Yoruba people of Nigeria------------------------------------------------L.L. Bean Batik Skirt----------------------- L.L. Bean Backpack

The fabrics and prints of Sub Sahara Africa provide a broader understanding as to how a garment in the culture is more powerful then a piece of individual expression in western culture. Each cloth has a history in the design and production process that can symbolize a celebration, life event or tradition. Attire creates group identity and membership. In western culture, the meaning behind a fabric or print, if such a meaning exists, is lost in mass production and further obscured in distribution to department stores. In Africa, the process of the garment being made, such as the procurement of threads to weave into cloth, color choices, and final design, are all important in the garments significance within the culture (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”).


The “idea of Africa,” including the appeal of vibrant and bold colors, has continued to repeat itself in the generalizations made by the western world of fashion for centuries (Loughran 248-9). Slogans such as “ethnic chic” have been used to describe African based fashion (Loughran 252). The fascination with Africa began around the 15th century when coastal trade of African textiles emerged in Europe. Textiles became a symbol of wealth, and African fabrics were chosen over European fabrics for their colors, designs and extensive detail which often required a lot of labor. The textiles were eventually turned into clothing (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression). Thus, western clothing begins its role in society as a symbol of wealth, status and individual expression, diverging from traditional African values based on identity, history and unity. When examining color, value and meaning are associated with different colors. This association often changes by region, tribe or ethnic group (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). Colors play important roles in the geographical divide between the east and the west that resulted in “ours” versus “theirs” mentality as exhibited initially by the Europeans. Regions of the world are associated with certain colors through their availability and the exotic appeal that has carried on for centuries.

Western designers have modeled various fashion lines specifically on the bold, vibrant, and natural African color combinations. Although, on the surface, a designer’s new clothing line may appear rich in color, culture, and creativity, in reality, the significance is detached, a cliché of forms is created, and inspiration of ideas is not original. By looking at specific tribes such as the Akan and Ashanti tribes, an understanding of the historical associations with different color schemes is gained.

Funerals, in the Akan tribe from West Africa, display colors like red, black and brown, while times of celebration use white (“Clothing as Cultural Expression”). These color combinations carry over into western culture as funerals are also associated with darker, conservative colors such as black. Weddings are a time of celebration and are also associated with white, which the bride wears. Black is viewed as a negative color and white is viewed as a positive colors. The overlapping of color symbolism has contributed to the hybridity of the “universal fashion system” of the 21st century.

The Ashanti Tribe in Ghana uses gold to symbolize status and peacefulness, yellow for fertility, green for growth and rebirth, blue for the presence of God, the sky, spirit, and harmony, red for protection, passion, and struggle, and finally black for importance of connection with ancestry (“Clothing as Cultural Expression”). These color combinations are reproduced in Burberry Prorsum’s 2011 line which includes wax print cottons, raffia, and wooden beads. The color, cloth and materials are driven by Sub Sahara Africa’s rich influence and the attempt of western fashion to appropriate meaning and value to a line fueled by the appeal of exoticism in a global market (New African Fashion, Jennings).

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Burberry Prorsum 2011

By assigning meaning and symbolism to various colors, African cultures create a community through associations (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). Clothing is not only a ‘costume’ or ‘garment’ but also a source of history and community that ties ancestry with common bonds through color and beliefs. This suggests that the world is larger than the individual, that all were once human, and most importantly creates a connection to one’s culture. In Western culture, colors do not carry the same implications, although they do create a universal dialogue that everyone can understand. According to the article “Clothes Go Cross-Cultural,” “Individuality” is the key word in western fashion. People create their own style and choose the way they appear to others through their clothing (“Clothes Go Cross-Cultural”). The individual, who wears the clothing, in most instances, does not know how the garment was designed, produced or distributed. The connection to culture through clothing is non-existent in the western world. The history behind a garment in the west does not possess the same power that a garment holds in African history.


In modern fashion, clothing is viewed as an art and is even thought of by many in the same genre as art. In ancient cultures, dress has always been viewed as a form of art. Today, fashion continues to be influenced by art and aesthetic qualities are appealing in visual display (“Clothes Go Cross-Cultural”). The process of designing clothes is comparable to the designing process of a piece of art, categorizing both as a creative process. The results may be the same, of product and industrial production, taking away the aesthetic reasons from which it was created. The visual relationship of the modern design of clothes can be derived from primitive examples. The aesthetic and symbolic characteristics of primitive examples provide a foundation for modern fashion design in the western hemisphere and how that has led to the global phenomena of a “universal fashion system” (Hollander 27-29). Primitivism is referenced as designers borrow historic motifs and patterns from Africa, such as their vibrant colorful fabrics, geometric designs and commitment to visual creativity (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). The universal component includes the exchanging of styles and forms between both the east and the west.

When examining trends and styles taken from Africa, they are intended to imitate the Sub Saharan identity; however, the origin and meaning behind identity does not exist. Within Sub Sahara Africa, different types of clothing are associated with various ethnic groups. Names, styles, and meanings change across cultures, but with migration comes hybridity, and adaptations across ethnic groups have occurred to incorporate similar styles and customs of clothing globally. Differences still remain between groups, but in the globalization process, hybridization has occurred between regions in Africa as well as between Africa and the west (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”).

Globalization has resulted in a modern revival of influence from different types of clothing among African dress. Styles such as a bubas (“tops”), soras (“wrap skirts”), and geles (“head ties”) can be seen on women in the streets of New York City or London (“Clothing as a Cultural Expression”). Perhaps the originator in borrowing African styles and passing them into western culture can be credited to Yves Saint Laurent. In 1967 he created his African collection that included shift dresses embellished with wooden beads, raffia and shells which was imitated in 2005 by Dolce and Gabbana and then again in 2011 by Gucci (New African Fashion, Jennings). “According to Harper’s Bazaar the collection was “a fantasy of primitive genius.”” In the following year, the iconic “Saharienne,” which is the Safari jacket, was created. This item has continually been reproduced and imitated by designers across the globe (Loughran 249).

1967-Yves Saint Laurent African Collection.jpg The Safari Jacket by Yves Sainte Laurent.jpg
1967, Yves Saint Laurent, African Collection------------------------------- 1968, Yves Saint Laurent, "Saharienne"

The 21st century has brought a drastic increase in the styles and designs appropriated from Africa. In 2005, Jean Paul Gaultier’s line featured feathered dresses with red mud and afro wigs on the models. Wedding gowns had African masks of white leather on them, and shields for the runway show were made of turquoise shells. The feathers, mud, and afro wigs demonstrate the western generalized notions of what is “African.” It shows a dialogic interpretation of clothing to convey an understanding of African stereotypes based on wild and animalistic qualities (New African Fashion, Jennings). 2009 was a symbolic year for turning the aesthetic beauty of African inspired designs into mainstream western fashion. The year is noteworthy for the drastic influence of Africa in western fashion and creating a source of global communication in a “universal fashion system” that does not require knowledge of a certain language to understand. Some distinguishable designers during 2009 include:

Alexander McQueen, through his use of prints, feather and vibrant colors, based his line off of the prototype of exotic Africa’s wild and naturalistic qualities. Louis Vuitton uses wood for accessories and grass for skirts. Junya Watanabe’s runway show featured models with flowers covering their entire heads. Vivienne Westwood uses zebra and leopard prints. Diane von Furstenberg models her line off of Yves Saint Laurent, by including Safari shirt dresses (New African Fashion, Jennings). In this particular year, fashion conveyed to the world how others interpret what is “African.” It created the universal culture of identity through ethnic representation. Aimed at communication between society, culture, and the individual, these fashion lines play off of geography that is symbolic of Africa styles.
Alexander McQueen 2009.jpg Louis Vuitton 2009.jpg Junya Watanabe 2009.jpg
2009, Alexander McQueen--------------- 2009, Louis Vuitton--------------------------------- 2009, Junya Watanabe


Being able to associate clothing with different regions around the world by the universal dialogue of fashion in the 21st century shows the impact of hybridity on a cross-cultural world through the spread of technology and communication. “Foreign influence in dressing is not new; designers have always borrowed from different cultures…But today the influence is farther reaching, more diverse, and more mainstream because the world has opened up” (“Clothes Go Cross-Cultural”). Travel and the Internet have resulted in the unavoidable phenomena of appropriation in cross-cultural replication, but it has also provided awareness and knowledge for those cultures (Loughran 253). Through replication of forms and styles in other cultures, additional meaning and value are given to the original (Nwafor 512). As a result, during the late 20th century and early 21st century, fashion has become less about a certain style and more about a trend in universal culture. Globalization has driven ethnic fashion in the western world by emerging from minority groups into a mainstream modern aesthetic statement that has impacted capitalism (“Clothes Go Cross-Cultural”).

Capitalism, along with culture and ethnography, are components in the system of design, production and distribution of fashion. Culture, in its basic form, is the history behind a culture, while ethnography, in terms of fashion, represents the human form and components added to the body. African modeled fashion, in the western world, is cultural and ethnic as it is defined by “status, mobility, and rapid change in a Western, capitalist world” (“Fashioning Africa” 2).

Through travel and the Internet, brought about by technology, the widespread influence of fashion has impacted the global market and economy. The increase in African inspired designs demonstrates the new trends and demands, across the globe, which borrow back and forth from one another (“The Idea of Africa in European High Fashion” 257). “The fashion system is multi-vocal and its inspiration is multicultural” (Loughran 262). The cross-cultural convergence has lead to hybridity and the “universal fashion system” that requires no knowledge of any language to understand (Loughran 263). According to Laurent Gervereau:

“Exoticism feeds on the baroque of customs and the sensuality of the imaginary…When…individuals understand that they are each an exotic partner for the other, projections onto the outside may acquire the allure of choice. In any case, images at our end of the millennium are striated with styles and offer confusion, which may be understood as beneficial one day. It is up to us to invent diversity.” (“The Idea of Africa in European High Fashion” 253)

The mixing of the familiar with retro Sub Sahara African designs and styles is representative of the 21st century and dynamic of western cultures (Loughran 263). Although original meaning and significance may be abandoned in production and distribution, “dress and clothing not only open up a new dimension to social change but challenge us to reevaluate and redefine some of our operative categories” (“Fashioning Africa” 4). Fashion plays a large role in encouraging people to determine from which country the designs and styles originated. It influences a world that praises diversity, through the hybridity of various cultures, and creates a connection to clothing through culture and ethnicity because of its universal qualities and appeal.


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