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the politics of African fashion

11 December 2011

Fashion in West Africa is a poor man’s glamour in which I eagerly participated because, even by the standards of local elites, I was poor. The cost of looking good, while not trivial, could well be afforded by anyone with the some sort of regular employment.

That’s still true, but with machine-made clothes flooding Africa now – mainly new garments from China and India but also used clothes from charities in America and Europe – the fidelity to local tailors is declining. Mine soldiers on, living off the legacy of a long reputation for quality and service. But many tailors have surrendered to market forces they neither understand nor approve of. Most of them, bereft of great design ideas, face a race with anonymous and distant machines – a race they’re losing.

That is from G. Pascal Zachary’s new post “The politics of African fashion.”

"odhiambo, the tailor" by meaduva, shared with cc license from Flickr

One of the guilty pleasures I indulge when traveling to the continent is purchasing bolts of beautiful fabric, with the hopes that I’ll also have the time to hire a tailor to make a few things before my departure date. During our extended stay in Malawi in 2008, I was referred by a friend to an excellent tailor in Zomba and I competed for as much of his time as I could before leaving the country. Truth is, he was really busy, and it was a challenge to find someone as good as him. The second-hand clothes retailers selling right in front of his tailor shop put the situation Zachary describes in stark relief.

Only a few weeks ago I showed my African Politics students the PBS documentary T-Shirt Travels. Though the film is now a decade old, it remains relevant. There are so many problems with secondhand clothes in Africa.* Well-intentioned folks in the West think clothing donations are meant to help those less fortunate, and my students were shocked to learn that some of their donations were finding their way to Africa and were disappointed to learn how those well-intentioned donations were creating a serious challenge to the local clothing industry from fabric manufacturing to retail tailors. What is it about Africans that the West thinks they are worthy of cast-offs? And what does flooding the market with secondhand clothing mean for the future of fashion from Africa? These are questions we need to think more seriously about. Perhaps I have a romanticized notion of fashion as it exists on the streets of urban Africa, but I am unwilling to forego the bold creativity that I think African store-front designers and tailors will produce in the future.

For those of you who haven’t seen T-Shirt Travels, it is posted in its entirety on YouTube:

*Reading this post one might not know I’m a big fan of secondhand clothing. Raised in a modest home, almost all of my clothing during childhood was purchased from rummage sales. I also did a lot of “thrifting” in college, when that was cool. In fact, when I lived in Malawi, I often went to “kaunjika” markets where I would hunt through stacks of secondhand clothes (and even shoes — once I found a paper of Gucci loafers that were less than $2!). I am not opposed to secondhand clothes generally and think that we could all use for some more recycling/upcycling. All that said, I think we should be aware of the perverse outcomes of well-intentioned clothing donations for ordinary folks in Africa.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason Kerwin permalink
    11 December 2011 10:34 pm

    Thanks for the link to T-Shirt Travels. I’ve been curious about the supply chain of used clothing markets for a while, and hopefully this will help educate me on how they work.

    Without any actual evidence to back it up, my guess is that Americans who donate clothes would be most put off by the fact that they end up for sale, although economists would argue that’s obviously going to happen.

    Speaking of the politics of used clothing, there was a big push to limit “dumping” of used clothes in Malawi earlier this year. This was heavily opposed by people who work at kaunjika markets, for obvious reasons, but also by lots of folks who get their clothes via kaunjika. I think it ended up falling apart but am having trouble finding much about it on newspaper websites, just a few op-eds and letters referring to the issue.

  2. anthropologist permalink
    12 December 2011 6:39 am

    See also Karen Hansen (2000) Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  3. 12 December 2011 11:59 am

    This is a good article. I never thought that the local were suffering from secondhand clothes. After reading this article it makes sense.We are bombarded by clothes from all over the world. I always say this, Africa does not need charity but we need jobs. Giving us free things ( if you can call it that way ) is not doing any good. instead of sending money that will most likely end up in the hands of corrupt leaders, create jobs !!!

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