Africa Style: With Freedom Came Fashion Flair

Seph Rodney is a critic and curator based in Newburgh, N.Y.

 Many years ago, I worked as a salesperson at Hugo Boss in the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. I sold the range of things the store carried: luggage, accessories, underwear, clothing. But what I most relished selling was men’s suits, because a good suit is often transformative. A man would come into the store looking forgettable and then, after donning a well-cut two-button, single-breasted navy suit with a peak lapel, he would look accomplished, adept. Walking into the new “Africa Fashion” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, I felt that I was witnessing something wondrous, something more surprising than just an individual’s restyling. I was transported to the historical epoch when almost the entire continent was shedding its colonialist rule and the associated attire and stepping onto the world stage transformed.

In this gallery about 40 mannequins are outfitted with a mesmerizing array of work by contemporary designers throughout the diaspora, such as Eilaf Osman, Papa Oppong, Brother Vellies and its founder Aurora James, Christopher John Rogers, and Studio One Eighty Nine in the section that means to show how Africa has a global footprint. According to Marisa Guthrie, writing for Women’s Wear Daily: “The contributions of African-born designers is already obvious in the fashion industry, but the exhibit is arguably the first comprehensive recognition of that legacy.”

Masquerade handwoven Alicia skirt, of recycled cotton, 2018, by Studio One Eighty Nine, an African brand founded by Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah.
Credit...Elias Williams for The New York Times


At the end of the show, considering this, I walked back for a closer look at Waiswa’s photos of people on the street attending a “thrift social,” where clothes and music are exchanged. In one portrait, a woman has her hair pulled back in two coiled braids and sported a bandeau top made up of two fastened leather belts. At her midriff is a thin orange belt fastened with a gold panther buckle. In an adjacent photo three young men wear an eclectic mix of patterns and beaded jewelry. One has red-and-white striped overalls; another combines trousers with umber flowers with a red jacket. The third matched horizontal stripes with vertical stripes. When I was working in fashion retail, it never occurred to me that I could be this daring, this individual in my personal style.

That spirit of industrious innovation using whatever is at hand, and the relentless optimism in what the future might hold, are evident throughout the exhibition. What “Africa Fashion” understands deeply is that it has always been important not merely to be well dressed, but to be able to dress yourself well.

Africa Fashion
Through Oct. 22 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York;