African attire isn’t “proper” attire? – Part 2
“All you wear is ‘Native’?” “You don’t wear ‘regular’ clothes?” “Why don’t you wear English clothing?” I wear African attire all the time and these are questions I’m asked in Lagos, Nigeria, where men wear English suits with neckties in the blazing sun. Why?
In Part 1 of African Attire Isn’t Proper Attire? I shared that I’ve worn only West African clothing for more than twenty years—in America. In cosmopolitan Washington, DC, it’s not uncommon to see a variety of culturally attired peoples. Still though, presumptuous questions and comments abounded referencing my African Garb—as called in America—issuing mainly from the “The Souls of Black Folk (W. E. B. Du Boise, 1908)”:
“Where do you work that lets you dress like that?”
“Aren’t you hot in those clothes?”
“Do you wear ‘regular clothes’?”
“Are you African?” (Same as you)
“Are you a pastor?”
“You don’t eat pork?”
Children were also among the inquisitive—parental bias indoctrinated—having innocently asked, “Why do you wear that?” I teasingly retort, “Because it’s against the law to go naked.” Once though, attending jury duty, a mature white lady assured me of discharge from service, pointing out it was Ramadan. Usually, whites refrained from direct gross assumptions—white guilt, fear of black rage—but rather engaged me with aggressive familiarity; reaching without permission to “touch the hem of my garment” or espousing unsolicited information of something African. Conversely, Black folk commentaries generally emerged, seemingly upon sensing a profound genetic or spiritual kinship to my appearance, but owing to our legacy of enslavement, did not convey individual and cultural prerogative, necessarily identifying me as either a “militant brother,” “deep brother,” “Muslim brother” or thereof combination that sold incense and oils—I was asked several times.
In truth, all encounters regarding my clothing weren’t perturbing. Regularly, as I walked the sidewalks of DC, random car horn blasts, followed by celebratory shouts of approval and “Black Power” salutes accompanied my treks across the city. I’d simply return the salute and walk more erect, knowing I was wearing African Garb, not only for myself, but for those who wanted to wear it, but couldn’t.
To be clear, for me, my West African clothing is a cultural and political asserting of myself as I exist; unapologetically Black/African (Diasporan); resisting global White/European hegemony—bluntly, I’m defying white supremacy. Stylistically, my African Garb is freedom from the rigidity and drabness of the ubiquitously imposed Euro-fashion aesthetic—fitted shirt and pant, which ironically inspires the current tailoring of Nigerian men’s “Trad (‘Traditional’/‘Native’/African wear).” Nigerian trendy Trad (oxymoron) mirrors British men’s suits; snugly fit, often with cuffed sleeves and sometimes collared. High-end Trad is frequently tailored in Western business suit fabrics (wool). Either Trad is fashionable and neat; but wool suit fabric in tropical Africa (short-sleeved variety included)? Why are men wearing tight-fitting wool English suits with neckties (Gentleman, Fela Kuti 1973)—and similarly tailored Trad of the same fabric—in blistering, muggy, coastal West Africa? Sure, for winter in North America—why not?
Trad in Nigeria is huge enterprise. On a given day, you’ll find throngs of Nigerians wearing Trad; the measure is observably greater at cultural fancy dress events: Sunday service, funerals, weddings/receptions, coronations, namings/christenings—and Casual Fridays. Herein dwells contention. In Nigeria, the “Giant of Africa” (elsewhere noted, “African ‘crippled giant’”), the world’s largest Black nation, not only is the official language English and the education and judicial systems predicated upon the British standard—and they wear those damn silly wigs in court (even Whites look foolish in those)—wearing Trad, Native, African Garb, is generally regulated to “dress-down” or “casual” Friday. The terms “casual,” “dress-down” and “Friday” connote the same around the world—relaxed attitudes and diminished work capacity. In America, Casual Friday essentially means the prerogative to wear anything to work so long as navels, nipples, arse cheeks and cracks aren’t visible. American workers abused the day, such that many agencies abolished it. Nevertheless, Friday is the day for Traditional fancy dress in Nigeria/West Africa. Except, on Friday it’s not fancy; it’s causal—“play clothes” in prepubescent vernacular. So in Africa, as everywhere else, Traditional or Native African wear is regarded as either—again, prepubescent vernacular—“dress up” or “play clothes.” African Garb is similarly viewed in America where Blacks wear African clothing, if ever, for church, Kwanzaa (African-American year-end celebration), Casual Friday or Halloween. So long as Trad maintains the positions of “dress up” and “casual”—as determined by Blacks/Africans throughout the Diaspora—it will never be considered proper attire alongside Western clothing.
Reaching Mega City Lagos late last year, I’ve been routinely undressed with familiar, yet nuanced clothing questions, followed by inept attempts to deny me my genetic/racial identity and to critique and dissuade me of my cultural-political affirmation—they’re trying to Westernise me:
“All you wear is Native?”
“You wear this in America?”
“Do you ever wear jeans or suits?”
“You don’t wear ‘regular’ clothes?”
“Why don’t you wear English clothing?”—Probably, because I’m not English?
If I weren’t magnanimous, I’d reply: “What the hell is ‘regular clothes’?!” “Why is Western clothing pervasive throughout the region/continent; with African people seemingly enamoured of, invested in, clamouring for, flocking to, consuming and mimicking things English and American (non-African); as indigenous African cultures and countries, which should be promoted and preserved, are disparaged—regrettably by their own—and further disintegrate as a result; while the technological world, not giving a damn, pillages Africa’s resources?
I was recently informed of a possible corporate employment opportunity in Nigeria. I’m advised that Trad is prohibited on the job—except on Fridays? It was explained that if I dressed in Trad, I’d be derided and not taken seriously—as if I cared after twenty-two years prevailing asininity. The opportunity never actualised, but contemplating hypothetical capitulation, I became physically ill. Reflecting, it occurred to me that Nigerian Presidents and federal legislators wear Trad daily—on the job—yet the corporate world doesn’t follow suit. Is there fear of divestment relating to Trad? Highly improbable; the gluttonous capitalist world economy collapses without Africa’s resources. Is there greater fear of ridicule because of Native dress? Does ridicule exist beyond what Africa already endures? Moreover, in Saudi Arabia and The United Arab Emirates–among other locations, certainly—Native dress in the corporate world is the norm and there is no en masse divestment from, or a shadow of ridicule directed towards, those oil rich nations. Why then, in resource-abundant Black Africa is everything Upside Down (Fela Kuti, 1976)? Lamentably, divestment and ridicule are not Nigeria’s/Africa’s chief dilemmas regarding Native versus Western attire.
Understanding, all things have a history and clothing is no exception, globally, evolving culturally and in response to environmental demands long before European Imperialism and the capitalist concept of “fashion.” Modern African wear transformed through time and contemporary English clothing clearly derives from knee breeches and ruffled shirts. Clothing is, as are all things, a communication; a manifest political statement affirming a people as to who they are. Who then are African peoples, dressed in modern-day knee breeches; what is being communicated? Do whites/Europeans look peculiar in African Garb? Wouldn’t the inverse hold true, save our vision has adjusted as our minds have been conditioned—in the least, familiarity breeds liking (the mere-exposure effect, Psychology 101).
Long ago, Europe/the West set out to conquer the world— ground zero, Africa—and heretofore hasn’t changed its goal. In truth, British/Euro/Western hegemony persists at the annihilation of African cultures—until we say no. However, it’s no longer “fashionable” to brutalise people into submission. Consequently, tactics are subtle, subliminal and sleight of hand. As such, clothing remains a symbol and instrument of conquest—a global imperialist dress code. When are we as Black/African peoples going to recognise symbols and imagery as genuine weapons of mass-destruction? The European counts and measures everything; determining assets and liabilities, pertaining to his interests alone. Conversely, the Black/African personality is absorbed by trend; value and inherent risks ignored—cultural suicide by way of axiological and epistemological negligence. In African Socialism (London and New York, 1964, pp.72-3), Leopold Senghor writes, “In contrast to the classic European, the Negro-African . . . abandons his personality to become identified with the Other, dies to be reborn in the Other. He does not assimilate; he is assimilated. He lives a common life with the Other; he lives in a symbiosis.” In this symbiosis, there’s no mutualism—there’s leader and follower; master and slave; proper attire and play clothes. What “labels” do you “wear?”
To be clear, I’m not berating Nigeria or any African nation, rather, I’m championing her—I Love Africa! I’m issuing a call to action for the entirety of Black Africa and the African Diaspora to take a small, but audacious step toward reversing the brainwash of white supremacy/Euro centrism—at least on the continent. Stylish, neat, chic’, corporate; Nigerian Traditional wear is avant-garde fashion—oxymoron notwithstanding. African culture doesn’t have to mimic, capitulate to or be subjugated by Western culture; it can stand tantamount, “clothed” as equals. When travellers disembark anywhere in Black Africa, at minimum it should look as if in another world, where the peoples are properly attired, not rumpled in Western “play clothes,” but garbed in their own Native “dress up”—unapologetically African.