Stella McCartney Designs & The Theft Of African Feminine Identity

Are You Dressed To Be Oppressed?

Part One of a Three explores how fashion and society’s expectations prevent women from expressing themselves through our clothes and keep making sure we dress to be oppressed.

Part One: Dressing Up The Past To Reclaim The Future

African fashion is taking the world by storm, but what, if anything, does it say about African women, the clothes they wear, and why they wear them?

Clothing has a practical purpose and a way to convey our status, wealth, and personalities. It also allows us to explore our traditional roots and express our cultural identity. Or does it?

Why You Cant Celebrate British Style With African Fashion

A couple of years ago, Stella McCartney caused a commotion with a Spring/Summer collection that relied heavily on “designs that Africans have been wearing for years.” Adding fuel to the fire, McCartney described her collection as “a joyful exploration of British style.”

McCartney incorporated Ankara, the traditional brightly colored wax print fabric synonymous with Eastern Africa, into her designs, instigating an instant backlash that accused her of “cultural appropriation.”

Critics felt that, rather than “borrowing” from African traditions, McCartney took their designs and then tried to tell “Africans and those of African heritage, that it’s not ours.”

In her defense, a “spokesman for Stella McCartney told HuffPost the designs “were about celebrating a unique textile craftsmanship, its culture and highlighting its heritage.” Meanwhile, others claim, “McCartney did the most British thing ever: she stole from Africans.”

Regardless of which side you stand on, you have to admit it’s somewhat far-fetched to believe we can celebrate British style with a fabric intrinsically woven into the African culture.

Admittedly, the history of African fashion is complicated, largely because much of it didn’t originate in Africa. Instead, it started as a sartorial expression of colonial oppression.

What It’s Like To Be Dressed In Sartorial Oppression

When the colonists arrived in South Africa, they were eager to start “clothing the natives.” Unfortunately, they brought with them European notions that emphasized “women’s ‘body propriety’ and demanded them to dress in all-covering outfits.” As a result, “the dressing habits of African women signaled the opposite of the “civilized European moral system.”

In their efforts to cover up the bodies of the indigenous female population, colonists “stripped these societies and cultures from their rich, dynamic and often globally interconnected (fashion) histories, turning them into ‘people without history.”

They selected “specific garments, patterns, and materials to symbolize national identity, while deliberately omitting others.”

Even the seminally African wax print, which some designers, like Ghanian Patience Golo, says “portrays our culture,” originated in Holland.

However, despite its colonial roots, “the fabric has gained an African identity, and African fashion designers have contributed to emphasize the visual power of this material.”

Like Serge Attukwei Clottey, some designers have this fabric’s colonial origins that give it meaning. “The truth is historically fabric was used in the trade of humans, and because of that, we have inherited this idea,” he says.

While you may not see African wax fabrics abounding in rural South Africa, you will see an abundance of clothes made from another so-called traditional cloth known as shweshwe.

Like the African wax fabric, Shweshwe’s roots are not African but European. It first arrived on the shores of South Africa in 1858 with the German settlers.

By the 19th century, however, the “local Xhosa women started to introduce the print into their traditional dress replacing animal skin outfits with the newly available cotton ones.”

Although what women wear in South Africa today may be influenced by Europeans, they are culturally informed.

How Our Clothes Are Woven From the Fabric Of Our Past

In Xhosa culture, for example, “an inkanzana (unmarried woman with a child) must wear a longer skirt or dress below the knees at least, while an intombi (young unmarried woman) is entitled to wear shorter skirts.”

Similarly, once married, a new wife or “makoti” wears a blanket around the shoulders and a towel or thick scarf, known as an “uxakatha” around her waist.” While the blanket represents her ability to nurture and protect her family, the “scarf obscuring her waistline serves to protect her fertility.”

There is both culture and practicality in these traditions. For example, you won’t see any baby slings in rural South Africa, where the towel proves equally useful for strapping a baby onto your back or covering your head in a downpour.

Although these fabrics and designs didn’t originate in Africa, they have been embraced into the culture and fashion of the continent. Both Shweshwe and African wax prints or Ankara express cultural symbolism.

For instance, the “Nkrumah Pencil print,” for instance, was a “popular 1960s print named after Ghana’s first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. The cloth symbolizes the power Nkrumah’s pen had to sign orders used to control political opponents”.

Similarly, Shweshwe designs carry cultural messages. For example, one abstract pattern from the 1980s is known as “darling, don’t turn your back on me” and is worn to convey that sentiment to other women as “men don’t understand or don’t care as they don’t pay attention to the meaning; of wax print.”

When Stella McCartney launched a whole collection based around traditional African fabrics, it seems she failed to recognize its symbolism or give a nod of recognition to the fabric’s origins.

Conclusion

For Africans to reclaim the fashions and fabrics to create a modern cultural identity is acceptable and understandable. However, for a white British woman to steal those roots away and reconstruct them as a celebration of British style is nothing short of theft.

Those fabrics, patterns, colors, and styles are all “rooted in the past, both painful and pulchritudinous, and in the future, we are determined to define for ourselves.”

As much as we need to reinvent fashion and re-dress the female body to create new feminine identities, we need to respect that the roots of our fashions lay in the fabric of our society and cannot be unraveled and rewoven at will.

African women have the right to own the Shweshwe and Ankara fabrics that, once forced on them, they have now accepted and made their own.

To steal them is to steal more than just a pattern; it’s to steal a past and undermine a feminine identity that was woven from the last few remaining threads of a social fabric ripped apart by foreigners who thought they knew better.