A new exhibition at the V&A takes a look at post-colonial fashions across the African continent, showing off not just their diversity, but also how they’ve influenced Western tastes.

This is not an exhibition about clothing that the average person buys though, but clothing bought by those rich enough to have disposable income to buy designer clothes created locally for local markets.

The exhibition is split into two floors and two themes, with the ground floor looking at the past, and upstairs for contemporary fashion by today’s designers. Although there are a lot of clothes on mannequins in the show, it’s often the smaller elements of the exhibition that work best in educating the how and why of what happened to spur fashion design across the continent.

The early years aspect of the exhibiton looks very much at the era of colonial withdrawal from Africa, when the combination of the removal of the leaden weight of colonial government fused with the surge in technology that supported photography to tell local stories and garment manufacturing to support local trades.

Opening with the surge in optimism that came from freedom, there were exhibitions and shows in the 1960s to show off local talent and reach out to Western markets. What’s fascinating are some of the challenges they faced. You might expect overt racisim, which happened. But there was also, likely unthinking racism at work, such as the problems that Africa-based photographers faced when using early Kodak equipment. They were supplied with colour calibration charts by their USA suppliers that presumed fashion photos would only be taken of white models.

There was also a trend in photography for people to seek to pose in front of sets, to have a photograph of themselves in an aspirational setting. That continues to this day, but now it’s global as people hire fake sets for their social media photos to pretend their social media life is more glamourous than it really is.

Fashion is also often political, in a youthful rebellious way, but here the exhibition explores how fashion is used politically by politicians, shaking off western clothing ideals and adopting their traditional dress, or at least, a splash of it over a western suit. It’s a way of asserting their independence from past colonial opinions about how people should behave.

Over 250 objects are on display for the exhibition, with approximately half of these drawn from the museum’s collection, including 70 new acquisitions.

As an exhibition, it’s a good look at some of the region’s fashions taken from a select number of designers, but probably better away from the mannequins and telling the history of the rise of fashion designers who come from across the African continent and the struggles they faced, and that they and overcame.

The exhibition, Africa Fashion is at the V&A Museum until next April.

Adult: £16 | 12-25: £10 | Under 12: Free

Book tickets from here.


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