December 8, 2023

Nowadays, Ankara has transcended West Africa, and has seamlessly integrated with modern trends, from Ankara suits and pants — which are fast becoming a staple in the Nigerian corporate spaces — to Ankara dresses made in combination with other sturdy fabrics like denim. 

By Ijeoma Anastasia Ntada

I have fond memories of Christmas, where, as a child,  my mother would buy fancy dresses from the market, a month or two before the festivities. These new dresses were a significant part of the Christmas tradition, and I eagerly looked forward to them. They were mostly flare gowns with fancy sleeves, commonly called  “ready-made” because they were pre-made and there was no stress with taking measurements. Some parents couldn’t always afford these “ready-made” dresses, so they would purchase reasonably priced Ankara fabrics and make dresses for their children – what was known as “native”. At the time, many children my age did not like to wear  “native”, preferring “ready-made” outfits because to wear native was to be considered “local” and lacking in sophistication.

Reflecting on this now, I wonder what led people to associate Ankara dresses with being “local”. It might have been linked to adhering to the Eurocentric fashion standards of the times. For example, western suits were seen as more formal and sophisticated for corporate events, as opposed to African traditional wear in many situations. But in recent years, African fabrics have gained significant popularity in Africa and the diaspora, especially the Ankara. And although Ankara didn’t originate in Africa, it has become strongly associated with West Africa, particularly Nigeria.

It has been centuries since the Dutch entrepreneur, Pieter Fentener Van Vlissingen created a commercial market for batik, now known as Ankara in West Africa. History has it that Ankara, which was formerly called Dutch wax, was first made in Indonesia. Sometime in 1846, there was an upsurge in the demand for printed cotton and Vlissingen took advantage of the demand and commercialised it by employing the popular Indonesian style of making prints on fabrics, a process known as batik. Despite that the material was first designed for the Western audience, one cannot deny how well it has gained massive traction in Africa, especially Nigeria, where it has become a symbol of culture and style, largely due to its vibrant and highly artistic design that resonates with Nigerians. The versatility of Ankara has transcended the old styles like the two-piece wrappers and blouses that were very popular amongst women. Ankara is also used to make political and religious statements in modern-day Nigeria. It is not uncommon to have politicians imprint photographs of themselves on Ankara to be worn by their supporters in solidarity. Religious faithfuls also imprint photographs of respected leaders for ceremonies like burials and birthday celebrations. 

When I think of the modern twist that has melded into African fashion, I remember my grandmother’s musty box full of George and  Hollandaise wrappers which she would wear so regally whenever she had events to attend. I always held the opinion that the George fabric was native to Nigeria, especially the Igbos who have made it a style of their own. Like Ankara, Hollandaise was imported into Nigeria from the Netherlands and it has been imprinted into African traditional wear. However  research shows that the George fabrics have Indian origins. They were originally designed to be worn with saris. The George fabrics were originally called Madras and then they became Chennai in 1996. They have undergone a series of evolutions in their names, with the current name being George. Despite its Indian roots, the George fabric has become an undeniable part element of Nigerian fashion, and it is evident in the great percentage of Nigerian brides who include it in their wide range of wedding attires. 

African Fashion on Display: Embracing Traditional Attires With a Modern Twist - Afrocritik
Ankara fabrics

I’ve grown to adore Ankara and various other African fabrics. They are integral to our identity, history, and cultural pride. Many fashion enthusiasts, as well as renowned fashion houses, proudly embrace Ankara. Nowadays, Ankara has transcended West Africa, and has seamlessly integrated with modern trends, from Ankara suits and pants — which are fast becoming a staple in the Nigerian corporate spaces — to Ankara dresses made in combination with other sturdy fabrics like denim. Fashion designers like Nigerian Veekee James have also taken the modernisation of Ankara to a whole new level as she steadily integrates Ankara with Western designs to create a new kind of fashion trend. 

The modernisation of Ankara is not limited to just African designers. The rest of the world is catching up quickly with it too. For instance, the Black Italian fashion designer, Stella Jean includes Ankara in her creations, and her Ankara designs have become cherished from all corners of the globe. In 2014, the internationally acclaimed singer, Rihanna, made a stunning appearance at the White House in a straight Stella Jean Ankara gown that was made in combination with a striped cotton fabric for the sleeve and collar, giving the outfit a cultural and yet modern look.  Even the esteemed Michelle Obama has a Pinterest board that showcases her gorgeous Ankara clothing collection from various designers.

African Fashion on Display: Embracing Traditional Attires With a Modern Twist - Afrocritik
Rihanna at the White House in a Stella Jean Ankara outfit

(Read Also: Why You Dress The Way You Do: Is There A Link Between Fashion and Identities?)

But to limit Nigerian and African fashion to just Ankara is akin to compressing African heritage into a tiny box. Other indigenous fabrics have and are still undergoing a fusion with modern trends. A great example is the popular Adire or tie and dye from Southwestern Nigeria. Adire takes its roots from the Egba people of Ogun state in Southwestern Nigeria. Adire dates back to as early as the 19th century, and in the early stages of its invention, it consisted of basic tie and dye designs that were made using a resistant dyeing technique. The Yoruba women of those days tied Adire wrappers. They also made it into loose-fitting gowns that were always accompanied with scarves. The men mostly wore agbada made of Adire. 

Over the years, Adire has transcended the borders of Egbaland and gracefully made its way into international fashion scenes. For instance, Adire and Ankara fabrics were seen blazing in their full glory in the first edition of the African Fashion Week which was held in Brazil in  early 2023. The colourful event featured the elegant Adire Oodua by Nigerian Designer, Ejiro Amos Tafiri. These days, too, fashion industries employ the age-long Adire technique in making tee shirts, trousers, and almost every kind of clothing you can think of. In 2023, Adire has truly perforated almost every fashion scene. 

African Fashion on Display: Embracing Traditional Attires With a Modern Twist - Afrocritik
An Adire outfit sewn to fit modern trends

We cannot discuss the fusion of African fashion with modernity without giving credence to the Ghanaian Kente fabric. Kente dates back to as early as the Ashanti people of 12th-century Ghana. It was worn by royalties and important figures during special occasions. Every Kente fabric had a peculiar design as it was carefully chosen by the current king of the time, and it had to mirror the personality, taste, and style of that king. 

Kente is known for its colourfulness and intricate designs which are meticulously woven by master artisans who can tell a story of a people’s culture and heritage through fabrics. The Ghanaians hold the Kente fabric closely to their hearts and it shows in how they wear it gracefully on special occasions like weddings and cultural festivals. Traditionally, kente garments were worn in specific patterns, styles, and even colours to convey special meanings. Ghanaian men and women(especially brides and grooms) would carefully drape their Kente on their bodies in a toga style. The women sometimes added kente head-gear for colour.  During cultural festivals, traditional leaders and chiefs would drape their own kentes over their body. They were always particular about the pattern and style as they all bore different meanings. 

The beauty and richness of the Kente has caught the eyes of local and foreign designers, and they have since begun to design the Ghanaian kente with a new twist. Indigenous Ghanaian designers like Christie Brown and Osei Duro are adept at incorporating Kente into modern fashion in the most stylish ways that can be imagined. This includes elaborate dresses and exquisite looking tops that resemble pieces from British and American boutiques. Christie Brown’s CBFW23 collection, which featured several innovative and unusual styles, subtly paid adulation to the designer’s Ghanaian roots as she infused Kente into the designs. Her designs ranged from simple Kente gowns to extravagant ones with exaggerated sleeves and corsets. Not only did she make modern outfits with Kente, she went as far as making Victorian-era inspired dresses. Osei Duro on the other hand, employs traditional techniques like hand-dying to give the best of Afro-modern fashion. 

African Fashion on Display: Embracing Traditional Attires With a Modern Twist - Afrocritik
A couple in Kente outfits

One cannot talk about the fusion of modernity into African fashion without mentioning the fast-rising mudcloth or Bògòlanfini as the Malians call it. The Malian mud cloth is made through a special process which involves hand dyeing a fabric with fermented mud. The mud cloth, which was originally worn by Malian hunters for protection, has since ceased to be just for Malians as it has been greatly incorporated into modern-day fashion. These days, one can find women from Africa adorned in beautiful jumpsuits, boubous, and so many other attires made from mudcloth. 

African Fashion on Display: Embracing Traditional Attires With a Modern Twist - Afrocritik

While I ramble on about African traditional attires that have been merged with contemporary fashion, I cannot ignore the heavy influence of modern-day fashion on African jewellery. For instance, in the past, cowrie shells and some beads like Himba beads from Namibia and the Krobo beads from Ghana were often associated with African traditional religious practices. They were mostly found on priestesses and they were used by diviners to communicate with ancestral spirits. 

In the contemporary landscape, cowrie shells have undergone a remarkable change. They have evolved from being sacred relics to versatile objects for crafting jewellery like earrings, necklaces, bracelets and even clothing. Innovative fashion designers like the Ivorian Lafalaise Dion, incorporate cowrie shells into dressmaking to create stunning masterpieces. Pages like Raw Craft on Instagram also utilise cowrie shells to the fullest to create culturally conscious yet modern pieces of jewellery. Sometime in October, the stunning Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o was seen wearing a cowrie crown from Lafalaise Dion at the 2023 GO Gala celebrating local heroes. 

African Fashion on Display: Embracing Traditional Attires With a Modern Twist - Afrocritik
Lupita Nyong’o adorning a Lafalaise Dion headpiece

(Read Also: Lafalaise Dion is Cowrying Through Fashion and Spirituality)

The modern twist to current African designs shows that there is a lot of wealth to be tapped from the African fashion scene. It is an area that keeps on giving, and it is indeed lovely to behold how the African story is continually lived and told through mediums like fashion and fashion accessories. African fashion fusion with current trends is an endless beauty that has come to stay and would possibly cause the evolution of newer styles in the fashion industry in years to come. 

Ijeoma Anastasia Ntada writes and reads poetry, fiction and nonfiction. She has a couple of poems published in the Love Anthology, The Ducor Review, Visual Verse, Praxis Review and other places. Ijeoma is also a photography enthusiast. She takes beautiful photographs and makes them art. When Ijeoma isn’t studying to become a Laboratory Scientist, you’ll find her talking about Afro Hair, femininity, and embracing all of her girlhood.

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