Fashion looks upon the world outside the West through an often problematic lens. Specifically, fashion’s relation to Africa has been an odd one. It’s connected to the interworkings of politics, ideology, and economics. And as Europe funneled these concerns towards obtaining new colonies in the early 20th century, fashion (and almost all other aesthetic practices) followed along.
Most people know of African sculpture’s influence on avant-garde painting, as seen in nearly a broad range of Picasso works. But the influx of cultural materials from Africa was not limited to the canvas. Music and literature were complicit in primitivist visions of Africa. Primitivism implied a specific position: a European observer would look towards the African Other as a source of inspiration. This position defines everything fashion knows about colonized others. It’s expressed in “tribal” or “ethnic” styles; the look suddenly becomes “savage” or “wild.” When fashion designers reference monolithic Africa in fashion, it’s often to provide a new energy or rawness to their clothes, in the same way that European avant-gardists saw African art as powerful and untapped, as a commodity to be mined. Once mined, the reference is mediated, such that what is called “African” is rarely African but a selective quotation thereof. Colonialism has defined most attempts at “African” influence in fashion. For me, this has been tiring. I’ve wanted fashion to be the stage for deconstructing romantic assumptions and narratives about colonized countries and continents. Without fail, I’ve been disappointed.
However, I can think of a collection in recent memory illuminate some ways in which we might begin to wash away remnants of primitivism: Louis Vuitton Spring 2009. I began thinking of the Vuitton collection while revisiting a Style.com video review. In it, Kerry Washington claims that the clothes were “ethnic yet inclusive.” It struck me as strange: how can something “ethnic”— fashion’s white colonial typology of all things non-European—come to be seen as inclusive? The overarching project of the collection was to evoke Art Deco Paris, a time in which African cultural materials were the vogue. Here, they were alluded to respectfully and given equal weight within a broader pastiche of global influences. While the history of colonialism cannot be left behind, the mechanisms that structure its aesthetics can be done away with. Here, Jacobs doesn’t necessarily appropriate, as the avant-gardists and surrealists did. It’s a co-creation of different references.
While Marc Jacobs attempted to show us the culture of 1920s Paris, I felt that this had more to do with the exchange of culture that can, when done correctly, occur in contemporary society. Jacobs’ collection envisioned a world where multiple cultural references could exist without the subordination of one over the other. The equality of cultural references destabilized our vision of the ideal woman who would wear the collection’s fashions. She could’ve been white or Black or Asian. Washington spoke in her interview with Tim Blanks of this inclusion. I found that Louis Vuitton collection to be particularly convincing. And while I see its bricolage aesthetic was generative and rich, we still do not know an African fashion would look like untouched by the white look. We haven’t seen pure African fashion within the context of Western fashion month. Jacobs stepped into a very fruitful role as a sort of advocate, but his reference material is still mediated. This mediation is a limitation at the core of contemporary fashion, although it need not necessarily be a source of painful attempts at “tribal” fashions. It is necessary and, as the Louis Vuitton collection shows, it can be used creatively.