Africa Fashion at the V&A
This is the first show in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 170-year history to focus on African fashion. The entrance announces itself in large gold letters of a shape reminiscent of the iconic Vogue masthead. This choice feels like a statement of intent; this show wants African fashion to be appreciated alongside more familiar European names. Almost imperceptibly, the Vogue-type lettering adds gravitas to those who are not even fashion-conscious, so sublimated into a mark of quality has it been in our culture. And quality is certainly on display here.
Immediately striking is a cape in heavy silk velvet with gold passementerie by Moroccan designer Naïmas Bennis. Dating from 1970, it references the male cloak, burnous, but with an insouciant modern air and intricate metal adornment. It aches with luxury. A late 1980s jumpsuit by Kofi Ansah is a slick dandified affair in Lurex jacquard. The beaded bodice front and pantaloon-esque lower half offer a playful nod to the extravagant dress of Elizabethan England.
The downstairs room focuses on the years between the 1950s and 1980s as Africa shook off its colonial past. There are examples of traditional Ghanaian fabric, kente, which was worn by the independent country’s first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, to meet President Eisenhower in 1958.
There are intriguing vintage photos collected from the era presented alongside an explanation of the Yoruba concept of itutu, meaning cool, combining asé, command, and iwa, character. Hamidou Maiga’s 1973 portrait of an unknown man in flares, guitar and an air of storied swagger is the epitome of cool.
Upstairs focuses on the contemporary designers: a riot of brocades and glittered fabric, trench coats covered in hands of Hamsa, proudly draped menswear, curvaceous ribbons of faux leather and lion appliqués, solemn in their gold embroidery.
And then there is the jewellery. For those looking for some futuristic ice, a cabochon of body adornments in the centre of the exhibition space gleams. A dramatic necklace made of salt by Ami Doshi Shah lingers in the memory, challenging ideas of traditional materials. A headpiece and belt of draped strings of cowry shells by Lafalaise Dion – referencing the shell’s triple role as currency, divinatory tool and symbol of fertility in West African culture – is both haunting and ostentatious.
This is an exhibition that has clearly been created with dedication by Christine Checinska and Elisabeth Murray. This being the V&A, the primary concern is always one of artistry, and this show delivers on that. There is a dignity to the flamboyance which feels à la mode.
Photo: Stephen Tayo/Courtesy of Lagos Fashion Week
Africa Fashion is at the V&A from 2nd July until 16th April 2023. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Africa Fashion here: