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How Africa's Colonial Past Influences Its Contemporary Fashion

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Africa's diverse cultural fabric, with its array of cultures, tribes, and traditions, has long been a wellspring of inspiration across various art forms. Yet, to fully grasp the nuances of its contemporary fashion scene, one must consider the impact of its colonial history. The era of European colonialism significantly altered the societal landscape of Africa, fashion included. This article examines the deep-seated influence of colonialism on modern African fashion, exploring how historical interactions have shaped a distinct and evolving fashion identity.

During the colonial period, European fashion and fabrics were introduced and often became symbols of status and modernity, leading to a fusion of local and foreign fashion elements. This blending has left a lasting imprint on African fashion, visible in the mix of traditional and European styles that showcase much of contemporary African attire. Post-colonial Africa witnessed a re-emergence of traditional clothing as a symbol of cultural pride, yet the influences of colonial fashion remain evident.

Moreover, colonial rule brought new textile technologies and methods to Africa, transforming the landscape of fashion production on the continent. These changes had a profound effect on local artisanal skills and traditional textile manufacturing, with some methods being adapted to incorporate these new techniques. Consequently, African fashion today often showcases a combination of indigenous artistry influenced by colonial-era practices.

The colonial past of Africa also plays a pivotal role in the narrative and identity expressed through fashion. Clothing became a powerful tool for political and social expression, particularly during independence movements. Contemporary African designers frequently draw on this rich historical backdrop, creating fashion that narrates stories of resilience, identity, and heritage. This article explores the colonial underpinnings in African fashion as a complex interplay of style, technique, and narrative, contributing to a dynamic and varied fashion landscape on the continent. Understanding this historical context is essential for appreciating the depth and diversity of African fashion today.

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The colonial era saw the introduction of new fabrics and designs, many of which were imported from Europe. This influx led to a blend of indigenous and foreign textiles, creating a unique fusion still evident in contemporary African fashion. European lace, velvet, and silk became popular among the elite, often combined with traditional African textiles to create a hybrid style.

Colonialism's impact on fashion was not merely superficial; it was also symbolic, influencing the way Africans perceived themselves and their culture. Western dress became associated with modernity, power, and sophistication, often at the expense of traditional attire. Post-independence, there was a conscious effort to reclaim and celebrate African identity through fashion, leading to a resurgence of traditional styles, often reimagined in contemporary contexts.

Despite the imposed dominance of European fashion, African fashion was never entirely subdued. The resilience of the continent's people led to a merging of Western and traditional African styles. For instance, the 'Ankara' fabric, though introduced by Dutch traders, was embraced and incorporated into local designs. Today, Ankara dresses and suits are emblematic of African fashion, showcasing a beautiful blend of Western styles with African patterns and motifs.

Image Credit: Archive Africa


In the post-colonial era, there has been a resurgence of interest in indigenous African fashion, seen as a means of reconnecting with and reclaiming cultural heritage. Designers and fashion enthusiasts are increasingly turning to traditional attire, patterns, and techniques, often incorporating them into modern designs. This trend signifies not just a fashion statement but a broader cultural and political assertion of identity and heritage. Fashion became a form of resistance and a declaration of autonomy. Countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal began to celebrate and promote local fabrics, patterns, and traditional wear, giving birth to contemporary styles that mirrored the post-colonial aspiration of a modern yet deeply rooted Africa.

This resurgence and celebration of indigenous African fashion have led to the evolution of contemporary styles that intertwine tradition with modernity. Designers across the continent are innovating, blending traditional elements with contemporary aesthetics to create a new narrative in fashion. This has resulted in a distinctive style that is not only gaining popularity within Africa but also capturing the attention of the global fashion industry.

Moreover, this resurgence has empowered local communities and artisans, breathing new life into traditional crafts. It has fostered economic development by creating a demand for indigenous textiles and craftsmanship, supporting local industries and preserving cultural heritage. African fashion has become a powerful tool for storytelling, enabling designers to convey rich cultural histories and narratives through their creations.


Many modern African designers subtly reference the colonial era in their collections, using fashion as a medium to tell stories of that period. Whether it's through the juxtaposition of Victorian silhouettes with traditional African fabrics or the reimagining of colonial uniforms with indigenous embroidery and beadwork, these designers create powerful narratives that speak of a history of oppression, resilience, and evolution.

Given the exploitative nature of the colonial era, particularly in resource extraction, contemporary African fashion often leans towards sustainability and ethical production. Handmade techniques passed down through generations have become increasingly significant. This emphasis not only supports local artisans but also ensures the survival and relevance of age-old traditions in modern fashion narratives.

Image Credit: Maxhosa Africa


In modern African fashion design, there is a subtle yet profound conversation with the colonial past. Designers utilise their collections as a canvas to reflect upon and narrate stories from this era, employing a mix of historical and cultural elements. Victorian styles are seamlessly integrated with traditional African fabrics, while colonial uniforms are reenvisioned with local embroidery and beadwork. Through these artistic choices, designers are able to convey narratives of historical oppression, resilience, and evolution, offering a visual commentary on the complex colonial legacy.

This reflection on the colonial past is not merely about revisiting history; it's about recontextualising it in a contemporary setting. By merging traditional African aesthetics with colonial-era styles, designers are crafting a unique sartorial language that speaks to both the past and the present. Their work goes beyond fashion; it becomes a form of cultural storytelling, preserving and recounting histories that might otherwise be forgotten or overlooked.

Moreover, in response to the exploitative practices of the colonial era, particularly in terms of resource extraction, there's a distinct shift towards sustainability and ethical production in contemporary African fashion. Artisans and designers are increasingly focusing on handmade techniques, which have been transmitted through generations. This focus not only supports and uplifts local artisans but also plays a crucial role in keeping traditional practices alive and relevant. By prioritising sustainability and ethical production, these designers are not just making a fashion statement but are also contributing to the preservation of their cultural heritage and promoting responsible and conscious fashion practices.

In conclusion, the colonial legacy of Africa, with its myriad complexities and inherent contradictions, has significantly influenced the continent's contemporary fashion identity. Rather than being confined by a past marked by cultural imposition, African designers have adeptly woven these historical influences into a unique fashion narrative. This contemporary fashion identity, deeply rooted in African heritage, also resonates on a global scale. Through their innovative designs, African fashion creators not only honour their rich past but also celebrate the present, projecting a vision of a future where Africa's influence continues to lead, inspire, and reshape global fashion trends. Their work transcends traditional boundaries, fostering a dynamic interplay between history and modernity and establishing Africa as a formidable and creative force in the international fashion arena.

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