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The Search for African Identity in African fashion SERIES, Part 2: MmusoMaxwell


By Dr Chris McWade, STADIO School of Fashion co-editor


KEYWORDS

  • Fashion & Identity

  • Design

  • Contemporary Culture

In the previous entry in this series, we looked at how Sho Madjozi honours the Xibelani while continuing its historical evolution by situating it within the aesthetic world of modern, globalized culture. Mmuso Potsane and Maxwell Boko as design duo MmusoMaxwell are executing a similar kind of honouring and ‘modernizing’ of tradition as Madjozi, but their particular areas of influence, style, contextual parameters, and approach are quite different.


Figure 1: IMBOKODO SS ’21. 2021. Handkerchief knitted skirt mohair green.

Figure 2: Contemporary African Art. 2020. Ugandan women, barkcloth wrappers, early 20th C, Mombasa.


Their design challenge is also different – how to reconcile the loose, free, wrapped, colourful, decorative essence of traditional African fashion with the modern, corporate workplace dress code of collars, of structured, straight-lined black and grey and the high-end RTW “minimalistic sophistication” look they are going for? In Figure 1 above, for example, the designers represent the free-flow drape and traditional length in the skirt, which echoes the lower half of the traditional Ugandan style in Figure 2, but then add a non-traditional top half by covering the chest. At the same time, the exposed shoulders echo a more traditional African style, and the turtleneck in conjunction with the earrings could be read as a more modern version of the Ndebele neck ring tradition.


It has only been since November 2020 that Kenyan members of parliament have been permitted to wear traditional fashion in the house (Howafrica.com, 2020). Before this, the dress code had strictly prescribed the following:


Members, members of the press and guests are required not to enter the Chamber, Lounge or Dining Room without being properly dressed. A proper dress for men means a coat, collar, tie, long trousers, socks and shoes or service uniform. For the ladies, business casual wear applies. Skirts and dresses should be at least knee length. Tight fitting, revealing and provocative clothing is not permitted (Ayes and Nays, 2018).


There had been multiple cases in which members of parliament had been ejected for the wearing of traditional East and West African fashion, which was deemed to be unprofessional and in contravention of this westernized code of dress. This happened as recently as 2017 when Beth Nyawira’s traditional fashion was deemed ‘indecent’ and she was barred from the house (Wanjohi, 2017). A similar case occurred in 2003 when Roads and Public Works Minister Raila Odinga was thrown out of parliament for wearing the traditional Nigerian Agbada, which was deemed to violate the codes for ‘professional’ attire (bbcnews.co.uk, 2003). There was widespread opposition to these rulings from journalists and the public, with Waga Odongo writing on the extent to which the Kenyan parliament had internalised colonial mindsets on African tradition: “In the past, even African dress has been disallowed in a curtsy to our former colonial masters, in case they are watching via satellite in Westminster” (Odongo, 2011). In a similar point, noting the reductional force of the prescriptions for dress in parliament, he wrote “to see an institution that represents the diverse interests of a nation being made to look like cut-outs of a Sir Henry mannequin is both unfortunate and worrying” (ibid). On the incident in 2003, minister Wangari Mathai said: “If we’re going to give our people a sense of pride, a sense of self-respect and identity, we need to reclaim our culture. People who wear African dress are trying to look for some identity. They’re trying to define themselves” (in Driscoll, 2003). The minister’s words here echo Viriri and Mungwini’s writing about a “search for African identity” (2010) as well as Sho Madjozi’s sentiment that to be “whole versions of [ourselves] all the time” (Madjozi in Edgarsmag, 2019), there is a way that needs to be found, a search that needs to be undertaken. It also invokes once again the “re-” prefix, so ubiquitous in writing about African fashion and identity – this time in the form of a re-claiming of culture against the persistence of the history of colonial erasure and disqualification.


Figure 3: IMBOKODO SS 21. 2021. Wrap-tailored jacket wool olive.


Figure 4: The Wild Coast Trading Company. 2022. Fezeka Umbhaco set – 6 piece.


In interviews in which Mmuso Potsane and Maxwell Boko discuss the IMBOKODO ‘21 range, they often reference the existence of two different worlds pulling at each other, and through their work have endeavoured to reconcile them – in the one world is the African woman “influenced by culture” or “culturally influenced” and then the other is “the modern space” (Expresso, 2020). In referencing these two worlds again, they describe their brand as “African heritage mixed with contemporary culture to compliment the modern woman” (THREADS, 2021). Their aim, as stated in multiple interviews is to “challenge the narrative of a woman’s place in society, especially in African cultures, so we dove into the world of these culturally influenced women who live in a modern space. Women who encompass these domestic features and despite our patriarchal notions, they can still hold prominent positions in society, politics, and the economy” (Expresso, 2020). Similarly, they describe the ‘MmusoMaxwell woman’ as “a woman who is a smart, working woman who is culturally influenced and living in a modern space” (1838 collective, 2020). Implicit in these statements is the acknowledgement of the separation between the culturally influenced and the modern, and that bringing them together can be an empowering act. In Figure 3 above, the designers have represented the cloth wrap with the panel drape across the chest that represents both military tradition and the tradition of the wrapped Kitenge – in this case, the shift is to work that wrap as a structural feature of the garment, as opposed to an additional piece of fabric, as seen in Figure 4. The trousers are atypical for African traditional fashion but typical of how MmusoMaxwell in these pieces are incorporating tradition in interesting ways within the parameters of contemporary high-end RTW and the modern business office. The duo also reference a kind of ‘struggle’ in this arena, which is also typical of how Sho Madjozi talks about embracing traditional African fashion in a world of globalized aesthetics. They say that they aim for people to “be able to wear it on a sort of normal basis without having to have the struggle of accessing the brand… locally people can wear it without having to struggle” (Expresso, 2020). And so it seems that there is work to be done, designs to be conceived, in order for these worlds to be happily married.


But is something lost, or sacrificed in the process of fusion? IMBOKODO’s muted colour palette of olives, browns, sky blues, deep greens, khakis and mustards is a departure from the traditional vibrant colours and intricate patterns of the Kitenge cloth and wax print tradition. This look cannot handle the vibrant colours and decorative elements of the originals because the places it is for typically do not tolerate such colours. And so the looks need this more understated, more grounded colour scheme to work in the every day of the law firm, the accounting department, the bank, the office. But the earthy colour palette harks back to a tradition in African fashion that was present even before the introduction and adoption of the bright colours (which were naturalised as African but had originated in Indonesia) – the colours the designers have used and the mohair fabric used extensively in the collection, invoke the much earlier use and treatment of bark cloth, furs, skins, and hides as among the first materials used in the creation of clothing (Contemporary African Art.com, nd.). As such, the choice of the colour palette in IMBOKODO sees the designers reference and incorporate African tradition that not only works now in contemporary places of business but that has authentic historical precedent for what African fashion looked like in the pre-colonial era.

There are more daring colour choices in IMBOKODO, such as the deep reds that recall the striking colour of traditional Masaai dress (see Figures 5 and 6 below), but even these are toned to maintain wearability within the parameters of the western corporate workplace and the high-end RTW style targeted at a more mature working woman. In terms of shape and structure in figure 6 below, MmusoMaxwell again uses length and colour in a direct recalling of tradition, this time in the form of the Masaai traditional dress, and have again represented the drape across the chest as an ingrained, structural feature of the garment (similar to the mechanics of Figure 1). At the same time, the sleeves and the cape and collar element read as more European, in another case of synthesising historically conflicting cultures and associated cultures within the same look, and this time within the same design feature across the chest.



Figure 5: IMBOKODO SS 21. 2021. Asymmetrical curve wool skirt red.



Figure 7: Masai people, Kenya. Typical Masai men’s clothing.


And so, even where MmusoMaxwell alters the form of recognisable heritage in this exercise of aesthetic and ideological synthesis, their work is another instance of the ongoing search for African identity that young, black South African designers are undertaking – as is evident from the cases of Sho Madjozi and MmusoMaxwell so far, that search takes us to different places and is surrounded always by different contexts that have different demands and parameters, but it is clear that there is a consistent grappling with history, a constant strive to find and make space, and to overturn the fracturing of alienated worlds by bringing them together through creative fashion design.

In these contexts, MmusoMaxwell’s work can be understood as a kind of suturing or stitching together of disparate aesthetic and cultural spaces – a way of encompassing the traditional and the modern in a seamless fusion, where both are represented, and the ideological animosity between the two gives way to a new balance between them.


Reference List


Ayes & Nayes, 2018. Dress politics in Kenyan Parliament: a few thoughts [online]. Available at: https://ayesandnays.co.ke/dress-politics-in-kenyan-parliament-a-few-thoughts/. [Accessed: 19/07/2022].


BBCnews.co.uk. 2003. Kenya MPs fight ‘colonial’ dress code [online]. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3070131.stm. [Accessed:30/07/2022].


Contemporary African Art. 2020. African clothing [online]. Available at: https://www.contemporary-african-art.com/african-clothing.html. [Accessed: 20/07/2022].


Edgarsmag. 2019. Sho Madjozi’s style is more than just a fashion statement [online]. Available at: https://mag.edgars.co.za/2018/10/sho-madjozis-style-is-more-than-fashion.html. [Accessed: 23/7/2022].


Expresso show. 2020. Mmusomaxwell SS21 ‘Imbokodo’: designing the modern African woman [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=faPdMakL4Ps. [Accessed:20/07/2022].


Howafrica.com. 2020. Kenyan Senators to be allowed to dress in traditional attire during Parliament [online]. Available at: https://howafrica.com/kenyan-senators-to-be-allowed-to-dress-in-traditional-attire-during-parliament/. [Accessed: 20/07/2022].


Industrie Africa. 2021 [online]. Mmusomaxwell. Available at: https://connect.industrieafrica.com/designers/mmusomaxwell. [Accessed:31/07/2022].


Odongo, Waga. 2011. Excuse Sonko, Parliament is a dull, tie-and-die affair [online]. Available at: https://nation.africa/lifestyle/dn2/Excuse-Sonko-Parliament-is-a-dull-tie-and-die-affair-/957860-1119862-2c23oiz/index.html. [Accessed:20/07/2022].


Threads, 2021. Urban African designers, Johannesburg: Mmuso Maxwell, Urban Zulu, Klipa Denim [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6arVi31XP4. [Accessed:20/07/2022].


Tlhagoane, Leanne. 2017. MmusoMaxwell: a recently formed designer-duo [online]. Available at: https://www.vogue.it/en/vogue-talents/news/2017/03/17/mmusomaxwell-southafrica-talents/. [Accessed: 20/07/2022].


Viriri, Advice and Mungwini, Pascah, 2010. African Cosmology and the Duality of Western Hegemony: the search for an African identity. The Journal of Pan African Studies. 3(6). 27-42.


Wanjohi, John. 2017. Speaker orders Nyeri female MCA thrown out of country assembly for being ‘indecently dressed’ [online]. Available from: https://www.mwakilishi.com/article/fashion-news/2017-10-17/speaker-orders-indecently-dressed-nyeri-mca-thrown-out-of-assembly. [Accessed:26/07/2022].


1838 collective. 2021. The diamond fibre collections – behind the scene interview with MmusoMaxwell [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzoQvYvaDi8. [Accessed: 21/07/2022].