From Ghana to Niger and beyond, African Fashion is increasingly recognized as a significant component of the cultural, social, economic, and even political expression of contemporary life on the continent and in the diaspora. It is a performance art, a showcase for the work of traditional master artisans, and a spectator sport. The occupations and industries that support African fashion are typically grounded in the traditional knowledge, histories, artistry, and skills of local communities.
As a community-centered cultural heritage enterprise, fashion provides opportunities for people to identify and appreciate the handmade. Crafts of African Fashion is an initiative promoting the continuity of heritage arts by exploring the important role which cultural enterprises play in sustaining communities and connecting generations on the African continent and throughout the diaspora. The Festival program showcased the skills of weavers, dyers, leather workers, designers and tailors in their presentations of African fashion trends and craft production.
Through discussions, demonstrations and workshops, participants explored with visitors the important role cultural enterprises play in sustaining communities and connecting generations of Africans. Following three underlying themes, the local marketplace, transnational and international fashion trends, and the relationships between consumers and producers within a community, artisans lead daily presentations and activities.
Interest in African fashion has come to international attention in the Hollywood blockbuster Black Panther. The film represented emerging global African identities by using Ghanaian adinkra, kente, and other textiles, as well as African clothing styles in their costuming throughout the film. Using this as a departure point, participants explored the role that heritage plays in both the identity and the artisanship of African fashion.
The panoply of African fashion was presented in a series of short films depicting haute couture design studios, pop culture fashion houses, as well as the streets of Soweto. Starting with the creativity and style influenced by the African continent, the program explored the current state and future of African fashion through panel discussions with local, national, and international designers. Visitors learned how textile and adornment artists—weavers, dyers, leather workers, designers—contribute their knowledge, values, skills, and local aesthetics to contemporary global fashion while sustaining time-honored traditions.
Curator: Diana Baird N'Diaye
Fashion Project Coordinator: Shay Stevens
Research Fellow: Rebecca Fenton
Katzenberger Art History Intern: Brianne Chapelle
• Brenda Winstead, Clothing designer
• Chapuchi Bobbo Ahiagble, Ewe weaver
• Cynthia Sands, Textile artisan
• Kibonen, Fashion designer
• Kwasi Asare, Kente cloth weaver
• Soumana Saley, Leather craftsman
Access to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections is by appointment only. Visit our website for more information on scheduling a visit or making a digitization request. Researchers interested in accessing born-digital records or audiovisual recordings in this collection must use access copies.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival records: 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.