Africa Fashion Exhibition

Victoria and Albert Museum: London. Opening 2nd July 2022.

The irresistible creativity, ingenuity and unstoppable global impact of contemporary African fashions are celebrated in an extensive display of garments, textiles, personal testimonies, photographs, sketches, film and catwalk footage in this exhibition. Many of the garments on show hail from the archives of iconic mid-twentieth century African designers – Shade Thomas-Fahm, Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah and Alphadi.

Foregrounding individual African voices and perspectives, the exhibition presents African fashions as a self-defining art form that reveals the richness and diversity of African histories and cultures. Africa Fashion celebrates the vitality and innovation of a selection of fashion creatives from over 20 countries, exploring the work of the vanguard in the twentieth century and the creatives at the heart of this eclectic and cosmopolitan scene today.

The Politics and Poetics of Cloth considers the importance of cloth in many African countries, and how the making and wearing of indigenous cloths in the moment of independence became a strategic political act.

The first generation of African designers to gain attention throughout the continent and globally can be seen in the Vanguard section.

Adire – ‘tied and dyed’ indigo textiles

Part of the exhibition focuses on the tradition technique called ‘Adire’ which uses a resist dying technique to create striking patterns in blue and white. The term ‘Adire’ means ‘tie and dye’ in Yoruba.

The dyeing process
The cloths were usually prepared, and always dyed, by women. Their bright colour comes from imported indigo grains or locally-grown indigo leaves, which were fermented and mixed with water softened with caustic soda to make a dye. The cloth would be dipped into a large pot of dye, and then pulled out to allow it to oxidise – a process which could be repeated to make the colour darker.

Before dyeing, the cloths would be treated in a variety of ways to prevent certain parts of the fabric from absorbing dye. This would create the patterns revealed after the dyeing process. Raffia and starch were the two most common forms of resist-dyeing used. Tying raffia around the cloth, a process known as adire oniko, could produce a huge variety of patterns.

The term adire alabare is used when sewing is the means to resist the dye. If the sewing has been done with raffia then it would be a form of adire oniko. Both machine sewing and hand sewing could be used to produce patterns. Although adire cloths were usually made by women, the cloths that used a sewing machine were made by men.

Cloths decorated by using a starch made from cassava flour were known as adire eleko. The starch was only applied to one side of the cloth so the underside would be plain blue. Starch could be applied through a stencil or painted on to the cloth freehand using a piece of metal to create a great variety of patterns.

Today, adire textiles continue to be a popular fashion choice, in Nigeria and more globally. The techniques have evolved to include hot wax and parrafin as the resist agents, in place of the traditional starch methods, and block-printing in place of stencilling. Yet tie-dyeing, folding and crumpling by hand are still universally popular methods of decorating textiles, an alternative to machine-generated prints.

See more in the exhibition at the V and A from July. All images from http://www.vam.ac.uk

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