“Dedicated to formal dress, and abundant champagne” was 1980s Vanity Fair’s assessment of Oxford’s Dangerous Sports Club – an opinion perhaps quite applicable to various other student societies during that period. While these perceptions of plain black tie formal-wear, scholar’s gown and cocktail dresses remain ingrained as the quintessential Oxford aesthetic, when I first stepped into the Pembroke auditorium during the slight delay before the start of Oxford African and Caribbean Society’s (ACS) Black History Month fashion showcase, the vibrancy of colours was the first thing I noticed – they ranged from pastel diaphanous fabrics, to arresting hues of dopamine-inducing blues, yellows and reds.
What are you doing if you don’t have a bit of glitz!
Ayaat, Salma and Suleqa are part of around seven Somali girls attending the fashion showcase in traditional clothing consisting of the dirac (dress), shalmad (shawl) and googarad (underskirt). Dressed in diracs of pinks, golds and blues embroidered with intricate floral patterns, adorned with gold jewellery, they made a powerful team. “Coming from Trinity college to Pembroke, every single person on the way was staring at us,” Suleqa said, “but that’s the beauty of Somali culture, it’s so different and so distinct.” This distinctness is even seen in the heterogeneity within Somali culture itself – the dirac goes by different names across different regions within Somalia, as each region specialises in producing varying types of fabric. The dazzling array of gold jewelry incorporated into their outfits: gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets have historically been a staple in Somali clothing, as Somalia is historically a key exporter of gold, “Every Somali woman has stacks of gold in her house.” It is over-the-top with the glitz and glitter – diracs worn during special occasions like weddings are the combination of ornateness and modesty.
It is easy to feel self-conscious and attention-seeking in Oxford if one were to go out into Friday formals or garden parties decked out in the traditional clothing of a minority group – Ayaat explains that there is also the inherent fear of being “othered”, of experiencing the feeling of isolation when you are not adhering to the Oxford stereotype; despite the cultural diversity Oxford possesses, the lack of curiosity and automatic anxiety about unfamiliar cultures are inevitable barriers to open intercultural interactions – events like ACS’ fashion showcase are not simply an immersive cultural experience, but offer a platform for greater exposure and conversation. Nonetheless, fashion is supposed to be eye-catching, captivating and unique; traditional dress, and the voices expressed by traditional fashion are meant to be seen and heard in events that spotlight these clothing, showcase them to a larger audience and facilitate greater intercultural dialogue. “Our Somali community in Oxford is small; although Ayaat and I are the only ones on the African and Caribbean Society team this year, our friends are more than happy to come and help us represent our culture in the fashion showcase.” Suleqa told me, “Fashion is the main way we express ourselves as Somali women.”
Wearing ankara to a Biochem tutorial?
When speaking to Sharon, a first-year Biochemistry student attending one of her first ACS events, I was curious about the origins of her blue and green patterned Nigerian shirt made with the ankara fabric. “I got it from my brother,” she said, “You could wear this in the house, to church – I would totally wear this to a tutorial here.” For Sharon, traditional clothing is naturally incorporated into her everyday life – it possesses a flexibility that combines traditional material with modern designs and shapes. Cathy, a second-year history student, talks about infusing elements of her Malawian heritage into her personal fashion identity, “I have always loved hippie culture – there is a similar emphasis on colour, unique patterns, as well as head dressings (bandanas called “duku” in Chichewa) in Malawian traditional attire.”
Last month’s Lagos Fashion Week similarly saw the successful fusion of traditional features with contemporary twists in an effort to create “consciously wearable clothing”. Normalising traditional clothing as everyday wear is undoubtedly the greatest challenge in its preservation – adaptation and modernisation are necessary steps in ensuring the commercial longevity of African fashion.
While speaking to the fashion showcase participants, all of my interviewees have continually emphasised the diversity of African and Caribbean culture. While the dirac is characteristic for its modesty and beauty, Nigerian fashion showcases beauty in bold, exuberant colours. Similarly, Cathy’s mixed cultural heritage, Malawian on her mother’s side, Caribbean and South Indian on her father’s side, allows her to access and understand the distinctive beauty of both cultures. Malawian cultural attires are closely influenced by Portuguese and Scottish culture due to its colonial history – the material of such Malawian attire is usually cotton, sometimes coated in wax to harden the material called chitenge in the Chichewa dialect. On the other hand, in Trinidadian and South Indian culture, there is an emphasis on facial markings as decorations and signs of beauty, fertility, youth, wealth and status, “Materials of clothing are often palm leaves, or other big leaves. Materials are drawn from natural elements – jewellery is often made out of conch shells from the sea while facial markings are taken from different colours of mud and clay from the earth.”
Regrettably, the multicultural variety of African fashion remains often overlooked in mainstream media representation. Exoticisation, cultural appropriation and issues of representation are also frequently debated topics surrounding African fashion; back in 2018, designer Stella Mccartney came under fire for using ankara prints in her spring 2018 show despite employing only one model of African descent in her runaway. Similarly, Yves Saint Laurent’s 2017 runaway clutches were criticised for their excessive resemblance to the MBURU baguette clutch, which was launched just a few months earlier by Senegalese brand Tongoro and showcased elements of Senegalese culture.
Role of cultural societies in Oxford
“Although our society is built as a safe space for members who identify as African-Caribbean, we are open to non-members as well and we definitely want more people to feel comfortable in attending our events and showcases – just for the vibes and to have fun.” Sam, the president of ACS told me – he wore a formal cape decorated with purple and gold square patterns. It is undeniable that it is difficult for cultural societies in Oxford to reach out to and engage with the wider student body; events such as these could seem like an intimidating space for students of other cultural and ethnic origins. There is a tension between actively promoting one’s culture and safeguarding an exclusive space reserved for ethnic minorities in Oxford – it is definitely easy for one to feel like an intruder while attending cultural events organised by one of these student societies; how do we encourage more interest in these cultural societies?
There is no easy answer to something as nuanced as cultural differences – the balance between exclusivity and inclusivity is one that is difficult to navigate. Perhaps fashion showcases like this one will pave the way for cultural and international societies to open up their doors to students of other ethnicities – the branding for ACS’s fashion showcase promises diversity beyond that. Perhaps the self-conscious fear of intrusion would dissipate; everyone becomes a participant in these festivities.