To talk about the evolution of fashion in Nigeria is to highlight the beauty in its diverse, multicultural identity. The Nigerian fashion terrain is unique because each cultural sect has clung to its version of traditional beauty and style in spite of the recesses from colonialism and the heavy influence of Westernization.
The Yoruba woman is easily identified in her iro, buba, gele and ipele. The Igbo woman decks herself in her wrapper and blouse, headtie and beads. Some trends have been popular across all cultural groups even though the respective wearers interpret it in their own peculiar styles, taking their cues from the Lagosians as Lagos as always been and still is the metropolitan hub of the country and the melting pot of all Nigerian cultures, fads and trends.
‘Owambe’ of the 70’s
Like in most societies, fashion is greatly influenced by the social and political events of the time or era. Nigeria’s independence in 1960 was no exception as the common fashion of that time was still largely impacted by colonialism.
Social class was a pervading theory which included the elite class of wealthy, educated Nigerians who could afford international pedigrees, the middle class of averagely educated Nigerians who had no tertiary education as most universities did not exist at the time and the typical uneducated Nigerian. The common trend of the 60’s was long dresses, hats and Mary Quaint-inspired miniskirts, as imitated by the elites.
This trickled into mainstream fashion and youngsters of all classes interpreted the styles as they saw fit. The ‘Afro’ was also a major rave in that era rocked by both sexes. The men favored boot-legged trousers, tight-fitting, open-necked shirts and loud prints.
European vs. traditional Nigerian styles. Also popular in the 70’s
This trend continued well into the 70’s until the Oleku boom. The trend was said to have been inspired by a movie of the same name but that movie did not surface until Tunde Kehlani’s 1997 romance flick, two decades later. It is more accurate to attribute the innovation to the eccentricity of the Lagos women who were adept at taking a bit of western designs and fusing them with traditional fabrics and styles. So was the era of mix-and-match.
The Oleku style comprised of a baggy-sleeved buba worn over a wrapper (iro) that stopped anywhere from a little above the knees to mid-thigh. At this time, Nigerians were more confident to wear traditional styles or to appear traditionally inclined. This was perhaps due to the fact that self-rule provided a sense of belonging or identity that was starting to reflect in all aspects of society.
In 1971, renowned Nigerian musician and the pioneer of Afrobeats, Fela Anikulapo Kuti titled “Gentleman”. Fela ridiculed Nigerians who rejected their nativity when they became successful, and only wore English suits, acting as though they were better than everyone else. He proudly declares, “I no be gentleman at all-o, I be Africa man,original” speaking of those who had inferiority complexes about their non-Western cultures and as a result, lost their roots.
The Nigerian economy was dealt a fatal blow in the 80’s and fashion helplessly became a mirror of Western styles. Jerry curls, perms, baggy suits, maxi skirts and big jewelry. This led well into the 90’s where the patterns totally conformed to foreign influences in a bid to make up for what was wrongly assumed to be lacking. Retro trends, jeans, Capri pants, colors, fitted tank tops, dresses, makeup and such.
Those who could not afford the influx of foreign clothes made do with ‘bend down select’, the cheaper option of used, imported clothes. Ankara fabrics also known as African prints were also making a grand appearance at this time. Derived from Indonesian manufacturing techniques and employing African motifs and designs, the fabric became a nationwide symbol. It was quickly adopted and used by all and sundry as a canvas and as a collective identity.
Maki Oh SS18 at the New York Fashion Week
Almost six decades after independence, Nigeria is finding its way back to a solid, rich heritage. Designers like Deola Sagoe with her lace and Aso Oke, Maki Oh with her Adire, Duro Olowu with his wild African prints and several others have taken Nigeria to the global scene, made tremendous impact and given the country more than enough to be proud of.
The average Nigerian can relate to culturally inspired pieces and though we are yet to bridge the gap of accessibility or affordability, we have indeed come a long way. The growth of the fashion industry has been painstakingly gradual and deliberate but it has also been rewarding and expository. Now that the world is blending its peoples, races and cultures, Nigeria is finding a voice and a place and reasserting its identity as a country.