Colonialism’s Clothing: Africa, France and the Deployment of Fashion by Victoria L. Rovine

Through art and design practices, France was able to take a lot of inspiration from their colonies, and the continent of Africa served as one of the main sources of new ideas. In this text, Victoria Rovine presents a few very interesting points about France’s relationship with Africa, both during and post-colonial rule. By the end of my response, I will have focused on how she defines the term ‘traditional, used in the context of African style, and how the French attempted to reinvent Africa’s ‘conservative and unchanging’ dress. (Rovine, 2009, p. 44) Then, I will elaborate on cross cultural hybridity between fashions from both sides.

The word ‘traditional’ has very rigid connotations. Non-western clothing, often described as “costume”, is not interpreted as fashion because it does not move at the same pace as the Western fashion industry. Rovine iterates that African people were steadily adopting Western garments into their wardrobes, being ‘transformed into [their] local styles’. This acted as a symbol of modernity, proving that France was gaining success in the process of ‘civilising’ the nations they colonised. (Ibid., p. 45-46) One example of this is the suit of a Tswana chief described on page 49 from the late nineteenth century. He adorned a suit ‘in European fashion’ made from tiger skin. Jean Comaroff summarises that the ‘crafting’ of the suit was a ‘symbol of chiefly authority’ which ‘mediate[s]’ between the two ‘systems of authority’. (Comaroff cited by Revine, 2009, p. 49) In all, the suit was the embodiment of a bridge connecting the cultures together and enforcing colonial hierarchies, prioritising ‘modern’ garments.

On the other hand, France began to incorporate African textiles, garments and prints into their style with different intentions. They looked to Africa for non-Eurocentric inspiration, something completely different from what they were seeing by designers at home. A contemporary understanding of cultural exchange was that French designers were ‘authenticating’ colonies by using them in their practices. Paul Poiret’s 1920 ‘Tanger’ ensemble (pictured below) shares close connections with Morocco and embodies a ‘mimetic approach to cross-cultural influence’. The designer sought after exotiscised clothing to elevate his niche of ‘Oriental-style’ garments and theatre costumes. The irony here is that when these clothes are worn on people native to Africa, they were received as ‘primitive’ or as a symbol of ‘deplorable backwardness’. (Rovine, 2009, p. 55-56) It is not until they are ‘modernised’ by Western powers that their clothing and textiles are validated.

To conclude, the ‘authentication’ of African elements into early twentieth century French design was an oppressive and deeply problematic colonialist tool which placed African fashion below that of French fashion. Until worn and adapted by French designers, African garments were not perceived as fashionable or modern, which was the manifestation of colonial dominance over Afrocentric aesthetics. In the words of Revine, France still owes a ‘stylistic debt to Africa’ and their textile practices because this is what helped elevate French fashion during their colonial period. We can see a legacy of Western people benefiting from the use of 'exotic' references in their art as depicted in the two black and white photographs above. Captured by Virginia-born photographer Richard Avedon, we see an interesting fusion of Eurocentric beauty ideals, high fashion and foreign animals. It is interesting to consider how we construct the barrier between cultural exchange and appropriation in the futures of both fashion and art. Modern discussions on cultural appropriation are very relevant to the piece we have analysed, and Revine is careful to introduce the term ‘authentication’ as, almost, a synonymous alternative. (Ibid., p. 53)


George Lepap. 1920. Tanger ou Les Charmes de l'Exil. Robe d'après midi et Cape de Paul Poiret. [Online].

Richard Avedon. 1979. Dovima with Elephants

Richard Avedon. 1981. Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent

Victoria L. Rovine, ‘Colonialism's Clothing: Africa, France, and the Deployment of Fashion’, Design Issues, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2009, pp. 44-61