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By Amanda Barker

Influences of South African Fashion

African Fashion is very much a post-modern phenomenon, as it draws on many different historical periods, cultural traditions, methods and materials for producing clothing and fashion. Any detailed and nuanced understanding of the development of African traditions upsets preconceived notions of Africa. This history shows how Africa has always been a center of cosmopolitanism, even during time periods that were denied by Western Civilization. The history of African fashion shows how varied African history has been, and it demonstrates how rich the sources African fashion can draw upon are.


This article will cover three main points. The first area to address is the dramatic influence and insight regarding the Contemporary South African Fashion Design that was acquired from the African Modern movement. The most important motivator came from African heritage. This was a starting point that made it easy to track growth and to maintain pride for their culture. Influential textiles played a major role in alerting the world that Africa was on the scene in the fashion industry, and each and every one of these influences assisted in building the Contemporary South African Fashion Design.

The second main point that will be examined is the question of whether poverty and economic status are related to the South African fashion industry. Status, wealth, currency and success will be additionally be discussed. Finally, South African designs and their relation to feminism will be discussed. Politics are often involved, and the general feminism situation in Africa will be evaluated. Africa is a unique case in that it has the highest levels of violence in rape, but it has the most women in parliament. This gives it a unique perspective that many other countries do not have.


The influences behind the movement were the driving forces that completely revamped South African Fashion Design when it shifted to the modern movement. The first major influence was the native African pride. This has been the strongest theme throughout the African fashion movement, and business is not slowing down. Contemporary South African Fashion Design has been growing immensely (Contemporary South African Fashion Design, 2011). These customers are interested in local heritage and want to see that in the pieces.

Designers from South Africa are seeking creative designs and statements inwardly and are focusing on how to be "fashionably South African with their take on affordable, local and trendy design" (Contemporary South African Fashion Design, 2011). With the designers approaching the topic from an affordable point of view, that makes this new highly unique style attainable and rare. Each style and shape is different. African fashion includes pieces of every size and color. A lot of the influence carried from the African Modern movement is loose-structured clothing (Jennings, 2015, p. 46). This influence of loose-structured clothing is important because it is a cultural way of wearing tops. Increasing numbers of people "want to celebrate and revive African cultural heritage" (Farber, 2010, p. 128). This unique standpoint is positive for businesses and consumers alike.

Another major influence on the movement was the inclusion of native textiles. Textiles that influenced it were raffia and bark, woven fabrics, wax-printed fabric, tye-dyed clothing and a variety of other materials (Jennings, 2015, p. 46). These native strategies became the best practices for how that clothing is currently produced. Mangieri noted in 2008 that Kenya has been home to an apparel and textile segment that is the "centerpiece of economic development strategies" since independence in 1963 (p. 5). These textiles are not only beautiful, but are also valued. In fact, the textile industry became the lead-manufacturing segment for Kenya in the 1980s in regards to the size and employment capabilities of the new leader (Mangieri, 2008, p. 5). This was a major production that was able to employ a lot of people. This process included more than 200,000 families as well as "30% of the manufacturing labor force" (Mangieri, 2008, p. 5). These textiles were necessary for the financial well-being of many families.

The rise and decline of the textiles in Africa also included print cloth. Domestic and consumable print cloth was the justification for an economic policy that increased revenue and jobs (Mangieri, 2008, p. 5). Print cloth proved that it could be successful in transforming the Contemporary South African Fashion Design movement. It was perhaps one of the most important influences, as print cloth was also used as a "Cultural strategy predicated on a post-independence African pride visibly expressed by wearing 'African' garments" (Mangieri, 2008, p. 5). These textiles supported people financially while allowing them to express their pride for their country.

Wax prints are another influence that came from the African Modern movement. Wax prints are vibrantly colored, bright prints for dresses, pants, jumpsuits, wide flowy skirts, goans, pencil skirts, blouses and casual tops. Certain types of clothing in South Africa have extremely detailed histories, such as the khanga and kitenge. These are garments that females wear in East Africa (Mangieri, 2008, p. 6). These garments are light and airy. A kitenge is an East African form of a wax cloth that is created into beautiful couture dresses made by local tailors (Mangieri, 2008, p. 7). These are gorgeous pieces, and the vibrant colors make them stand out even more.

These are native pieces to South Africa, and kitenge items are mainly sold in and around sub-Saharan Africa (Mangieri, 2008, p. 6). Khanga are more detailed. They are retailed as a pair of conjoined pieces of cloth that require hemming and cutting; they will eventually be made into two separate pieces, often worn simultaneously as a head covering and a skirt (Mangieri, 2008, p. 6). These head covers were initially religious symbols; Mangieri discussed in 2008 how the khanga that women in the East African coast and Zanzibar wear was originally intended to be a style specific to Muslim women (p. 6). This not only designated which women were Muslim, but also gave the wearer a sense of pride.

Each woman had a different history, and some pasts were worse than others. Many of these women were slaves before they were emancipated (Mangieri, 2008, p. 6). Nicer textiles are often seen as a sign of wealth, and unfortunately those who were in prison could only wear one type of textile. Citizens who were not in prison would have access to any market and could choose for themselves. Textiles are a sign of wealth and used as currency; they are an important way to communicate with those close to you (Jennings, 2015, p. 46). Textiles made a major difference in the South African Fashion Industry and gave meaning to those who ended up with the final products.

Influential people to the fashion movement began as early as the 1920s. A movement of young men, known as sapers, began to defy "their meager circumstances by developing refined tastes in European suits and bourgeois accessories – like their masters" (Jennings, 2015, p. 46). This movement began the concept that people of any class can dress however nice they would like to. Christian Dior incorporated eastern African warrior chokers, corsets, and hats into a haute couture collection that was created by John Galliano (Jennings, 2015, p. 50). Diar has a tremendous amount of global influence, which is an amazing benefit for the South African Fashion Industry.

Similar shows were being held with more extravagant props. Jean Paul Gaultier created a haute couture show in 2005 that displayed feathered dresses, Afro wigs, and a wedding dress that looked like an African mask (Jennings, 2015, p. 50). Any type of designer who wishes to display African fashion will likely be immensely popular and admired by the industry insiders. Bernard Willhelm recognized this and featured gold animal prints in his Winter 2005 menswear collection (Jennings, 2015, p. 50). Menswear is one of the least likely places to find animal prints of any color, but Willhelm successfully presented many influential pieces.

Burberry introduced wax prints with their 2012 Spring/Summer collection. These prints were adorned with stones, crochet and beads that were tailored and draped (Jennings, 2015, p. 50). The fact that Burberry included wax prints in their collections and presented them successfully demonstrates they have class and pay attention to culture. To round out the influencers, many high-end designers, such as Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Nike and Adidas, were inspired by the 2010 FIFA World Cup that was held in South Africa (Jennings, 2015, p. 50). These brands were all influential in shifting the Contemporary South African Fashion Design from the African Modern movement.

Economic status and feminism

Other influences to the Contemporary South African Fashion Design movement are poverty and economic status. The differences are subtle, but they are there. Status, beliefs, ambitions and life stages are demonstrated by clothing and jewelry (Jennings, 2015, p. 46). Many women devote a lot of time and energy into dressing, applying makeup and selecting jewelry, and others will not take time for even mascara. Clothing is specifically used for "currency and [a] sign of wealth" (Jennings, 2015, p. 46). Each piece of clothing is unique. Each garment has a different message for each person wearing it. "Each fabric is valuable and tells it's own story" (Jennings, 2015, p. 46). The stories will be memorable and unique. Getting to know how materials are made can show underlying social, political and religious aspects of the various African societies (Jennings, 2015, p. 46). Understanding the status, wealth and currency of the population can help to determine potential fashion clients.

The success of companies doing business in South Africa does not have to be questioned any longer. Fashion designers are highly successful, offering fashion that is a mix of local inspirations and global trends (Jennings, 2015, p. 51). The local trends bring out the authenticity of the clothing and the brand, and the inclusion of global trends will ensure great designs. Africa is experiencing success in its economic and social fabric for the fashion industry (Farber, 2010, p. 128). The people in the industry help to make this happen, and it is finally becoming a reality. The fashion industry in South Africa is starting to shape the economic and socio-cultural life (Farber, 2010, p. 128). South Africa has proven itself to be an authentic and fast-growing success.

Positive influences do a lot to turn the fashion industry in a positive direction, but other programs play a role in the clothing industry. The economy clothing firms are making a difference already. The domestic consumer clothing market is sophisticated, and understanding the way it works is essential to grasping the dynamics surrounding the South African clothing industry (Morris and Einhorn, 2008, p. 360). Imports from other countries make various positive and negative contributions to the dynamics of the industry. Local manufacturers are forced to adhere to the level of competitive production and to increase capabilities (Morris and Einhorn, 2008, p. 355). These imports have a speed advantage already.

There is a wide range of income groups in the South African clothing industry (Morris and Einhorn, 2008, p. 360). Economic status does come into play with the fashion characteristics at certain levels. There is a demanding top-level income section, mid-level employees who want a lot of fashionable inventory, and self-employed entrepreneurs in the informal economy (Morris and Einhorn, 2008, p. 360). The economy controls a large portion of the fashion industry in this regard.

Various clothing firms experienced loss when the company was experiencing difficulties. There has been significant loss of employment due to international competition (Morris and Einhorn, 2008, p. 372). This made a major impact, because these employers were all under the same umbrella company. "The South African market is dominated by a small group of large retailers with their own foreign and domestic supply chains. The largest four South African retailers account for 70 per cent of retail sector clothing sales" (Morris and Einhorn, 2008, p. 360). These retailers can determine standards for the entire industry.

The poverty of the country as a whole and the citizens individually can make a difference in the fashion movement. A lot of clothing firms have been shocked by the transition (Morris and Einhorn, 2008, p. 372). Major impacts were made to smaller businesses when larger imports came in and quickly opened their doors. These clothing stores have closed, downsized, restructured or transitioned to partially using imports and partially using locally sourced goods (Morris and Einhorn, 2008, p. 372). Once re-evaluating their business plans and their sourcing locations, their stores were in much better shape. The full-package employment firms were affected the most (Morris and Einhorn, 2008, p. 372). These larger firms were usually ready and had the funds ready for emergency situations.

Understanding the underlying influences and characteristics of the fashion industry is essential. Textiles, culture and pride play a large part in the South African fashion industry. The heritage to the culture is essential in fashion production. Poverty and economic status can add a degree of difficulty to various situations, and feminism impacts the industry as well. The cosmopolitanism in Africa is more vibrant than ever.

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