Casually Traditional: Fashionable Differences Between Nations

When I shared with my friends that I would be attending the Africa Summit for Women and Girls in Technology in Accra, Ghana, they told me to keep an eye out for their future husbands. The rumors are true; the men in Ghana are beautiful, but that isn’t what captured my eye (for very long, at least). What held my attention were the different styles of dress.

‘What to wear?’

South Africans don cultural attire on occasion. However, we seldom see traditional wear outside of these moments. It’s almost as if we all mark our calendars for Heritage Day and pull out our traditional clothes from the depths of our closets. Not in Ghana, not in this corner of Africa. Even though Ankara, formerly known as ‘Dutch Wax’ fabric, is a European import, Africans have become the face and leader of its styling. It is fair to say Ankara is part of African fashion and culture.


Sbahle Mpisane

In Ghana, print fabrics are worn as casually as you wear a statement tee. This isn’t to say that Western styles aren’t present, but print styles aren’t performative here. I asked one woman how she has come to determine her style, and admittedly I was surprised. Rita Kusi, a digital entrepreneur attending the summit, explained how corporate Ghana does not always favor African styles. However, in social scenes African styles are standard. “Sometimes you might go somewhere, and then you feel awkward because everyone’s in African wear. You’re thinking ‘maybe I should have worn African wear.”

Mainstreaming traditional wear

Where does this leave South Africa? Our traditional wear is often styled as a gimmick. In metropolitan cities, it’s a rarity to see traditionally inspired modern outfits, in comparison to Western motifs in fashion. At the same time, one artist, in particular, who has made traditionally inspired attire normal is Sho Madjozi. From her Thandiswa Mazwai inspired braids, to her pride in her Tsonga culture, I would likely be surprised to see the vibrant rapper in a totally Western outfit. More so, her commentary around traditional fashion never comes across as a stunt. Instead, she has demystified the Tsonga language and culture in mainstream entertainment.

Sho Madjozi

At the same time, there are fashion labels weaving South African traditional wear into their designs. Thabo Makheta-Kwinana and Laduma Ngxokolo are fine examples of making African fashion mainstream. Their labels bring Basotho blankets and Xhosa patterns to the mainstream, while breathing 21st century design into their presentation. However, these are luxury brands…the average South African consumer cannot afford most of each collection. From a price point perspective, commercial fast fashion is what South Africans can access with immediate ease, be it via cash or credit.

Ghanaians on visual performances of cultural pride

Years in South Africa have taught me to slick my afro back at interviews, wear solid colors to meetings, and remember my English in moments of frustration (when I’d prefer to speak in vernac). In Accra, women showed up in numbers for the #TechWomenAfrica summit, all of whom techies in their own way. On top of the African prints, there was pride. Outfits were loud, Afros came in different textures and styles, and women were leading.


Tech Women Africa

On the last day of the summit, I wore a bright orange and yellow, off-the-shoulder ankara top. I also happened to wear my afro out that day too! Throughout the day, I received compliments on my OOTD…and something tells me it had everything to do with having embraced African styles in comparison to my more Western outfits the days prior. “You look like a Ghanaian woman now,” one man told me…if prideful African wear is synonymous with Ghana, I couldn’t have been more proud to embrace being Ghanaian, if only for a moment.

Featured image of  Quophi Akotua (Ghana)