April 20, 2010

East meets West, and Back Again.

I was utterly blown away by Thailand's thriving fashion industry. Dress in Bangkok was like a feast for the eyes, representing a dizzying array of the latest, hippest styles, materials, cuts, patterns, and colors. Lonely Planet describes Bangkok's fashion scene, "modern, not traditional, costumes rule the streetside runways that would make even Milan feel under dressed." Bangkok's many mega-malls not only boast European and Western fashion labels, but equally Thai designers and local labels garner a much-deserved place within mega-shopping complexes and street side vendors.

By comparison, I find the dress in Tanzania to be rather under-inspiring. Sure there are bright colors and unique patterns, but largely the style, materials, and cuts of clothing remain squarely uniform. Women in Tanzania rigidly adhere to a conservative ethos in their dress, reflecting a strong Muslim influence in the culture. Legs are taboo, as are shoulders. Wearing a skirt that falls to my knee is actively referred to as a "mini-skirt" and a "scandal" by most of my fellow co-workers. This conservatism has thwarted by usual eagerness and motivation to put together "outfits", now I simply get dressed in the morning. All things considered, as a "mzungu" (white foreigner) woman, I am given some leverage when it comes to dress, much to the consternation of my female work colleagues who comprise a young, up-and-coming, urban professional class in Dar eager to purge the conservative societal mores of generations past and are increasingly frustrated by the double standards afforded to western women.

The staple garment in the Tanzanian "wardrobe" is a piece of rectangular printed cloth referred to as a kanga. Each kanga has a unique printed border area and center design, as well as a distinct "jina" or proverbial saying. In theory, a kanga can be used in a variety of ways, however by the average Tanzanian woman the kanga is worn mostly as a wrap skirt or headscarf. In fact there is even a book called 101 Uses for a Kanga, which perhaps not so surprisingly is targeted to more "western" audiences. Beyond the kanga, there is the kitenge, a thicker, sturdier piece of cloth of a uniform pattern large enough to fashion both a skirt and matching blouse for even the most curvy of Tanzanian women. Incidentally, the kanga is attire deemed inappropriate for the office (considered to be household wear similar to a good-old-fashioned pair of pajama pants in the US), therefore clothes derived from the kitenge fill this void.

Although admittedly, perhaps these comparisons are a bit unfair. Thailand is afterall a "developed" country, Tanzania is not, and far from it. Over the years, Thailand has aggressively pursued a platform of economic growth and the average Thai has achieved leaps and bounds in their standard of living, while Tanzania seems to have all but stagnated. Thailand boldly claims a strong middle class, while Tanzania only offers extremes in wealth -- the haves and the have-nots.

There is in fact a burgeoning fashion industry in Tanzania, albeit in its infancy stages compared to the likes of Bangkok. A local fashion designer, Mustafa Hassanali, organizer of this year's second annual Swahili Fashion Week with ambitions to take East African fashion to the international market, remarks, “Just as India has saris and Japan has the kimono, we [Tanzania] have the kanga.”

Shortly following my arrival into Tanzania, I had the pleasure of seeing Mustafa's fashions firsthand on the runway during Naomi Campbell's Fashion for Relief Charity Fashion Show and Gala Dinner. At $200 a pop, the event served as a huge fundraiser and charity event for White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, making the event guilt-free.
The charitable activities Naomi Campbell has involved herself in as a global ambassador for the White Ribbon Alliance are laudable, and she has done a commenable job of raising the profile and global level of awareness to a traditionally neglected development issue - maternal mortality. However, an event of this magnitude with the price tag to match is slightly out of sync with the day-to-day realities of most Tanzanians. High end fashions are beyond out of reach for the average Tanzanian, and this irony was lost on no one. The Daily Nation aptly described the similar feel of Swahili Fashion Week, "Tanzania’s glitterati exchanged air kisses under the moon by an outdoor catwalk [whilst] models strutted down the runway under bright lights wearing an array of vivid colours and traditional cloth sewn into figure-hugging mini-dresses".

The fashion industry in Tanzania offers a dream of what the country one day may hope to become - a seat of cosmopolitan inspiration, whereas Thailand has landed itself squarely on the map as a serious regional hub for fashion with well directed ambitions to expand the grips of their fashion industry beyond SouthEast Asia. By 2012, Bangkok aims to enjoy a worldwide fashion reputation thanks to the Government's promotional efforts through the Office of Bangkok Fashion City. Perhaps Tanzania could learn a thing or two from this example and capitalize on the creative energy of its own visionaries.


Photo credits:

Bangkok Fashion Images:
1: fashion.ae8.net
2: http://www.flickr.com/photos/boboniaa/378572755/in/set-72157600513816433/  
3: styleshine.ro


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