African women sporting miniskirts in Drum magazine, 1969
Courtesy of Tanisha Ford

In the 1960s, young women of all races around the world made the miniskirt a racy, fashion statement. The garment grew in popularity in the 1970s. The mainstream fashion industry claimed the miniskirt as a British original popularized by Mary Quant, owner of the chic London boutique Bazaar. Yet, when I was doing research on 1970s “Afro look” fashions, I stumbled across a series of articles in Drum—South Africa’s leading black lifestyle magazine at the time—claiming the miniskirt as an African original.

I discovered that the miniskirt controversy was part of a larger debate over questions of authenticity between African designers, models and beauty writers and their European and American counterparts. African fashion elites were fighting to shift power from a Western-controlled fashion industry and position the continent as an integral part of the fashion world. Similar discussions about race, geopolitics and fashion continue today as African fashion designers fight to gain visibility in the global fashion market.

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The term “Afro look” was coined by fashion-industry insiders on both sides of the Atlantic to describe clothing that featured African and African-inspired prints, textiles and embroidery techniques. Usually these prints were applied to popular silhouettes such as the miniskirt, bell-bottoms, hot pants and maxi dresses. The growing popularity of “Afro look” designs stirred a flurry of debate within the fashion world about the roots of these popular designs. Origins mattered. Laying claim to a fashion innovation allowed a nation or region of the world to position itself as the model of modernity and cultural sophistication. Many newly independent African nations were eager to reposition themselves on the world stage, and fashion became one way to do so.

Drum’s story of the miniskirt drew upon African-fashion oral history. Swazi model Felicia Mabuza told a Drum fashion reporter in 1971 that African women “have been wearing the self-same garb for centuries now.” She compared a picture of herself in the traditional Swazi garment with one of another model dressed in a modern-day mini as an example of the ways that miniskirt silhouettes had long been a part of African dress. Haya Rinoth, a South African-based fashion designer, argued in Drum in 1972 that miniskirts were an East African innovation and that “fashion-made” women in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, had long been the inspiration behind the local, and even regional, fashion trends.

Fashion trends often emerge in multiple places simultaneously, making it difficult to pinpoint an exact derivation. However, Mabuza’s and Rinoth’s oral histories of the miniskirt are still important. Even if their narratives are rooted in local lore, what they make clear is that many within the continent’s fashion industry were invested in telling an African-centered fashion history. They were using fashion to make claims of modernity in an attempt to depict the realities of African life and culture, which looked far different than the images of bare-breasted women and men in loincloths that filled the pages of National Geographic. “Afro look” fashions became a symbol for African opulence, style and glamour.

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Why should we take African designers’ and models’ claims to the miniskirt any less seriously than we have taken the British history of the garment? The British fashion industry was invested in a similar type of mythmaking around the garment in order to uphold its society as the paragon of style and taste. Even Mary Quant has challenged the history of the miniskirt that positions her as its sole innovator. She has explained that the miniskirt was already becoming a street-fashion trend among young women; she just gave the garment a name (after the popular Mini car) and began producing her own version. Yet, the powerful lore created by the mainstream fashion industry around Quant and the miniskirt has cemented her place in fashion history. Meanwhile, there is no mention of the possibility that similar looks were emerging on the other side of the Atlantic in Africa.

The miniskirt debate, I discovered, was part of a larger fashion-world war in the early 1970s. Drum headlines such as “African Fashion Is Getting Its Own Back” and “150 Years Old … [the Miniskirt] Is the Latest Look” were meant to challenge their Western rivals by boldly inserting African voices into the global fashion conversation. A Drum fashion editor wrote in 1972: “There was a time when African fashion was considered a bit of a joke in Europe, but now African fashion designers are getting their own back and producing clothes every bit as good as the world’s top designers.”

The magazine lauded Swaziland’s Zora Kumalo, Nigeria’s Shade Thomas Fahm and others as the face of the 1970s African fashion movement. Their designs were locally and regionally popular, but they struggled to find a large, sustained international audience; in large part because the global fashion industrial complex ignored their contributions and instead exalted designers such as Yves Saint Laurent for their “original” African designs.

Similar power dynamics continue to unfold today; however, social media gives African designers, fashion writers and merchants a greater advantage than they had in the 1970s. African fashion lines, including Nigeria’s Maki Oh, Ghana’s Osei-Duro and South Africa’s Stoned Cherrie have launched successful social media campaigns, drawing an international audience and a celebrity following that includes first lady Michelle Obama, Beyoncé and Rihanna.

Online stores such as Zuvaa have made African fashion more accessible for women in the African Diaspora. There are also several online African fashion magazines such as Abina, Agoo and Oh Yes! that offer an alternative to mainstream fashion publications. All of these forces combined are helping African designers capture a larger segment of the global fashion market. African fashions made by African designers can no longer be marginalized. This new-millennium African-fashion movement will center African voices in the fashion history of the 21st century.

Tanisha C. Ford is the author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul. She is an assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Follow her on Twitter.