As I packed up my 3-year-old white satin tutu-styled dress, (à la Carrie Bradshaw) in a large packing box to donate, I had an image of a young girl in my head. She’d be strutting around town, in Ghana somewhere, in the same dress. She’d be as fierce as Naomi on a Paris runway, as she walked down the paved village road.
Since my mom founded Asamang Relief Donation, Inc., a nonprofit organization that sends clothes and medical supplies to my family’s native Ghana, donating clothes has become a routine for me.
A lot of Americans donate, to churches, the workplace, Goodwill. The outlets for giving seem endless. But there has been some controversy about where those old clothes end up.
The companies that trade in used clothing aren’t always do-gooders like my mother, but cold, hard capitalists, who convert your used clothes into money, undercutting the African textile industry in the process.
So what some may see as an act of kindness may hinder the economic development and cultural traditions of the countries receiving the clothes.
I see this problem, but I have a different point of view. The slow demise of businesses that specialize in traditional African gowns can’t all be blamed on Western “donations.” A large part of the issue is the cost and time it takes to design traditional outfits. Ghanaians wear second-hand, thrift store clothing more than locally made material because traditional clothing can be very expensive and out of reach for the average working person.
The whole process of getting a traditional outfit has always been tedious. I’d have to wait weeks before something I was fitted for was created. Traditional outfits have to be fitted, designed and then the fabric is special ordered to sew. Getting an outfit not only costs for labor, but also wax cloth is very expensive.
In Amerca, I could go to a store, find something that fits, and keep it moving. I see why the threat of Western clothing is so dangerous to local textiles. Not only is it less tedious to buy, but it made a different statement. It said: “I belong in Western, modern society.”
Some of the continent’s designers have embraced the challenges of the used-clothing industry. Kwesi Nti is an emerging Ghanaian designer, who has perfected the art of fusing traditional with modern fashion trends.
“The young generations wear jeans and T-shirts. You know, wanting to look American. I’m an Ashanti man. I like our symbols and our culture. I couldn’t let that be missing in what I do,” he said.
Aba Kwawu, who teaches fashion design at Howard University, agrees. “Ghana has grown a lot in the last 10 years. It was kind of just accepted that everyone wore these hand-me downs, from these glorified thrift shops and vendors.”
“What has happened now is that the traditional clothing and the traditional cloth are being revamped. I can buy clothing that looks like it was made from a European designer that is made of wax cloth from a Ghanaian shop. It’s about that fusion,” she added.
OK, fusion of the two, I liked that idea.
With the future of the Ghanaian garment industry and cultural traditions weighing heavy on my mind, I took a cold, hard, second look at my beautiful tutu dress.
Con: This tutu dress could brainwash my people into idolizing Western fashion ideals over their own traditional, indigenous culture.
Pros: A.) Someone else looks good. B.) I feel like a good person for donating. C.) I get to shop more, to replace all the clothing I’ve donated. (It’s only fair!)
So I packed Miss Thing up and hoped for the best. You never know what the good you do today can do for others tomorrow. My intentions were genuine, so hopefully, the outcome reflects that.
And honestly, there’s a girl out there who deserves the glamorous experience of wearing a little tutu dress.
Danielle Kwateng is freelance journalist and a senior at Howard University.