But what makes clothes have the effect that they have?
I think it’s their context. Since way back, clothes have not existed independently, but have been weaved within a context that gives them their relevance. Most items of clothing have their origins attributed to a certain period in history. This is testament to fashion’s cyclic nature, what goes out of fashion surely comes back and it goes on and on (cue visuals of a merry-go-round whirling away).
Aside from that, most clothes convey a certain message, or the designer had a certain inspiration behind their collections and pieces. It’s correct to say that despite being overlooked, referencing is the backbone of a collection, all the way from its inception to the final model walking down the runway to close a show.
There are many reasons that clothes need context, and one reason is that they tell a lot about a certain time in the past. Fashion in the 1800s, 1900s was derived more directly and practically from the culture of the day and the general way of life of the people in a specific place.
For example, in earlier African history, our people donned bark cloths, hides and skins and raffia before transiting to mud cloth and later printed materials, and they also made jewellery using shells, rocks and bones.[mfn] With the dawn of colonialism on the continent, more Africans began to wear Western clothing items like suits, trousers and frocks.
Another example is the arrangement of the Western fashion calendar into seasons; Spring Summer and Fall Winter. When you see a fur coat or a plaid sundress, you can easily figure out what time of the year it was when the clothes were made. This in itself is context, a reference to past times and seasons.
In more recent times, aside from a practical representation of the society and culture in a place, clothes are also used to create awareness of societal issues or to take a stand on a particular injustice. One excellent illustration of this is South African designer Thebe Magugu’s brilliant Spring Summer 2022 collection, Double Think.[mfn]
Magugu crafted an entire collection around Whistleblowers, a book by Mandy Wiener that goes into South African heroes who risked everything to expose corruption in their country.[mfn] The collection features powerful ensembles highlighting how dominant and rampant corruption is. Double Think is a testament to the political power of fashion and Magugu shows that there is an achievable balance between having beautiful clothes that are ready to wear and do well commercially, but still pass a message on.
Another great example is dynamic Nairobi based streetwear brand Metamorphisized, by Daudi O. (David Onkoba). The brand’s latest collection, Kipepeo, is an ingenious call to forest conservation, stemming from the brand’s fascination with butterflies (Metamorphisized, get it?). The collection’s notes explain the role of butterfly farming in maintaining and increasing forest cover.
Metamorphisized gave it an additional layer of context by using a popular film character from a 2008 war drama as the inspiration for the collection. In the eponymous film, Johnny Mad Dog, the main character was a child vigilante soldier determined to protect forests.
Magugu and Onkoba show us that fashion can and should be a conversation starter, or should take us back into time to reflect on cultural, political, artistic and environmental issues.
In this day and age, consumers are more deliberate and discerning than they ever were when they buy clothes. More fashion designers are attaching meaning to their clothes by creating them within a rich context because more people want to buy clothes that mean something to them aside from looking trendy.
One may ask themselves, can clothes be made for beauty’s sake alone? The answer is yes. But guess what? That too is a context or a concept. Where the difference lies is in how deliberate or how intentional the referencing is. Regardless, fashion is cyclic and references different things in one way or another, directly or indirectly, references will be made. Context and content will always be a perfect match for each other.