Power Dressing: Men’s fashion and prestige in Africa

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If the exhibit at New Jersey’s Newark Museum is any indication, you can tell how much power a man in Africa wields by the style of his dress. On display in the current exhibit, Power Dressing: Men’s Fashion and Prestige in Africa, are elaborate robes of unique, superior-quality fabrics that seem to be made for giants, but whose generous sizes and flamboyance speak more to the wearers’ class and prestige than to their physical girth. The headdresses, sandals, ceremonial dress and accessories are equally flamboyant.

Through Jan. 22, visitors to the museum can view 50 spectacular examples of African men’s wear representing more than a century of fashion from Morocco to South Africa. Encompassing four intersecting themes—“Style and Status,” “Fit for a King,” “Divine Dress” and “Innovation and Identity,” the clothing and accompanying accouterments explore the artistry of men’s dress as it relates to and embodies social, political and spiritual power on a continuously evolving continent.

Developed and organized by Christa Clarke, the museum’s curator of artifacts from Africa, the Americas and the Pacific, the exhibit, reportedly the first exhibition of its kind in the United States, draws from the museum’s own collection and those of private and public collectors. “Men in African generally occupy more visible spaces of power than do women, and dress is central to their self presentation in these public contexts,” Clarke says, and their dress often functions as a “visual language, an aesthetic code expressing ideas about status.”

Visitors are greeted by a 1959 photograph of Oba Ademuwagun Adesida II, the Déjì of Akure, sitting on a throne in the courtyard of Akure palace, located among the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The photograph was taken one month before Nigeria’s first federal election, which would lead Nigeria’s people into independence after almost seven decades of British rule. At the time, Oba Adesida II was the 34-year-old leader of more than 100,000 people. His choice of dress is a significant representation of the power and authority of traditional systems of leadership in a rapidly changing Nigeria.

The photograph sets the tone for the regal style and substance that follows, with ensembles that are intricately woven of the finest materials and adorned with such materials as copper and gold, animal skins and feathers. Symbolism is prominent throughout the exhibit. Gold ornaments and accessories, such as sandals and crowns, expressed wealth and were a representation of the person’s spiritual essence. Other clothing is adorned with motifs of animals, whose qualities are symbolic of a king’s reign. Religious symbolism is also present in much of the clothing. A 19th century tunic from Togo is designed with Arabic inscriptions found in the Koran. A war shirt and belt from 20th century Ghana includes leather pouches adorned with leather and metal that hide prayer text.

After Newark, the exhibition will travel to the Parrish Art Museum in Southhampton, N.Y., and to two additional venues. Newark Museum is publishing a 40-page catalogue to accompany the exhibit, with full-color images and an essay written by Clarke. The Museum is located at 49 Washington Street in the downtown district of Newark. It is open Wednesdays through Fridays, from 12 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Suggested donations are adults $7; children, seniors and students, $3. Members are admitted free. Attended parking is available for a nominal fee in an adjacent lot.