In my dissertation, I examined the relationship between West Africa and France, and argued that Colonialism led to the cultural appropriation of West African fashion by French designers. In one of my chapters, I researched the history of the 1931 Coloniale Exposition in Paris. I wanted to further explore the ways in which African decorative arts and culture were both enjoyed and celebrated within France, but were simultaneously appropriated through systematic colonization through design practices, and in particular, within fashionable dress and textiles.
From 1900 to the 1930s, coloniale expositions were often sponsored by European governments as a way to celebrate national identity. These expositions were held all over the world, including in Europe and North America. In France, entire districts were built to house these expositions, due to their enormous scale. Figure 1 illustrates the size of these expositions. The aim of the 1931 exposition in Paris was theoretically intended to cement France as a global fashion and colonial capital (Chandler, 1990).
The decision to hold the exposition in Paris was due to the French capital being seen as a cultural centre of the world, whilst Africa was understood as existing elsewhere, outside of this cultural centre. Africa became the Other. Any form of fashion that emerged from Africa was understood to be ‘perpetually out of date’, as art historian Victoria Rovine has suggested (2009, p. 50). It was unfathomable that Africa could possibly be located at the cutting edge of fashionable modernity. Rovine, in her powerful article Colonialism’s Clothing, argues that due to Africa being geographically distant from Paris, it was viewed as entirely irrelevant to the contemporaneous fashionable, European trends (2009, p. 51). As Africa was geographically distant from Paris, it was therefore acceptable to ignore it in terms of trends, despite the fact that African fashions may have been just as fashionable.
During the 1931 Coloniale Exposition, African towns and villages were reconstructed, known as ‘Africanisms’. (See figure 2). These Africanisms allowed fashion designers to gain apparently unfiltered access to the imagery, objects, and people from the French colonies within these highly constructed, imagined versions of African villages. These Africanisms were so popular that many companies tried to advertise their products through them, as can be seen in figure 3 (Rovine, 2009, p.52).
It is important to note that the narrative about African fashion during this time was that it was, as mentioned, out of date, and not part of a cultural centre. However, when Africa was imported into Paris through colonialism, and presented to Parisians within the exposition, the continent was transformed. Africa was then seen as an exciting source of inspiration. It became completely acceptable for French designers to use ‘Africanisms’ as a key part of their work (Rovine, 2009, p. 52).
African fashions may have been considered both out of date, and out of time, but these were used as inspiration for French fashion with increasing frequency during the 1930s. Authentic African fashion was displayed in completely different areas of the 1931 exposition to French fashion (Rovine, 2009, p. 52). Therefore, African clothing was considered exotic and appealing, but not equal to French fashion. This denigrated the culture of West Africa in particular, to functioning only as an inspiration to French fashion. It implied that French designers had taken African textiles and elevated them. This can be seen in the examples of an African textile being copied for Western dress in figures 4 and 5.
“when Africa was imported into Paris through colonialism, and presented to Parisians within the exposition, the continent was transformed”
Guidebooks for the exposition seemed fascinated with the clothes worn by Africans, and described countries based on items of clothing: ‘the blue guinea (cloth) of the Moors, the white burnous (cloaks) of the Senegalese, the raphia clothing of the natives of Dahomey and Cote d’Ivoire’ (Rovine, 2009, p.52). This demonstrates how extensive the colonisation of Africa was, in that a whole country was reduced to a single item of clothing. Indeed, this was one of the key points of the exposition; to make France appear superior to their colonies, and how better to do so, then by showing off all the culture they had acquired, which could be easily read off a list. This was also a method of making France appear powerful and successful to the wider world. However, this kind of rhetoric was also intended to sell France back to its own colonies. France emphasised their power and benevolence to the people who were subjugated by them.
The descriptions in the popular press of the 1931 exposition, and its inclusion of African material culture, were particularly patronizing. One source explained it was ‘an infusion of exoticism [that] is constantly necessary for our old West; our civilisation regularly tries to rejuvenate itself by plunging into a bath of primitive life’ (cited in Rovine, 2009, p. 53). This description seems to be trying to justify colonisation as ‘necessary’ for French culture to take inspiration from countries that have been invaded. Furthermore, it seems as if the entire purpose of a country that had been colonised was for the sole benefit of the colonisers; to ‘infuse’ that culture and revive it, like a teabag. Moreso, the idea of the unknown was exciting; fashion became an easy way to explore a new culture without having to travel to France’s colonies. Fashion allowed the Parisian a chance to feel the advantages of black culture, without the disadvantages of being black.
The derogatory nature of this attitude is neatly summed up by Rovine: ‘instead of going all the way to Africa for inspiration, French designers and other trendsetters simply made their way to nearby fairgrounds’ (Rovine, 2009, p. 53). Because colonialism was so easily accessible in France, it is absolutely no surprise that so much damaging cultural appropriation took place, particularly within fashion and textiles. For the exposition, the organisers asked the indigenous artisans to make textiles, using their ideas and personal taste with the intention of promoting untouched supposed authenticity, and a kind of imagined purity of African style. This would result in French fashion and textile designers becoming inspired by an edited version of Africa, which in turn would enforce French cultural superiority which was endorsed by the government.
“the idea of the unknown was exciting; fashion became an easy way to explore a new culture without having to travel to France’s colonies. Fashion allowed the Parisian a chance to feel the advantages of black culture, without the disadvantages of being black.”
In summary, the colonisation of West Africa was a European exercise of power which created a European cultural sense of arrogance (Archer Straw, 2000, p. 13). This meant that any culture that was not Euro-centric was seen as primitive, and African culture had a perceived inferiority. Africa was the ‘unknown’, so therefore ‘could be applied to any culture or race’. Therefore, when cultural appropriation occurred, it would not reference the country of origin. Instead, the source material was often ‘black culture’ or ‘Africa’ (Archer Straw, 2000, p. 14). These acted as blanket terms, collectively diminishing African culture; not allowing sophistication and variations.
- Archer-Straw, P. (2000) Negrophilia: Avant Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s. London: Thames & Hudson.
- Chandler, A. (1990) Empire of the Republic. Available at: http:// www.arthurchandler.com/paris-1931-exposition (Accessed: 15 December 2019).
- Hannel, S. (2006) “Africana” Textiles: Imitation, Adaptation, and Transformation during the Jazz Age, Textile The Journal of Cloth and Culture, 4(1), pp. 68-103.
- Rovine, V. L. (2009) ‘Colonialism’s Clothing: Africa, France, and the deployment of Fashion’ Design Issues: Design in a Global Context, 25(3), pp. 44-61.