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Dressing to impress and so much more

The idea for School of Communication professor D. Soyini Madison’s new book, African Dress: Fashion, Agency, Performance, came over a cup of tea with her co-editor Karen Tranberg Hansen.

“I was talking to Karen, a renowned Africanist and dress scholar, about examples from my previous book, Acts of Activism, where the dressed body was used as a communication tactic for local human rights activism in Ghana,” Madison said. “Karen has done compelling work on fashion and the political economy of dress in Zambia…. We decided we would organize a panel on the dressed body for the 2008 annual meeting of the American Anthropology Association.”

That panel, combined with presentations from a 2009 Northwester University Program of African Studies conference, make up the bulk of Madison and Hansen’s new book, which delves into a broad range of issues including the transformative effects of China’s counterfeited fabrics flooding textile factories in Togo, the role of the veil in many African nations, and how traditional African clothing makes profound political statements about social relations, governance, and history.

“We hope people take away from this book the idea that dress matters,” Madison said: “It is embodied practice. It is a communication system. It is what we call ‘social skin.’ The introduction describes how dress can be a source of contestation that ignites tensions across class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and generational differences as well as flash points for transnational exchange, freedom of movement, and material access. We hope readers take away that trivializing dress is also trivializing its far-reaching implications and effects.”

Madison, a professor of Performance Studies who also has appointments in the Department of African American Studies, Department of Anthropology, and the Program of African Studies, lived and worked in Ghana as a Senior Fulbright Scholar where activists staged demonstrations in opposition to violence against women through the rhetoric of dress. From red-stained wedding gowns to traditional funeral attire, clothing was worn as a symbolic and tactic of dissent. “Dress was a performative response to an urgent problem and a central communicative tool for local activism,” she said.

In the book, Madison said, scholars explore the meaning of the veil for women which has become a lightning rod for controversy. These chapters extend debate beyond “religious patriarchy and female subordination.”

The book also touches on instances where African dress has made an impact in U.S. culture: from the spectacle of Josephine Baker’s provocative costuming, to the controversy of actress Victoria Rowell adorning African fabric at the 2009 Emmy Awards, and to the African cosmopolitanism of Malick Sidibe, a renowned Malian photographer featured in the “Style” section of the New York Times magazine. It is one of Sidibe’s photographs that graces the cover of African Dress: Fashion, Agency, Performance.

Story by Cara Lockwood