There is a lot to be said for a reassuring slosh around the Old Masters, or those bits of history you half-remember nostalgically from school. But a shot-in-the-arm exhibition that opens your eyes to something new is a rare and infinitely more thrilling bird.
Africa Fashion at the V&A is just such a show. Its 250 objects range from clothing and head coverings, to fabric, stencils, LPs, posters and photographs, and they add up to a sparkling picture of the continent’s multifarious fashion scene.
It’s a story of political change and empowerment as much as design; about how the simple act of dressing one’s body can solidify and project a person’s or a nation’s identity. That combination is heady, and makes the exhibition feel alight.
We begin with the African cultural renaissance that enveloped the continent following the independence movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, as successive countries shook off their colonial shackles. A display of LP album covers – Miriam Makebo, Fela Kuti and so on – together with pamphlets, T-shirts and copies of Drum magazine bring that epochal moment vividly to life, as does a specially commissioned soundscape of music from across the continent, and stirring footage from the first Festival of Black Arts in Dakar in 1966. Conceived to emphasise the cosmopolitanism and modernity of the newly independent African nations, it brought together 2500 artists, musicians and so on from all over Africa and the diaspora.
There are plenty of hero name-designers in the exhibition, but recognition is also given to the millions of local tailors and dressmakers eagerly innovating and adapting the styles of the moment on the fashion scene’s lower tiers. A 1969 gold embroidered, mint-green organza wrapper and head tie, for instance, by an unnamed tailor in Dakar, holds its own beside evening cloaks and kaftans from the 1970s by the Moroccan designer Naima Bennis, and a knickerbocker jumpsuit ensemble by the Ghanian Kofi Ansah, whose 1980s creations once sold for £2,000 (£6,000 today) in the boutiques of Marylebone and Knightsbridge. It looks just the thing for the dancefloor at Annabel’s.
Everywhere you turn, stories and styles multiply: a cabinet opposite shows poignantly how, in the wake of both independence and second-wave feminism, the Nigerian designer Shade Thomas-Faim adapted traditional garments such as the gele headwrap and iro wrapper by creating pre-tied versions with concealed zips for a new generation of women on the go.
A display of photographs, meanwhile, celebrates everyday people excited by the possibilities of self-representation. Some were taken in streetside studios by professional photographers offering aspirational props and backdrops (please look out for the guy pretending to climb aboard a jet, whose socks are a masterwork). Others come from family albums: cousins and grandparents in their snazzy best.
Upstairs, the display turns contemporary. It is divided into various themes, Minimalism, Afritopia and so on, though to be honest any categorisation quickly feels redundant – and in a good way. There’s a dress inspired by Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, near a showstopping Victoriana gown by Aisha Ayensu, but also a magnificently flared Lurex suit that is designed to exalt gender fluidity.
Lots of pieces riff on local histories and materials – a white dress made from barkcloth and silk by the Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi; asymmetric layering based on Xhosa and Sotho cultures by the South African design duo MmusoMaxwell; the kente gown in which Virgil Abloh, former artistic director of Louis Vuitton, enveloped the poet Amanda Gorman for the cover of American Vogue in May 2021. Kente is a stripwoven Ghanaian cloth – the practice centuries-old – but Abloh added to it the distinctive LV logo, creating a modern symbol of luxury and power.
Put all of this together and you get a whirl of stories, colour and cloth, and masses of larger-than-life characters. It could easily have been so earnest but it only feels elegant and exuberant. Most of all, it’s massively uplifting.
From Saturday July 2 until April 16; vam.ac.uk