A Decolonial Research into the History of Black Women’s Fashion Design Practices in France.
“The history of France is sewn with black yarns”
Ndoye & Fauconnier (2018)
Rabi Diop, married to the Deputy for Sénégal Galandou Diouf, arrives in Paris in 1939. For her first time in France, she discovers la vie Parisienne of her time. Her first journey to Paris will last only for a short time. On June 20th, 1940, Diouf will board on the cruise ship Massilia to return to his district in the company of Jean Zay and Mendes-France who refused to vote for Petain's accession to power and are all convinced that it is possible to continue war against the German Reich from the French colonies in Africa where the French Government could be based.
Racist and more precisely negrophobic and antisemitic rhetoric were omnipresent at this time an early sign of the anti-jewish laws put in place by the Marechal Petain later on.
In January 1939, the Dioufs were welcomed in Paris, with the hope that the Deputy for Senegal could mobilise troops in French West Africa, if requested.
Diouf would promess the support of millions of African soldiers ready to fight to protect the motherland. Both himself and Blaise Diagne had previously recruited 400.000 soldiers during the First World War. Diouf professed that the allegiance of the African soldiers was still existent towards France.
The brightness of their teeth, the darkness of their skin and the flamboyance of their clothes would be constantly mentioned in descriptions in the papers. Madame Diouf, dressed with colorful fabrics is described as a "chirping bird". Their Parisian apartment is full of birds such as described in "The propaganda of using birds" article in the issue of Le Monde of February 1939 :
"Monsieur and Madame Galandou Diouf had a charming idea. They brought back many singing birds which have the particularity to remember songs taught by their owners, more talented than our local blackbirds. And these animals for which we are ignorant of the name, will listen until satisfaction, vinyls of songs from our own local folklore. (…) Then, they will go back to their homeland in complete freedom. In the Senegalese forest and the jungle, they will teach their brothers these popular songs and it will become easy propaganda."
Going to horse races, theatre and opera, official dinners, all these mundane events were their tools to gather the spotlight. The couple is aware of this exotic perception of their body and dress while gravitating amongst the elite and using it in their strategy of communication as well as pleasing the white gaze. A real danger is awaiting French colonies: the racist ideology spread throughout Europe by the German Reich against which Galandou Diouf would write an article in the anti-racist newspaper Le Droit de Vivre entitled 'A Crime ! to give our colonies to the Barbarians' in March 1939.
« No ! » protests Mme Galandou Diouf. I won’t dress in European style !...
by Jean Marni, Les Annales Coloniales
Paris, January 31st, 1939.
"We could not leave the Deputy for Sénégal without asking Mme Galandou Diouf about her impressions of Paris, for it is her first trip to Europe. While we were interviewing the Deputy, his wife was sewing a piece of shimmery yellow silk fabric with her sewing machine.
She accepts to speak, interrupt her sewing.
… I had the first revelation on the way to Paris, the proud city of Casablanca!
- I explained to my wife, said Galandou Diouf, where there are now all these houses, stores, hotels, thirty years ago there were miserable slums like the huts we have in the jungle. And then an important « Toubab » (translation : white man) suddenly arrived! She and I went to place some flowers under the freshly inaugurated statue. (statue of the Maréchal Lyautey inaugurated on November 5th 1938 ). »
After Casablanca was Marseille and then Paris !...
… Paris halas ! In the cold and under the rain !...
- Is this always the case ?...
- No, in a few months the sun will be back and leaves on the trees and the joyful and light colours of dresses on the streets…
However, the magic atmosphere of evening lights and the splendor of the boutiques, theatres, orchestras and the movement, the noise and the relentless activity in the capital are already evident.
- Why are there French people in our poor Africa while they have so many marvelous things here? The Priests, I mean, I can understand, it is understandable, as they took an oath to bring God to the black men… but the others?
- Do you have the intention, Madame, to dress in European style while you are in France?
She replies in the negative :
- My wife will keep her hairstyle and her costume. And I fully approve! Wouldn’t you agree each race owns its own particular genius? Each group of humans owns its own suitability. An African woman has nothing to gain by copying European fashion. Nevertheless, she can prove that women from her country do have style, coquetry, and people like her are not anymore primitive savages some misinformed people still imagine !...
We are humbled by such a wise feeling, which we will surely share with everyone meeting Mme Galandou Diouf, wearing her precious fabrics which she is expertly sewing in front of us.
Let us wish her now a wonderful journey in Paris where she brings some of the pride and classic beauty from our Tropical provinces."
In February 2021, the Metropolitan Museum (Met) in New York City staged the fashion exhibition About Time: Fashion and Duration, "tracing a century and a half of fashion." All designers featured in the exhibition to represent the history of fashion were Western or Japanese. It highlights how this museum has yet to include a decolonial perspective on the selection of its collections and curatorial practices. Is fashion a Western concept only and the “rest” is considered non-fashion? Where is the work of non-Western designers, creatives from the diaspora? Why museums do not consider garments and accessories by non-white designers and creatives from the diaspora with the same regard, preciously wrapped in silk paper and delicately stored in white boxes ?
Collections in Western fashion museums have and continue to erase the work done by creatives from diaspora and colonised territories. First by not considering these designs as precious and second, by not acknowledging their contribution to fashion history. Specifically, in France which is considered the center of Western fashion history, exhibitions at Musée Galliera and Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) are continuously paying tribute to Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga or Yves Saint Laurent, reinforcing the idea of Eurocentrism and Parisianisme. This is the concept that everything gravitates around Paris - excluding any other fashion genealogies: either from other (non-Parisian) regions within mainland France, from French Overseas Territories, or from former French colonies. Beyond the idea of preserving high fashion - or fashion that belongs in museums - as the heritage of a certain social class, there was a deliberate colonial enterprise to keep French fashion a white invention.
One example testifying of the authoritarianism and racism of Parisian fashion critics, and especially the use of racist language, is the fashion-themed book Le vrai et le faux chic (The True and False Chic) published in 1914 by writer, illustrator and caricaturist Sem. Strongly critiquing Paul Poiret's fashion prior to WWI, he wrote: "These are the embarrassments of Couture, the honky-tonk of fashion. These scandalous parades show all kinds of models, one step away from showing a "négresse".
Another example is an episode of French show Journal Les Actualités Françaises broadcasted on the 10th of July 1957 in Pathé movie theatres, which features fashion in Dakar from a Parisian point of view: "all these large kaftan dresses, informal draped capes aren't really designed to change, however, you can see innovation and trends in their textiles. Couture is presented. (...) although style is lacking, can't we still admit they look elegant in their gestures?". The amused and condescending narrator is dismissing African fashion in comparison to the modernity of Christian Dior.
My primary purpose in this research is not to list every racist, condescending and humiliating comments made in France towards non-white French bodies excluding them from fashion historiographies - although this would deserve full attention as they are unfortunately still present today - my aim is to analyse how this French fashion system, and in consequence the global one, founded its dominant aesthetic and narrative on exclusion and racism. Today we notice the absence of non-white female designers and furthermore black female designers in what is called high fashion in Paris. The corrupted foundation of this system has certainly contaminated French fashion as we inherited it today.
French colonies were all subordinate to Paris, as the administrative, ideological and aesthetic center, as explained by French sociologists Michel Pinçon et Monique Pinçon-Charlot in Sociologie de Paris (2014). France started its colonial conquest of Senegal in 1659 and the country was an official French region from 1895 until independence in 1958, with the same status and legitimacy as Alsace, Auvergne, Bretagne, Martinique, Guyane, etc. All that time, a major part of French fashion history has been denied.
My research focuses on the erasure of black female creatives within French fashion history, between 1939 and 1966. From the arrival in Paris of Rabi Diop, Galandou Diouf's wife who was the French MP of the French West African territories (A.O.F), until the Festival mondial des arts nègres in Dakar in 1966 initiated by Léopold Sédar Senghor. This time frame contains diverse socio-cultural and political movements manifesting in different fashion systems. From the appearance of the New Look in Paris to the election of Miss Independence Adja Fatou Bâ in Dakar on the 4th of April 1960, these events diverged from dominant Parisianists beauty standards.
Who were these erased black women that influenced French fashion? Were they “designers”? Did they operate individually or collectivelly? Were they creating clothes on their own or collaborating with local seamstresses, tailors and weavers?
Due to discrimination based on racialised unequal power relations, the individual creative influences of these women have not only been diminished, but their designs have also been appropriated by contemporary fashion history without acknowledging their authorship. With my research I aim to undo this erasure and pay tribute to these denied creative voices, activating a process of healing and remembering by re-editing erased content to safeguard it for future generations.
Education in European fashion schools is biased by a curriculum and exhibitions in museums that do not valorise non-European fashion. As the result of the Western project of civilisation. Modernity has marginalized other fashion narratives, as explained by Rolando Vázquez in Vistas of Modernity, Decolonial Aesthesis and the End of the Contemporary (2020). To correct this bias, I use critical fabulation as defined by African American writer Saidiya Hartman, to reveal silenced voices and reveal the intimate experiences of women and correct this bias of eurocentricity. Through combining archival and fictional techniques, this research aims at decolonising contemporary fashion and uncover new sources, references for future designers.
I aim to use fabulation as a research method using my practice that will value intersectional perspectives on fashion practices that have been “modernised”, absorbed into dominant narratives to create a homogenous French fashion history. The choice of textiles, trims, buttons, linings, the re-edition or inclusion of labels, the making of embroideries or prints will all be imagined based on photographs, some of the garments have been lost. If techniques used are clearly visible I will make sure to remake garments based on techniques of textile making and sewing respecting this heritage.
"Fabrics have been playing a role in the decolonization of knowledge. Fabrics tell stories, family stories, stories of commerce, of work, of creativity, of techniques. They have been the object of wars, spies have been sent to steal the secret of their fabrication, to steal the dyes used to give them a certain hue. Fabrics have always been traveling."
- Françoise Vergès
Although, when it comes to historical precision, this research does not want to be pressured by a necessity of a eurocentric scientific accuracy that wants to erase the dimension of experience, more precisely of a black experience enriched by oral testimonies, histories told by the griot or gewel in Wolof who show the diversity of historians. Based on testimonies and archives, this research will find missing names and pay tribute to them.
In a context related to Africans in the United States, Laura Helton draws attention to the absence of archives in her article ‘The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom and the Archive’. Starting with a quote from the lexicographer Noah Webster: « of the wooly-haired Africans… there is no history and can be none ». Orlando Patterson’s concept of social death is still very relevant today: a deliberate erasure of African people in Europe and the Americas through institutionalised segregation and the exclusion from archives and dominant eurocentric historiography. Black Yarns is a project to imagine black futures in fashion beyond references that are imposed on us.
Bolton, Andrew. About Time: Fashion and Duration. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020. <https://metabouttime.cargo.site/>
Helton, Laura. The Question of Recovery, Duke University, 2015
Marni, Jean. Les Annales Coloniales, Paris: January 31st 1939.
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, Harvard University Press, 1990.
Pinçon, Michel & Pinçon-Charlot, Monique. Sociologie de Paris, Chapter II, L'attraction de Paris. Paris: La Découverte, 2014. pp. 27-38
Hartman, Saidiya V. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Feb. 2019.
Sem, Le vrai et le faux chic (Ed 1914), Paris: Hachette Livre & BNF, 2016.
The Propaganda with birds, Le Monde Illustré, February 1939.
Journal Les Actualités Françaises - La Mode 15° Latitude Nord, La Mode à Dakar, Paris: Archives INA, 10th of July 1957. <https://www.ina.fr/video/AFE85007468/la-mode-a-dakar-video.html>
Vázquez, Rolando. Vistas of Modernity, decolonial aesthesis and the end of the contemporary. Amsterdam: Mondriaan Fund.Vol 14, 2020.
Vergès, Françoise. The Invention of an African Fabric, SMBA Newsletter n°130, 2012.
Ver-Ndoye, Naïl. Fauconnier, Grégoire. Noir; entre Peinture et Histoire, Paris: Omniscience, 2018.
Photograph of Rabi Diop and Galandou Diouf in Casablanca in the French daily newspaper Le Petit Dauphinois published 14th of January 1939.