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)
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 featuring in the exhibition were Western or Japanese. It highlights how this museum has yet to decolonise 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 or creatives from the diaspora? Why do museums not consider garments and accessories by non-white designers and 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 by creatives from diaspora and colonised territories. First by not considering these designs as "precious" and second, by not acknowledging their contribution to contemporary fashion history. Specifically, in France which is considered the centre of the Western contemporary 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 - but my aim is to analyse how this French contemporary fashion system, and in consequence the global one, founded its dominant aesthetic 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 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 focusses on the erasure of black female creatives within French fashion history, between 1939 and 1966. From the arrival in Paris of Rabi Diop, the wife of Galandou Diouf 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 biais of eurocentricity. Through combining archival and fictional techniques, this research aims at decolonising contemporary fashion and uncover new sources, references for future designers.
Ver-Ndoye, Naïl. Fauconnier, Grégoire. Noir; entre Peinture et Histoire, Paris: Omniscience, 2018.
Vázquez, Rolando. Vistas of Modernity, decolonial aesthesis and the end of the contemporary. Amsterdam: Mondriaan Fund.Vol 14, 2020.
Bolton, Andrew. About Time: Fashion and Duration. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020. <https://metabouttime.cargo.site/>
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.
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>
Photograph of Rabi Diop and Galandou Diouf in Casablanca in the French daily newspaper Le Petit Dauphinois published 14th of January 1939.