Clothes seem to me, to be such an integral part of culture. Where would the U.S. be today without Levi Strauss’ fine invention? And the tee-shirt stemming from our Great War era? While arguably not the most chic of examples in American couture, every red-blooded American has worn them. Just once. Probably far more often than many of us are willing to admit.
But to those who have no qualms against our culturally standardized garb, the point is, what you wear matters. Sorry gentlemen, I am going to limit it to a what Nigerien ladies wear only post simply because that is what I know the best.
If you are from a country village, you will wear a baggy tee-shirt (can we say globalization?) and a wrap skirt. Thus far, I detest wearing a wrap skirt. Pretty yes, practical, umm, not so much.
If you’re from town, and really, the only town that can be considered a city at best is Niamey, the dress is noticeably more stylized. Here in Niamey, the women quite literally go to town with their wardrobes. Brightly colored, tight-fitting boubous. Big wrap hats that I’m sure have an official name. Big earrings, brightly colored skirts paired with more European looking tops. And generally speaking, I find this look to be very pretty, a look that monopolizes off of all of that African curviness that my genetic heritage lacks.
The country is 98% Muslim. Some statistics say 99%. So for women, their clothes too usually reflect on how pious, or dare I say controlling, one’s husband is. Some women I’ve seen in full clad chadors. Some in a lesser hijab. And others throw the notion of head wraps to the wind all together embracing their full West African-ness. Christians distinctively wear no such head coverings. I do make note however that the Islam here in Africa is quite a bit different than that in the Middle East. Black is probably the least common color I’ve seen, head wrap or none.
And no matter where you live, what religion you go home to, you will always wear a long skirt, or at least some sort of leg covering. I’ve gotten away with pants in Niamey and leggings under my more Americanized dresses. But your best bet is to blend in and wear a mid-calf to ankle length skirt.
While I can’t say that the African style and cut is my favorite to wear, it sure is a lot of fun to go about shopping for clothes. There is no 5th Avenue here in Niamey to browse at leisure, neither is there a Wal-Mart for that matter with 50% off clothing racks. Clothes are made the old fashioned way, the way that we have since forgotten at home: by a tailor.
My seamstress’ name is Delphi. She’s jovial and vivacious and uses three other seamstresses in her small steamy shop not too far off of a main dusty road. Her competitor, a male tailor, rents the space right next door.
Getting clothes made has been an adventure. I go to either the Petit or Grand Marché and search out fabric dealers. There are a good number with an array of regional fabrics: Nigerien, Nigerian, Côte Ivorian, all with slight patterned variations. Bright is the game here, and the brighter the better. For my first and probably only boubou, I choose yellow with a magenta and purple motif. And indeed, it radiates.
Once the fabric is selected and the tongue wrangling has concluded, I head over to Delphi who sends me to her walls full of fashion posters that look like they came out of the Donyale Lunaesque 1960s. I select a style that I think will flatter my frame the best, emphasizing to Delphi that puffy sleeves are to be minimized in the construction phase, so not to evoke the image of my 20-year-old mother in 1984 frump fashion. She understands. Other American and European girls have requested the same.
I come back two to three weeks later depending on her work load, pay her 5000CFA, around $10, adjust a bit of the garment here and there and am off. In the following weeks, I realize that I enjoy the process of fabric shopping and style selecting so much that I order two more skirts. This time I design them myself and using a penciled drawing that I’ve sketched, Delphi delivers my image into reality. So that I can wear Africa back at home on my own terms.