I spent this summer studying abroad in Accra, Ghana through the University of Oregon’s Media in Ghana program. While I packed a suitcase full of my favorite clothes, I always felt underdressed compared to my Ghanaian friends and coworkers, who showed their cultural pride through perfectly tailored looks in West African prints.
And the world is taking note of Ghanaian fashion. While there is a definite divide between West African and Western style, in recent years, traditional West African fashion designs have taken on a global market.
Celebrities ranging from Beyoncé to Nicki Minaj to the First Lady of the United States have been seen wearing wax fabric garments made by Africans such as Nigerian designers, Amaka Osakwe and Tope Abiola. Often, inspiration is taken from the designs and not the style of garments.
Even in Ghana, there has been a shift from wearing Adinkra prints — West African symbols traditionally associated with funerals — for only special occasions to using them for everyday looks.
Part of this trend of wearing wax fabrics outside of weddings, churches and other celebrations is influenced by the popularity of Western fashion designs in Ghana.
Wax fabric dresses at a shop in Accra, Ghana.
Nowadays, the colorful and vibrant Adinkra prints are being made into more trendy garments, such as the popular and flattering peplum tops or tight and short body conscious dresses. While this could be a threat to preserving African culture, many young people who wear these modern wax print looks see it as a natural mix of the two cultures.
A denim shirt and tan trousers featuring a wax print top. This student, who wants to work for a non-governmental organization, has a seamstress as a sister who sews many of her outfits.
One common way that the two styles are mixing is in the menswear-inspired looks that have been particularly popular not only in Ghana, but internationally. Taking the tailored elements of men’s garments, many women are wearing fitted trousers, simple button-down shirts and blazer-inspired coats and jackets as substitutes for more traditional work outfits.
These looks are often accented with more feminine accessories, such as bold jewelry or a statement belt that adds an unexpected element to a look.
A black and white outfit is accented with a matching necklace and colorful bag.
Conversely, traditional dresses and skirts are still popular, particularly those inspired by a Western, 1950s style. Full skirts with flattering, fitted bodices are a throwback to the American housewife of the 1950s. But when made with wax fabrics, these garments stand out for their timeless quality and don’t seem to be stuck in a particular decade.
Two friends dress up in classic shift dresses in colorful prints.
Although, the most common looks among Ghanaian women are thoroughly modern and focused on the future. Leggings are particularly popular, either more laid back and paired with a graphic t-shirt or dressed up with a flowing blouse or tunic top.
A colorful legging look.
Conversely, in Ghana, where conservative styles still reign, leggings have been somewhat controversial. Because they are so tight, some argue they are not a proper substitute for pants, but the persistence of the trend proves it is not waning.
A Ghanaian-American rocking the legging trend while visiting family in Accra.
One of the biggest accessory trends is large, bold bags that make a statement while also being big enough to carry all the necessities, and more. Out of everything they wear, many stylish Ghanaians highlight their handbag as being the most blatant expression of their personality as well as a source of pride, even if it is a knockoff.
A structured, bright pink bag.
Shoes are a close second when it comes to statement pieces, and currently, sandals of all shapes and sizes are the dominant choice. Both more practical and often more stylish than high heels, the range in sandal styles – from gladiators that wrap up the calf to dainty strappy pairs – proves that there is a pair for everyone.
All about those sandals!
In particular, colorful leather sandals, often in bright neons with metal details like studs, are popular. Simpler versions in neutral colors with metallic acccents compliment instead of conflict with an already vibrant outfit.
Like with the variety of sandals and other garments, it is hard to pinpoint a singular “Ghanaian” style. Current fashion is focused on contradictions, between masculine and feminine and traditional and more modern elements. What should be most interesting to an international market is not the wax fabrics or the wares of artisans and craft workers, but the ways that these products are seamlessly integrated with a pair of skinny jeans or Nike sneakers.
Two friends show off their contrasting styles.
For many Ghanaians, fashion is just as much a form of self-expression as it is a source of cultural pride. It is clear that the resilient of Ghanaian garments, even with the influence of the global fashion market, has as much to do with style as it does with feeling connected to a national heritage. And that will never go out of fashion.
Words and Photos by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, @HSTEINKOPFFRANK