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Dressing in a tropical environment means paying attention to climate, fabrics, accessories and much in between. Here are some important fashion tips to learn when living in Accra.
What translates to ‘summer wear’ in the West does not translate to everyday wear in Ghana, where temperatures soar and the strength of the equatorial sun is fierce. If you happen to wear that vest or dress you purchased on your local high street, all shiny and fashionable, something rather unpleasant will start to happen when you transport it to Accra. Your body will feel as though it’s trapped inside a furnace and what scant breeze there is will not touch you. In one word: torture. Read the labels. Cotton and linen, these are your friends.
There are some great tailors, of course, but unfortunately there are also many not-so-great ones. Buying your fabric and showing a tailor a picture of a dress ripped from a magazine as worn by a Hollywood A-lister, or an inspiring shot from Pinterest, usually doesn’t translate. There’s a reason that dress or outfit costs more than you are willing to pay. You’re paying for hours of work, multiples fittings, and the precision of the cut that goes into it. Don’t expect too much, though – if you are really exacting, willing to collaborate and go into minute detail, and you demand multiple fittings along the way – you might be pleasantly surprised. Remember, the simpler the cut the better. Oh, and a professional pattern is worth a thousand yards of cheaper, ruined fabric.
Also known as chale wote – which literally translates to ‘dude/friend let’s go!’ – these everyman shoes are worn by all people in all instances; on the beach and on the street, in restaurants and bars, and even to go hiking. They could almost be described as the national shoe for their ubiquity and affordability. Beware some places now have a dress code, and if you are at the beach there’s a pretty good chance they’ll either be misplaced or washed away at high tide.
Pavements and sidewalks aren’t really a thing out here, except as mounting grounds for street-side food stalls and makeshift market areas. All over the city, you’re more likely to be walking on rough, hewn ground, with its lumps and bumps and potholes. Oh, and don’t forget the gutters you’ll be leaping over and skirting while trying to avoid being run over by a passing vehicle. This is what it means to walk in Accra. Wear high heels at your own peril.
Fabric is everywhere: on the heads of street hawkers, at roadside stalls, in malls and at markets. You’ll find all kinds: plain and austere; commemoration fabrics with the face of a dignitary or dead person; GTP, with its signature motifs of birds and lynx (among others) that only change in colour over the years; the shiny prints of Woodin; the nouveau stylings of Printex; and, the queen of them, all: Vlisco, where prices soar. The more expensive the fabric, the more durable, pliable and breathable it is. Become a tactile inspector and make sure you know what you are buying.
Most Kente we see nowadays – on sandals and accessories of all kind and integrated into T-shirts – are printed and, unfortunately, made in China, if you can believe it. Real Kente has and always will be woven on a loom, as can be seen at Bonwire and Adanwomase. It is labour-intensive and detailed work, with a multitude of colours integrated for different reasons. The end-result is a thick, almost fluffy fabric. Yes it breathes, but it is far heavier, more intricate and looks richer and more dignified when sported in the correct way, especially on dignitaries at special functions.
Somehow, somewhere, in West Africa people started wearing Angelina printed batik fabric, and the rest of the Sub-Saharan continent followed. Nowadays on Etsy the print goes by the name African Dashiki. This ubiquitous pattern is now seen on everything, everywhere – dresses, shirts, skirts, bikinis, prom dresses, the list goes on – and is mistaken by some who visit as a distinctly Ghanaian fabric. This is not so. Like many fabrics, especially those from Vlisco, it is a Dutch creation, the brainchild of Toon van de Manakker, who based it on a design from a 19th-century Ethiopian noblewoman’s fabric. In Ghana it has actually been worn for decades, culminating in the fabulous song ‘Angelina’ recorded in the 1970s (a moment of great popularity for the print) by the band Sweet Talks & A.B. Crentsil.
Sure they look great. Ray-Bans, Versace, Oakley, Armani, perhaps even some Gucci and Chanel, all displayed on a large wooden board as you walk down the high street or sit in traffic. Just 20 Ghana Cedis ($4.50)! Maybe even bargain a pair down to ten Cedis ($9)! It will be exciting at first and they’ll look good. You can’t tell the difference when you wear them next to your friend who actually paid full price. Until they crumble – literally. And it will be sooner rather than later because, even for fakes, they are abysmally made. At that price though, you could buy a pair a week… or just splurge for a full-priced, quality pair.
From traditional dresses comprising Boubous and head-wraps to entirely Western-style clothing and Kardashian-inspired curve-conscious dressing, to the innovation of the Ghanaian hipster, there is so much diversity in the way people dress in Accra that there is a certain freedom of wear here. Embrace it. Fancy wearing traditional dress and head-wrap with matching shoes in one solid print? Go for it! Experimenting with Fulani hats and skinny jeans? No one will bat an eyelid. Go for those harem pants and vests of the voluntourists, or the ultra-glam, heavy make up that says you’ll be down at the most exclusive clubs later. Freedom of expression is everything – just don’t forget the lessons learned above!