April 24, 2013
Like any culture, Burkina Faso has a unique sense of style and dress. Outfits vary, depending upon:
* region (north in the desert vs. south in the rainy cascades)
* village vs. city (in village, everyone’s already your family – no need to dress to impress. In the city, you just might find your husband…or third wife.)
* ethnic group (Jula vs. Mossi vs. Peuhl vs….they all have their unique fashion flairs)
* religion (Muslims might fully cover, whereas Christians might show some lower leg or shoulder)
* event (funeral vs. going to cultivate the field)
* social status (villager/peasant or functionaire)
* age (children/elderly – nakedness allowed at any hour of the day)
* sex (women rarely wear pants; shirtless women perfectly acceptable if they breastfeed, whether or not they are actually breastfeeding at the time of their shirtlessness. I’ve seen many a topless woman in village. This makes it easier for their toddlers to just grab ahold and start eating whenever they desire…)
|naked child....not an uncommon sight, especially in village. I'm surprised she's actually wearing shoes!|
|It's 120 degrees out1 But this guy still wants to wear his winter coat. It's a fashion statement, right?|
|Work uniform, typical of guards.|
Also playing into the fashion of Burkina is the influence of American and European clothing. Skinny jeans, boys with their boxers showing, Barack Obama mesh tank tops with bedazzles, leopard print leggings, etc. And these sorts of items are acceptable on both boys and girls (yes, even the bedazzled tank tops and leopard print leggings). One of my favorite things to do is to browse my marché and find the ridiculous outfits available for purchase….and then buy them. Hahahhehehe. I have no idea why a “Muammar Gaddafi: Celebrating 50 Years of Greatness in Libya” t-shirt needed to be a part of my wardrobe, but it did. (Don’t you want Gaddafi’s face on your clothes?) Also, all those hand-me-down thrift shop and goodwill rejects. They end up in Africa, did you know that? And I can buy these American rejections for about 25 cents – what a bargain! I love digging through the massive piles and coming across a pair of 1970s bell-bottoms, an ugly Christmas sweater, or my personal favorite, sports shirts from local high school teams featuring the player’s last name on the backside. I’m just waiting for the day when I see someone wearing one of my old shirts: HAUTH #31, Springfield High School, Tiger Basketball 2005. The closest I’ve come is seeing a bunch of University of Minnesota apparel and also some Mankato t-ball shirts.
|yup, those are American flags on that boy's jeans..... (dance party)|
|I don't even know that guy who has his arm around me....but he's protraying a classic "American" look in Burkina: old football jersey, camo pants, bling, plastic hat.... and Omar (in front) in the green bezin is very tradtionally classy!|
Fashion is a difficult topic to explain, because it’s something you just need to see – descriptions won’t do it justice. There really aren’t any rules or trendy styles to pick up on, it’s almost as if anything goes, and the more unique you are and the crazier your outfit, the better. Most people have outfits made for them by their tailor, thus picking out the fabric themselves and telling the tailor how short to cut the skirt, thick shirt straps or thin, embroidery on the sleeve…. It’s virtually impossible to have the same outfit as someone else, unless you went to the tailor and asked him (or her, but generally tailors are men) to make 2 of the exact same models. Even if you have the same fabric as someone else, it’s unlikely you’re wearing it in the same way: shirt vs. dress, pants vs. skirt, etc.
|Same traditional pagne skirt for each girl...except each skirt is different, because they're handmade.|
Also inhibiting a clear portrayal of Burkinabe fashion – teen fashion, in particular – is that starting in middle school, kids must wear uniforms. And besides that, sure, everyone might wear those yellow plastic slip-on sandals…. but I don’t think it’s a fashion decision so much as a wardrobe necessity. You need shoes….these shoes are cheap….they’re also the only shoes available in your local market. So, you buy them. (Vendors typically buy a big box of the product, i.e. a box of 50 pairs of yellow shoes, and since people are poor and it is expensive to buy more than a few items at a time, they can’t afford to buy another box, but in blue. When the box of yellow shoes is gone, then they’ll buy another box, possibly a different brand/color/style, but maybe not. This is why everyone wears the same shoes or soccer jersey. They don’t really have other choices to choose from.)
One thing I’ve noticed about Burkinabe women’s fashion (and to be fair, this kinda applies to men, also) is the explosion of COLOR. Both in clothes and in hair. I love that they can wear fancy fake weaves that give the impression that they have a lot of hair. And that their hair was (naturally, of course) tinted purple. (In case you’ve never touched or seen the hair of a black African, just so you know, it’s extremely curly/frizzy, but also very thin. Most women only have an inch or two of hair on their heads…or it’s buzzed of completely. Why have hair when you can have fake hair and change your wig every month? Also, hair is hot. Bald heads are not. They’re also easier to wash. I think these women are on to something here….)
|The health clinic staff -- so pretty!|
The thing is, black people do actually look awesome with streaks of purple, maroon, and even blond, in their hair. I’d love to try it someday (the purple)…but I have a suspicion that I won’t be able to pull it off quite like they do. Wait, now that I think about it. I’ve already done purple! AND looked damn good with it, too! ….didn’t I? (Senior year of high school. Football team makes it to state championship. Me and Melanie Miesen dye our hair maroon to show school spirit and make us look like true pep band rock stars. Football team wins (thanks to our hair!) We’re #1! SHS! Tiger PRIDE! After a few shampooings, the maroon washes out like the box said it would…leaving my hair pink. Also: I play with wearing heavy amounts of black eyeliner during this time to compliment – or was it to distract? – from my bright pink hair.)
|Barakissa all dolled up (fake hair). Little do you know, she's not wearing any pants/bottoms. Just her shirt.|
Besides, their fake hair, I’m also jealous of Burkinabe because they can wear any color, and it’s gorgeous with their skin tone. Black, hot pink, burnt orange, white, lime green, every shade is radiant! But we white people, we just can’t do color. Sure, we might have a shade or two that works, but that’s it. We find ourselves wearing only royal blue, every day. We own 4 or 5 very different-looking shirts, except for that they’re all carnation pink. And heaven forbid, we try to wear yellow! There are very few white people who can pull off yellow. Likewise, similar to colors, Burkinabe do patterns and prints very well. Americans, not so much. Black pants with a solid-colored polo, please. Or: Maybe I’ll be risky today and wear this white skit with blue flowers….with a plain blue top to match the blue flowers… can’t have too much going on. But Burkinabe, they can wear an entire outfit, head to toe, sporting swirls. Or birds. Or cobs of corn. The truly fashionable people can wear an outfit entirely comprised of mixing and matching several prints. Giraffe pants with a shirt of multi-colored recycling signs, yes please! (I’m not joking! It looks good….on them. Not on us Americans.)
|so many colors and prints!|
I confess that Burkina fashion has rubbed off on me, and if I don’t have a headwrap or scarf, I feel naked. Also, I can’t wear solid-colored pieces of clothing anymore. Either the top or bottom (but preferably both) needed to be printed in some way. And if they’re not, I sure as heck better have cute shoes, an awesome necklace, dangly earrings, bracelets, AND (of course) a head wrap. I almost cringe at the thought of wearing un-patterned pieces of clothing. It’s so boring! Why wouldn’t you want to cover yourself in music notes? Or in pictures of Barack Obama’s face plastered on an American flag? Are you not proud to be an American?
Additional Burkinabe fashion tip, this one’s geared towards men: wear fancy shoes with your jeans and skip the socks. No more tennis shoes, please. White leather ….shiny black …. snakeskin printed….pointy-toed. Yeah, that’s where it’s at. Real classy. Seriously. Combine a pair of fancy shoes with dark jeans and an almost-too-small t-shirt that shows off your ripped bod, 6-pack abs…oh wait. That’s right. Most Americans are overweight and don’t have any abs. Well, that’s another tip too, then. Get in shape! Burkinabe guys are SO ripped, and they’re not even trying! (If only they could read and do simple math…then maybe I’d consider taking them up on their marriage proposals.)
Burkina has also changed my attitude towards skirts and dresses. I’ve always enjoyed a nice skirt. It’s safe to say that I am definitely not pro-feminist crazy in thinking that women should only wear pants, like men, because we’re all equal and skirts are a physical way to separate men from women and keep women locked in the “homemaker” role, not leading active lives or playing sports, blah blah blah. Nope, I like getting dressed up. But that’s just it. In America, if a girl wears a skirt or dress, she’s “dressed up.” But why? Can a girl not show some leg, just for the heck of it? In Burkina, women/girls wear skirts almost every single day of their lives, no matter if they’re going to school, church, or working in the field. Some wear pants, but this is a rare sight, especially for village women (functionaire women are a bit more likely to sport pants, usually blue jeans). And girls, now that most of them do go to school and rules require girls to have physical education classes like boys, they do have sporty pants/capris that they wear for running or playing volleyball.
|Look how beautiful this woman is -- so dressed up! ....just to walk around Ouaga selling the strawberries she carries on her head.|
You might think that Burkina women aren’t socially “allowed” to wear pants, and while this may be true (slightly), I don’t find it to be the case. Furthermore, when talking to women about it, wearing pants versus skirts doesn’t even cross their mind. Women wear skirts. It’s their tradition, their history. Why would American women fight to wear pants, to be “free” to abandon skirts? Skirts are prettier, more becoming, and certainly cooler (the breeze blows all around your legs when in a skirt!) Skirts are also more comfortable, you can sit however you’d like (provided the skirt is long enough) and there’s no fear of your pants ripping or being too tight… That’s a pro and a con, I guess. Skirts aren’t form-hugging, so you can gain weight and your skirts will still fit just fine (yay!) causing you to not notice that you’re getting fat (dangit!!!). Also, a major plus of skirts: being able to go the bathroom and not have to remove/unzip/unbutton any clothing. It’s so convenient!
I wear skirts and dresses almost every day in Burkina Faso. It doesn’t matter whether I’m going to teach math, chat with my neighbors, buy vegetables at the market, plant trees, or ride my bike to the river. Skirts are my daily wear; pants are saved for days when I feel like I need to be “American” or want to “dress up” (my skinny jeans and a tank, I’m ready to hit the dance floor!). I almost feel weird wearing pants.
I’ve made it a goal to take what I’ve learned and seen fashion-wise back to America, if only a little bit. Visions of me shopping at an organic Minnesota farmers’ market, dressed nonchalantly in a bright African skirt, flowy top, head scarf, aboriginal camel tooth necklace, and beaded sandals, while everyone around me remarks to their friends, “Wow, she looks gorgeously ethnic!” dance through my head. But I also am trying to come to grips with the fact that I might be shunned if I ever do wear something like this back in America. I have a couple Peace Corps friends who could get away with it; undoubtedly, passerbys will look at them say, “That girl looks worldly and awesome. I want to be her friend.” But if I try it, they’ll be saying, “Uh….white girl, u ain’t from dat culture. Go put ur flannel n snow boots back on.” And that’s another thing: snow. Wearing skirts and sandals all the time isn’t possible in MinneSNOWta, unless you want frostbite. (Urgh, really? You mean I need to put actual shoes on my feet? I can’t wear flip flops everywhere? Gosh, I can’t even remember the last time I wore closed toe shoes. Is it even possible to wear a skirt or skinny jeans with closed toe shoes? Ew. I think I might stick to my sandals, merci.)
I encourage you all to follow my lead and be more creative with your clothing (a bit more modesty wouldn’t be a bad idea, also…). Whatever happened to sewing and designing clothes that actually fit YOU? Why do we all need to buy the same sweater available for $14.99 at Target? We Americans like to think of ourselves as “individualists” -- but yet we are such a part of a collective consumer culture that we forget that we should be buying things that express our individuality.
Burkinabe really care about what they wear and how they present themselves – but at the same time, they don’t care at all. To have the freedom and confidence to wear whatever you like, without social consequences is amazing! So, here’s to more skirts and dresses! Patterns! Colors! Big jewelry! Purple hair!
Disclaimer: Upon returning to America, I might need some serious fashion help. I highly advise that anyone who cares about me (or at least is supposed to care about me -- I don’t wanna name names here, you know who you are!) comes to my rescue and prevents me from making a fool of myself…or dying my hair purple. You might have to remind me that wearing head wraps every day is not okay in America and if I continue to do that, I will scare away my future husband(s). So: Who wants to take me shopping!?!?!? By which, of course, I mean: Who wants to give me money!?!?!
P.S. I'm going back to village!!!! In the morning! Yay! I've been away for over a month and am excited to go see my friends and students and get back to work. The end of May is Camp HEERE (an 4 day overnight camp for 5th graders) and it will be held in my village, so I need to get busy organizing the logistics. Following camp, I'll be back in Ouaga to meet SARAH JENSEN at the airport! She's my first (and probably only) visitor to Burkina....it should be fun! I'm gonna make her eat lots of weird things and circle dance with villagers until sunrise. If you'd like to eat weird things and circle dance too, the invitation to come visit me is always on the table. But time is running out....