When discussing “modern” clothing in Senegal, most people think of T-shirts, jeans, and Nike sneakers or suits, blazers, and loafers. Traditional clothing, worn for holidays, weddings, and baptisms, receives its own category.
The imposition of western clothing in Senegal is unfortunate. Senegal has undergone a myriad of changes due to its colonization (which ended in 1960), from an entirely French education system to the adoption of French dietary elements. Western culture has since been excessively idolized in Senegal due to its association with development and economic power—clothing does not need to take part. Clothing is one of the most unique and beautiful aspects of the Senegalese cultural identity, and retaining and developing it is crucial. Senegal should embrace its own clothing in all settings, professional and unprofessional.
Traditional clothing in Senegal includes several varieties of women’s dresses and men’s and women’s boubous. Men’s boubous are large long-sleeved garments that reach below the the knees made of “bazin” (a type of cloth with a sheer, metallic tint) cloth or cotton cloth and are usually paired with matching pants. The top is embroidered around the sleeves and vertically down from around the neck to the upper stomach. Along with them, men wear “babouches,” pointed Moroccan leather slippers, and a “kopati,” a tight cap that is usually flat on top, a variant of those that Muslims wear throughout the world.
Women’s boubous are more gown-like than those of men and reach the floor. Women’s dresses are made with similar patterned fabrics, most commonly wax prints (colorful, patterned, stiff cloth) for daily use. Most types hug curves and flare at the bottom. The “taille-basse” is a women’s outfit with a tight top that flares around the stomach paired and a pagne, a rectangular piece of cloth wrapped around the waist like a skirt. Other two-piece outfits pair pagnes with tops that reach mid-thigh or mid-shin. In addition, women drape “fulars” around their shoulders and wear “mussors,” pieces of cloth intricately tied on their head.
Depending on the workplace, employees wear either or both traditional and western attire. Some of my teachers wear nothing but boubous to school, whereas the entire class cheers on the rare occasion that my biology teacher comes in wearing one. While it usually isn’t inappropriate to wear either one in any setting, workers in higher-paying or service-related jobs, like banking or security, usually wear non-Senegalese business attire or uniforms.
Before the past decade and a half, people typically bought fabric from one of Dakar’s ubiquitous boutiques and had them sewn by equally ubiquitous tailors who put little thought into design. Styles didn’t change significantly, reinforcing the idea that traditional clothing was viewed as belonging in a traditional setting, as if there were a separation of Senegalese culture and changement, or the modern workplace.
Fifteen years ago, there was some sort of an explosion of clothing design in Dakar—on a large scale, couturiers began creating their own lines of carefully designed boubous and taille-basses. Although still much sparser than the largest fashion hubs like Milan and New York, the streets of Dakar are beginning to host many “maisons de mode”—fashion houses.
The Maison de Mode Corail, based in Sacré Cœur, Dakar and directed by Fatimata Bintou Aimé Diack, is a manifestation of the development of Senegalese fashion. She serves an extremely diverse clientele that is roughly 60 percent non-Senegalese, including government ministers, first ladies (she recently tailored a dress for the first lady of Niger), and other distinguished customers. Having sold to retailers from Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Gabon, among other countries, she has contributed to Senegalese couture’s growing international popularity. In light of her recent success, I decided to look into her work.
When I visited Diack’s small but productive workshop, she introduced me to her team of tailors. She strictly draws and manages and then offers a critical eye to perfect their creations with an attention to detail that is distinct to Senegal. Once her templates are complete, customers can bring their own fabric and select one to be modeled after. She also has a pret-à-porter line.
While watching Diack at work, I fell in love with her style. She works mainly with bazin fabric or generally more sheer materials that glisten slightly in the light, making them look dressy at the base. It’s a smart start, since Senegalese culture demands people, especially women, to be well-dressed at all times. Whereas Americans often dress for themselves, Senegalese usually dress to look respectable in others’ eyes.
Embroidery is the company’s forte. Geometric patterns line garment borders, multicolor designs along the sleeves, and designs on the chest. They are extremely varied but somehow all very distinctive of Corail.
Diack says she likes to “take things that don’t go together and find a way to make them look good together.” She combines colors that one wouldn’t have expected to find together, like purple and yellow-green, and can fit them into an elegant outfit.
Furthermore, none of the outfits go overboard with curve-hugging uncomfortable forms. On several occasions on which I wore Senegalese outfits, I found it harder to walk or was generally not at ease. Diack’s outfits, however, loosely drape over the body, which both characterizes her style and makes her clothing more comfortable.
One of the most intriguing aspects of her work is the method by which she chooses to modernize traditional styles, borrowing from others in an age characterized by globalization. She explains, “I take other cultures’ styles and incorporate them into what I make. We normally have a large annual cocktail party where we expose an entirely new series and sell it all at once. Preparation for it takes a very long time. I usually go to New York for a week to find materials, even little things like buttons. It’s the little parts not from here that are mixed in that add a special touch.”
Diack’s goal is to “reinvent elegance by adapting to fashion here and beyond.” The Senegalese pioneer has already made solid progress in her field, and she will continue to influence style in the larger West African sphere with her global outlook and dedication to fashion.
The style of Corail could mark the direction of Senegalese fashion. The style does not stand out, but seems to combine the most elegant possibilities among what Senegalese clothing has always offered: colors varied but never too flashy; fabric shiny and waxy, but unstiff; embroidery intricate but simplistic; designs modest but unplain. Some of her dresses also are just like regular long dresses, but with Senegalese fabric.
While Corail’s style resembles much of what upper class women wear, it hasn’t infiltrated the entire population. Even if it never predominates the Senegalese fashion industry, it will have been one of the first among generations of Senegalese maisons de mode to come—maisons that will impress the world with West African style.