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15.12.2021 Feature Article

The West Used To Be Full Of Colour!

(A sequel to ‘This Whole Thing Began With Textiles’)
The West Used To Be Full Of Colour!
15.12.2021 LISTEN

A nation of ‘lispers’

What we are about discussing today reminds me of this famous Spanish legend—believed by some ‘history purists’ (if you will) to be untrue, but a poignant legend still. Spaniards, one of the world’s Spanish speaking people, famously have a very distinct Spanish accent (perhaps the original, unadulterated accent), one which upon hearing may just be mistakenly described as a lisp—a speech impediment. Their pronunciation of the ‘z’ and ‘c’ sound comes out as the ‘th’ sound—the ‘theta,’ it is called.

So, the legend goes: Spanish monarch, King Ferdinand, allegedly spoke with a lisp, one which his subjects all throughout Spain, wanting to be like their king, picked up, resulting in the creation of an entire nation of lispers.

The Metaphoric Lispers

“There is a need for a change of attitude with reference to the belief that one is a gentleman only when he wears a suit.” These are the paraphrased words of Alan Kyeremanten, then Minister of Trade, Industry, and the President’s Special Initiative on that November day, 2004 when he helped launch the National Friday Wear Programme. A very inherently nonsensical statement, but this brilliant leader was addressing a very nonsensical reality we, in Africa, have for centuries had on our hands. One that has piled up everything originally African as one mass of garbage, needing disposal, and everything Western as the enlightened path—a reality imposed on us as far back as the 15th century. In addressing such a nonsensical reality, undoubtedly nonsensical statements had to be made. So, this statement by Mr. Kyeremanten is, in the African context, a very insightful and thought-provoking one.

It gets said a lot, especially in the corporate environment, that the African print is “a bit too colourful”, “too busy”. First off, one wonders why nine-to-fivers, being famous for being a busy bunch would have a problem with their attires mimicking their ‘busy-ness’—I kid. Secondly, those excuses are nothing but White colonialist words spoken through Black mouths, or Black mouths hoping that by so speaking, accompanied with their mimicking of the Caucasian, they would be rendered enlightened. That by wearing the signature dark, monochromatic, dull, ensembles of the White man, they would have successfully joined the ‘ladies and gentlemen’ ranks. Let’s take ourselves through a quick journey of the West, and come back to this assertion later.

The Colourful American

It took brilliant minds—teams of scientists to make this wish for colour in clothing possible for the West. I am not being dramatic when I say that scientists, then engaged in a comparatively incipient journey of world-changing scientific discoveries, took time off their busy schedules, exerted energy, time, and resources (relatively scant as they were then) into discovering new ways of realising the American’s, the White person’s dream of wearing colourful clothing. Sorry for this quick detour from Europe (Spain) to America; we will come back to Europe in a minute. But this was in the 19th and 20th centuries, when America had come out of slavery, colonialism, the Industrial Revolution, etc., a wealthy nation. In the heights of capitalism, everything, down to the clothes humans wore, became a class issue. And colour, pattern in clothing was the reservation of the rich; the poor had to opt for dull coloured clothing. Purple in particular became a very popular colour in clothing, not just for the sake of it—but because it was one of the very first synthetic colours that could stick to fabric when used as dye. The ‘purple craze’ in the late 19th century owes its origin to this.

Wannabes of colour abound. The American poor wouldn’t mind their own business—they wouldn’t leave colour in the hands (clothes) of the rich alone. They made do with cheap fabric that took colour poorly and faded easily.

Wannabes of Colour

But colour was never fully an attainable and practical feat for the poor. Because, firstly, having their hands characteristically close to the ground in their bid to make a living, being poor in America was a grimy affair, one’s apparel was always dirty from work—and colourful clothing do badly at hiding dirt. So then, dull clothing it was—for the poor. Secondly, the manufacture of colourful clothing was not an easy affair. Manufacturers had an incredibly hard time getting the early fabrics—these cheap fabrics to take and retain colour. These fabrics, made from synthetic fiber, when dyed, refused to be fully dyed, and faded easily. Colour seemed unattainable. Then came scientists to remedy the situation. Scientific efforts were placed, and ‘rayon’—a much better-quality synthetic fiber resulted—an improvement on the earlier fabrics; it could retain colour. The American poor, previously living in some sort of real life black and white, now had colour to experiment with—just like the rich.

Wearing colourful clothing without being wealthy, was a sight as bewildering as a poor, homeless man seen riding in a Rolls-Royce; it incited the question ‘where did you get the money from?’—an euphemism for prostitution.

With the invention of colour television in the 20th century—and technicolor (as we discussed in ‘America’s Hay Days’), scientists were even further encouraged to work harder with giving fabric colour—for the successful representation thereof on screen. The Wizard of Oz movie (1939), for instance went wild with colours! Never before had there been such clashes of colours—colours fighting for space on fabrics, on shoes, on set. The iconic red shoes worn by its protagonist, Dorothy itself was an intentional revolution—a flaunting of the American success story. A nation severed from Europe, having liberated itself from colonial rule; this nation America, had come out successful (as gruesome and gory the means employed had been); and years later, during and after World War II, this nation had emerged the world’s superpower…ah! weren’t they going to flaunt this success with vivid display of colour—from head to toe—from the hat on the head, to the clothes on the body, right down to the shoes on the feet!

These shoes Dorothy wore in the movie was originally silver in colour (in the source material, the Wizard of Oz book), but since silver wasn’t divorced from black and white and all such dull colours enough, “it was changed to [bright] red to show more vividly against the yellow brick road…,” noted one historian. Against the green foliage on screen, with this red shoe on that yellow brick road, one could swear the creators of this movie were spelling out Ghana’s flag. But that wasn’t their intention. Their intention was quite plainly this: colour meant success.

A case study of ‘circumstances make a people’

1930s in the West was rife with WWII and the Great Depression. In the throes of war and economic recession, these countries had little space in their minds for fashion. So, the previous exertions by scientists to invent colour in clothing were with the war, aptly reduced to trivialities. Rationing on all necessities of life ensued—rationing on clothing became the norm and law. Differing realities make differing people. In the case of the West, this reality (war), having affected fashion, created a whole different reality of clothing for them—one which arguably persists to this day.

Nations involved in the war—Europe, America, and co. had little in their minds for fashion. Manpower, machine power, productivity were earnestly needed elsewhere. In Britain and USA, the clothes rationing system and its accompanying coupons system were introduced. Clothes became famously monochromatic and dull in colour. Clothes could no longer afford to be showy—the ingenuity and labour exerted in the production of colour and patterns in clothing were no longer necessary. In the very belly of war and its ensuing bloodbath, both the rich and poor of society could not be given the chance to revel in such showiness.

Even before the war commenced in the last quarter of 1939, countries like Britain and USA, anticipating a war, began enforcing the ‘blackout.’ To avert air raids disasters brought upon by the German forces, entire cities in these nations had to be enveloped in darkness—not a streetlight on, not a house light on. Fashion quickly morphed to fit this new reality. Clothes were at their very mundane—just serving the purpose of covering up the body, keeping it warm, and at times, serving as tools of protection from the enemy. The onesie (jumpsuit) with a re-attachable opening at the buttock area, became the norm—handy when one, on the loo, had to quickly wrap up because enemy forces were approaching. Genius, erh? Luminous, cheap accessories such as glowing buttons and glowing fake flowers were the only touch of colour these clothes could have—and even those were to only serve the purpose of rendering one visible by approaching vehicles during these blackouts. I suspect those luminous sneakers we delightfully wore as kids, were inspired by this period. In fact, one of these blackout campaigns called for people, so as to be visible at night, to avoid wearing dark colours at night—and white being the only bright inexpensive colour then, one campaign poster famously read, “The Black Out. Why not Wear Something White Instead?”

“Fashion Dictator”

In Britain colour had been the reservation of monarchies for many centuries. Then, heavily derived from natural sources, a colour like purple for instance, (derived from snails’ shells) was just too expensive, that it became, without decree, the prerogative of Kings and Queens. Fast forward to the 19th and 20th century Britain, and you find a similar narrative ensuing.

In Britain, just as in America, the war’s rationing system was extended to clothing. And the British government, seeking to resolve the endemic of cheap clothing made available to the vast British low to middle income earning public, instituted the Utility Clothing Scheme in 1942, where government itself mass produced comparatively quality apparels for the market.

And that’s where the standardisation of clothing problem ensued. This meant that the British had to walk around in ‘uniforms’— the very definition of ‘Adjoa Yankey, w’ashia wonua!’ British people, during the war, had to all walk about draped in, not only the same dull, monochromatic colour of clothing, but style of clothing too. The British, although facing impending deaths from war, grew tired and bored of this clothing system, and began to taunt the government as some sort of ‘fashion dictator’. The British government sought to remedy this by putting together a team of the nation’s leading fashion designers to design a much wider range of apparels. But they could only do so much. Still limited by the demands of war and government’s austerity laws, they were allowed to, for instance, produce only fifteen styles of clothing for girls.

The American comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, has this bit where he asserts that the reason all American grooms and groomsmen dress alike—suit, pants, shirt, tie—is because of how unpredictable men can be. So should the groom on the day of the wedding fail to show up, the groomsman or one of the groomsmen, can be made to stand in his stead to spare the poor bride the embarrassment.

“…many of the changes brought about by war continue to shape fashion today.” One historian wrote. The uniformisation of Western clothing persists to this day, especially what they consider ‘formal clothing’—black, blue, or blue-black suit, with a shirt, and a tie or bow tie; and for their woman (arguably having the most diverse of the Western clothing style), they also remain bound by the four-walls of Western apparel culture.

Post-war Search for Colour

But the White folk has proven itself not one to give up on colour. As one Time Magazine article titled ‘American Fashion Has Gotten More Colorful. Here’s What Changed’ notes, “Demand for the perfect colorful clothing came back in full force during the period of post-war prosperity between 1947 and 1970, when the US median family income nearly doubled, and the gross national product more than quadrupled.” As soon as the White man and woman got back some money in their pockets, they set about looking for colourful clothing. And a Research & Development culture having been given a much-needed boost during the war (weapons of mass destruction had to be manufactured, abi?), research into colour in clothing was, after the war, even much-more driven. New forms of synthetic fabrics and dyes were manufactured—those that could take and hold colour, without easily fading. Quality colour was finally in the hands of even the low-to-middle income earning American. And with Hollywood’s technicolor invention enabling more colour than ever to appear on TV, the general public responded with real-life display of colour in their apparels.

The yearn for colour and intricate patterns in clothes, was never (never!) intentionally discarded by the White folk; it is the reality of past wars and hardships that has led to their present blandness. After centuries of chasing colour with little, intermittent, interrupted successes, one can argue that the White folk had no option but to grow discouraged and tired of colour. It’s like the poor boy who after chasing the girl for so long without success, ends up conversely developing a bad taste in his mouth for her. Because in 2014, Barack Obama went to find trouble by ditching the expected black suit and pant combo, and wore instead a beige-coloured suit. America lost its mind over that!

This was news and subject of countless panel discussions, endless media publications—old and new media—magazines, newspapers, etc. Public interviews were conducted—passers-by, average Americans, were asked their take on the President’s suit. Each person interviewed, shared their point of view with utmost seriousness. One politician commented that the suit indicated a “lack of seriousness” in the President. Sitting here in Ghana, watching on, it was as though watching kids play ‘nkuro.’ For one tan suit to incite such national conversation—that had to be nkuro! America, like very much the rest of the West, has been unsuccessful shaking itself off its past—in this particular case, its fashion past, perhaps just as the African has been, doing so, its colonial past.

Borrowing All to the Extent of Pain

Because it is this same colonial past that has necessitated this problem. That in deciding on clothing, the African, the Ghanaian, has to be bound by the West, who in turn are ridiculously bound by their own past. We are, for all intent and purposes, learners in this global space, with the West, teachers. We blindly copy all the West does, and in so doing—as blindly as we go in—we end up copying even their flaws, their pain, their tragedies.

Our journey as a people has been left vastly uninformed—by that I mean heavily informed by another’s culture, a culture necessitated by these nations’ own peculiar set of experiences and histories. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any German bombers to hide from, only the endless bombarding of Western culture. That’s an airstrike we face on a daily.

Their Practicalities, Their Idiosyncrasies

You see, the purported lisper King Ferdinand of Spain, he did not choose to speak that way—his tongue might have been just a tad too big for his own mouth. The West, they did not choose to be this drab in their clothing. I mean, these are entire nations of people, who, during the war, in order to wear bracelets, had to devise these accessories from crashed windscreens of fallen German aircrafts. One could call this act a euphemised version of impaling the decapitated head of a defeated enemy on a spike—but no, this was a fashion sense necessitated by war. These were nations which carefully revised all life around them, in this case, their fashion sense, to fit each and every national event they went through. The American man, for instance, began to dress less formally after WWII. Coming right from the belly of war, this often-time cruel notion of gentility, one that at times limited mobility, was rendered nonsensical, and for a while, discarded. Of course, the American picked it right back up after the nation’s economic ascension following the war, and the average citizenry had more money in their pockets than ever to blow away.

The Pale White Folk: On the Loss of Colour

We would be doing ourselves a huge disservice if we sought explanations for personhoods, nationhoods—ours and others—through history only, ignoring the present. So, let’s hear from some Europeans and Americans as they share the reasons to this question, “Why do some in the West wear mostly black, grey, or white colours? Don’t they like colours?”

“I think it is mostly down to confidence and a lack of imagination…I think wearing of black and other unassuming dark colours also comes down to the weather. I am from the UK where we have drab, overcast winters. It gets dark at around 3:30 in the afternoon, and it doesn’t get light again till 7:30 in the morning, so there is a general lack of light, ergo I think colour comes as a visual shock to many of my fellow countrymen. We tend to associate colour with sunshine and things growing. Personally, I love colour and wear as much of it as I can all year round. It has the power to lift the spirits, particularly in winter.” One insightful British person commented.

“Traditional American costume, in so far as we have any, isn’t colourful. These are what early Americans looked like … [she attaches a picture of some old age Caucasian Puritans draped in rag-coloured apparel] … contrast with this traditional costumes of India [she inserts a picture of a painting featuring a colourfully dressed female subject]. That said, 95% of my wardrobe is camel, black, or white. I don’t wear much colour because I don’t know how to deploy it in a sophisticated way. There are certain women who can, but I’m not one of them. It’s broadly true that in major metropolitan areas of the United States, aside from ones in warm climates like LA and Miami, people dress in neutrals. In part, it’s crowd mentality—you want to blend into the urban environment; you don’t really want to be the person wearing teal or purple in the crowd of grays and navy blues and blacks. Or at least, I don’t.” An American commented.

Many of these commenters attributed their dull colour clothing choices to the weather, ‘crowd’ mentality, and a general lack of confidence—the fact that that is what’s being done (a fact inherited from their peculiar histories as a people). I believe it is at this point that our Nigerian brothers and sisters will ask ‘so what be your own?” Ghana, what be your own? Why these gloomy, purported ‘official clothes’ we’re donning?

In the West (being in the temperate regions), as the weather meets them with a gloomy face, they respond with gloomy outfits. Unlike us in the tropical regions of the world, where it’s summer majority of the year, we compete with blossomed flowers over looks. When nature brags, “See these birds singing and frolicking about my infinite space of blue skies, we respond, “See I’ve got birds right here on me, on my clothing. They might not sing, but unlike yours that compulsively fly away, mine sit perpetually and obediently perched!”

Taking colour away from the Ghanaian or African apparel, you must as well strip our lands off their golds. Colour and pattern are as integral to our past as they are to our present. Because in our case, unlike the White folk’s case, colour has been successfully attained and subsumed in our culture. And our present, courtesy our glorious weather, remains a fertile soil for colour.

When we find ourselves not abreast of our history—as they are, comparative with others—we find ourselves often taken for a ride, moving with the speedy, windy whims of others, and in the end, end up with a lisp, or a stammer—or in this particular case, sad, dull, funeral clothes as standard measures of gentility.

The funny thing in this all is that should the White folk decide right this very minute, that colourful and pattern-filled clothing is the intellectual way—the way of the lady and gentleman, the ‘professional way’, we here, in Ghana, Black folks, will immediately issue our own corresponding directive, ‘Pattern and Colour, that’s the Path to Honour!”

3y3 asem oo.

[Published in the Business & Financial Times (B&FT) - 15th December, 2021]

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