It is well known by now that most clothing which exists in Africa has been sent there by western civilization. Charities all over America and Europe gather unwanted garments and pack them into shipping containers to be sent to African port cities. Somewhere along the way, capitalist middlemen get a hold of them and the trickle down process of used shirts, jackets, pants, shoes, hats, sheets, and anything else begins.
Vacuum packed bushels of clothes, labeled something like “t-shirts XL heavy 100lbs,” are bought up by another tier of resellers and sorters who pick through the menagerie in search of the most fashionable, the most hip garb. Stuff of good style is sold to the more upscale of second hand clothes stores. The rest is bought up by whoever wants it: any number of resellers or small time hawkers hoping to take advantage of impulse-buying fashionistas in busy parts of town, or who set up stalls in central markets. At the bottom are the consumers, who end up paying decent prices for the used wardrobe filler.
What is Hip
As a product of American fashion (though I claim no adherence), I observe that much of youthful style hinges on out-of-context clothing which harkens back to some event or place or organization with which the wearer probably never associated. This can be seen in any student body in the US, where used Boy Scout uniforms, family reunion tees, pee-wee sports jerseys, and other such badge-emblazoned, short-run shirts almost ensure that nobody will every be wearing the same shirt anywhere near the wearer. It is also seen in mainstream fashion in the form of Abercrombie & Fitch shirts printed with a overly vague marque of a fictitious club: something like “AF PHYS ED DEPT EST 1969” which tries to, but can never be hip because there are millions of them coming off the screen machines every day. Unique style is hip.
IF uniqueness is hip, then Africans are simply the hippest cats on this square Earth. Because of the never ending influx of abandoned western fashion, there is an uninterrupted supply of unique clothes and accessories for the taking. Markets erupt with used, but quality clothes made for western markets, but which have ended up in Africa to sate the hunger of clubbing, dancing, drinking, music-appreciating, sex-having, youth with a taste for what is hip.
All the same applies to any other fashion sector: business formal, business casual, men’s, women’s, moms, dads, kids, classy, labor… The west provides all sorts of quality clothes no matter African needs and style.
Be In (Birra Mu)
It’s easy to be hip in Africa. Almost every imported, second-hand article is unique, and incredibly cheap. Youth can easily find fresh shoes or hats, scarves and graphic tees to spice up their look. Blue collar types have an infinite selection of cheap stripey shirts and ties to peruse.
Even the cheapest tee shirts available would have dizzying effects on the hippest bro in the States. “Iowa Accordion Club” shirts in great condition end up on the backs of fruit hauling cyclists. Button ups with postal service or security badges are seen everywhere. Polo shirts embroidered with obscure corporate logos counts as business casual. Any large market place has a clothing section which is better and more varied than any ARC and Savers combined. Even the San Fransisco Goodwill doesn’t beat Oweno Market in Kampala for variety and price.
The African dude was sporting old Boy Scout uniforms and flannel long before anyone in the states thought it was cool. Perhaps not because he thought so, but maybe because it was what was on the market one day.
There is no end to the stream of clothing flooding into Africa. Over the years, this has resulted in an endangered native textile industry, and (coupled with imported television programs and celebrity gossip) the dilution of native African style by that of Europe and America (every mannequin in Africa is white!). Africans, leaving behind their old ways and being the end-point of such a great portion of the worlds refuse fashion, are at least as stylish and unique as the westerners who once wore their clothing.
So what do Ugandans do with old shirts? Mop the floor.