Fads, Fashions & Classics – Tola Adenle

“… [Nigerian] women who travel abroad to purchase things for sale, generally may be women of means and paper qualifications but not of ideas”. – A beloved late “Uncle” on Nigeria’s women trend-setters.

In March 1980, members of the Ibadan Chapter of the Nigerian Association of University Women held a reception for five of our members who had just been elevated in their various endeavors. In proposing the toast to (Auntie) Mrs. Tejumade Alakija [nee Aderemi] who had just become the Head of Service in Oyo State (the first woman to do so in the state AND the country), another auntie and a honoree, Professor Bolanle Awe had recalled the young Miss Aderemi’s arrival in Nigeria, armed with a first degree from London University and a Masters from Oxford. Mrs. Awe was a student at St. Anne’s when news of Auntie’s arrival from England (“news of the event”, as she called it) was relayed to school. “News of the event” had nothing to do with the fact that Miss Aderemi (daughter of Late Sir Adesoji, then Oni of Ife) had come back with the fabled “golden fleece”, one of three Nigerian women – of five – in her time to have graduated from universities. It was what she wore on alighting from the boat, probably Motor Vessel Aureol that created “The event.” With her uncanny sense of her proper place in society and with her supreme confidence in who she was even at that young age, Miss Aderemi wore her beloved Yoruba ofi (aso oke), complete! Looking back in 1980, Auntie didn’t attach any importance to it because she said she wore only ‘up and down’ sewn from Nigerian fabrics throughout her stay in England.

There must have been newspapers around to record the occasion:  men who arrived from England in the early 50’s with Mrs. Alakija’s kind of qualifications, even diplomas, would have people line the roads of their towns and villages prior to a grand reception at the town center! The arrival of a female graduate who also happened to be a princess of Ife, therefore, can only be imagined. I believe an entourage must have met her, possibly including her late father. Princess Aderemi caused a big stir because people who were educated those days generally threw away most things African: dressing, most of our foods, way of speaking and even their names. Another young lady arriving on the M.V. Aureol with a Secretarial Studies diploma (also a big deal back then) would have been attired as if to the races at Ascot: mid-calf dress plus gloves, plus, of course, a wide-brim hat – a classic – just as young Tejumade’s ofi that long ago day was also a classic.

Lipstick applied to the lower lips alone as well as whitish lipstick (“reigning” right now) and, I dare say, most of the women fashions in Nigeria, are fads. Wouldn’t it be nice if the so-called “wet lace” (or is it “dry”), “hand-cut lace”, etc. beautiful as they all must be because of their prices being enough to buy tokunbo (used) cars each, could be in fashion for some years? I am sure our women will throw them out after a year or so. These fabrics are so expensive abroad where they are manufactured that a yard or so may be part of a wedding dress with other less-expensive fabrics forming the major part of the dress. Designers also use them for those dresses sold in expensive stores and boutiques for thousands of dollars. I once bought a four hundred dollar-dress when the naira was king in the early eighties. I wore it for two weddings, two years apart in two different cities before passing it to my oldest girl who kept it for three years and went to a studio to have her picture taken wearing the cream and black chiffon dress. She passed it down to her immediate junior sister without wearing it after that. Then it was on to my next daughter before we finally cleaned and packed it away. It was no classic empirically speaking but has become one to our family because it is a fashionable dress whose life (still not at an end, hopefully) has justified the cost.

The three major Yoruba ofiSanyan (the khaki-ish colour with white lines); the Etu (the indigo/black) and the Alaari (red with lines of beige, green, etcetera, depending on which part of Yorubaland) – are all CLASSICS. I remember trying to convince my customer at Iseyin, Home of Aso Oke, about adding the wide-loom business to his ofi business some years ago so that he could cash in on the “silk” trade which was just coming on the scene. “Igbalode ni ‘yen, o ma a lo!” (That’s a fad. It won’t last). In spite of my testimony about the way women were going for them, including myself, the old man, an aso oke purist wouldn’t be sold on fads even if it would mean he could make quick money. By the way, a very good road that bypasses the death trap that leads to Oyo Town now links the ancient city to Ibadan if you veer left at Moniya after the IITA; it takes under an hour.

Most civilizations take pride in their heritage. These are just a few classics of other races: jewelry – pearls (freshwater or natural); the American Indians’ turquoise beads; clothing – the tuxedo, the striped suit, the Little Black Dress and the Indian Sari; drinks – Dom Perignon champagne; watches – a cartier; fabrics – the damask (though not the stiff type specifically made for Nigerian women) used for home furnishings, eyelet lace, gingham (“check” )and Oxford broad cloths; cars – the Rolls Royce and Cadillac, and while there are thousands of designer perfumes, ‘Chanel’ remains a classic. The great composers of western civilization left bodies of work that continue to awe, inspire, entertain, and prove classical. Even if you cannot do the waltz, listening to a Strauss number (any of the Strauss-es) will get you moving whatever you may be doing. So is our own late composer, Fela Sowande’s Onidodo, oni moin moin because, it, too, has been adjudged a classic by ears that understand music in other parts of the world. Of course there are many more classics in each category.

Price or cost does not a classic make as we can see from the lowly gingham and eyelet lace. Generation to generation, these fabrics are loved in the West where they originated and are used as kitchen curtains, table covers, shirts for men and women, children’s clothing etc. Here in Nigeria, they are popular as school uniforms in various “check” sizes and colours. Classics must appeal to every era and come out beloved. There is a black and white picture of my late father-in-law in Sanyan on [Osogbo] Osun Festival Day. Take the picture to an advanced color laboratory, colorize it, cover Papa’s head and the picture could pass for one taken by my husband, wearing his own sanyan at our daughter’s wedding! Almost fifty years separate the two pictures but they are exactly the same.

A classic does not “reign” as we Nigerian women like to describe anything “in vogue” because it “reigns” and never goes out of fashion.

There are fashions that disappear quickly (i.e. fads) everywhere in the world; so it is not only in Nigeria that fashions come and fashions go. The minis of the 60s, the big afro of the 60s and 70s, the bell-bottom paired with tight tops of the 70s were all fads and, naturally, are no more. Some fashions are resurrected like Diane von Furstenberg’s wrap dress of the 70’s which is suddenly back in vogue but the really outrageous fads die, most likely never to be seen again.

In Nigeria, however, every fashion seems to be a fad and the women are proud of it. A couple of years ago, I got an old off-white damask that had seen life as an Iborun (ipele) and an old ofi that had seen life as a wrapper as inheritance. I had them cleaned and sewn up for some throw cushions because the wrapper already had moth holes. The last time that damask “reigned”, I think the vogue was three or four colours which was around ’75 or so. The single colour piece given to me, therefore, must have “reigned” before the colour-count era! The ofi wrapper was so big that I made not just two throw cushions but I also had an old harvest bench re-upholstered with some of the remaining fabric; it sits in the living room decorated with the throw cushions. While I am already enjoying the ofi, I prefer to keep the damask cushion for a while since it’s “reigning.” Besides, I could lose friends if a throw cushion in my living room is what somebody has on as ipele/gele at my house party even if mine is not as pretty as the modern one! Do not think I am kidding because a young lady who sold some lace fabrics and guinea brocade to me two years ago asked why I needed ten yards instead of the usual five for iro/buba and when I told her that the guinea brocade would be used to line the lace for two narrow windows in the house, she had said, “Auntie, one has to be careful about what to wear to your house because one may be wearing what your windows will be wearing!” All of us in the shop had a good laugh.

Harvest BenchFINAL

As I was writing this article, I decided to call an “uncle” to have his opinion on why he thinks women’s fashions change so often in Nigeria. In typical male fashion, he said dismissively: “I think it’s because those who show the way to you women are generally illiterates!” I was up in arms not because I am that much into what “reigns” but I had to raise a voice, albeit not a strong one, in defense of women. After all, there are young female professionals including lawyers and other degree holders these days selling laces and other high-end fabrics. “That’s exactly what I mean. You won’t find qualified attorneys anywhere else in the world hawking materials (fabrics). You will find that those women who travel abroad to purchase things for sale, generally may be women of means and paper qualifications but not of ideas”.  Case closed.

The Comet on Sunday, July 2002.

UPDATES: 1.  I can no longer recommend the Iseyin road referred to above.  Like most Nigerian roads, it’s a big mess.

2.  As many of us know, Dianne Von Furstenberg’s “wrap dress” of the 70s, back in the 80s is back again.  What a classic!

3.  I will update this story with a picture of the harvest bench in the next few days.  Just occurred to me it’s never shown up in any family picture which I would not want to use, anyway.

4.  The wide loom Aso oke are almost dead.

5.  That beloved “uncle” an old Ibadan graduate, passed early this year.

TOLA ADENLE, November 23, 2011


UPDATE:  That picture – Item 3 above – was finally posted just minutes ago, almost two years later! TOLA, June 1, 2013, 3:15:27 a.m. [GMT]


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