Senegalese women are fabulous. After 3 months of Dakar dwelling, I am yet to see a girl wearing black skinny jeans and dirty trainers, accessorised with ‘just tumbled out of bed hair’ (i.e. my standard London look).
They are ultra feminine, and impeccably turned out at all times. And on Fridays, the locals really give it their all. The arrival of the weekend is welcomed with one’s best threads and the pavements become a riotous catwalk of colour, print and silhouette. Who knew that while the UK has been embracing snorepants ‘dress down Friday’, the Senegalese have been championing ‘go big, or go home’. And I have to confess I love it. On Fridays our cleaner arrives like Naomi Campbell, rocking Jean Paul Gaultier couture.
Here are a few observations on Senegalese style:
- Colour is key and often the brighter the better
- It starts with the fabric, so a visit to the market is the first port of call
- Traditional garments are made up in wax print, a fabric which has become synonymous with African fashion
- A good tailor is paramount for made to measure clothes that fit like a dream
- The most common trend is a fitted floor-length skirt, paired with a matching top and optional head piece (oh, and peplums are a big deal here)
I decided, as an experiment, I should attempt to break loose from my London ways and give Senegalese style a whirl. No longer will I pair black with black, and navy with grey. From this day hence, I will welcome clashing colour and embrace prints with aplomb. #wheninrome
So, yesterday I found myself well and truly lost amidst the chaos of Marché HLM, Dakar’s largest fabric market. It really is hard to know where to start. In fact I would recommend buying something immediately (regardless of whether you need it) just to break the catatonia that sets in on arrival. Once you have a plastic bag in your hand you are ready to dive in.
So what do you dive into? Wax prints galore, pure printed silk, not-so-pure-silk, tie die, african indigo, broderie anglaise, beads, embellishments and more ribbons than the cast of Pride and Prejudice put together.
I was advised in order to dress like a true Senegalese, I must buy wax. This cloth is ubiquitous in West Africa and was first introduced by the Dutch in the 1800s, when their trading vessels showed up packed full of it. Over time, the fabric has become synonymous with West African style and culture; the prints have even been used as a communication method and represent personas, places, turn of phrase, or celebrations.
When presented with a veritable buffet of wax cloth, it is seriously tempting to go for the most fluro-flamboyant print on offer. But I kept in mind that what may look gorgeous against dark skin, will not necessarily complement my pasty English complexion. I put the fuchsias and limes back where they belonged and settled on a large ecru and claret organic print.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the African Indigo man. Indigo fabric is safer territory for a British girl, with its denim blue hues. The cotton is hand dyed by traditional artisans, so no two pieces are the same. I bought 4 metres, although at this point I really have no idea what to fashion it into without looking like Bridget Jones on a gap year.
Finally I picked up some ribbons for the babes and some lovely monochrome Broderie Anglaise for next to nothing (some habits die hard). The prices are incredible so a little splurge won’t leave you in financial ruin for the sake of fancy dress; generally between £1 – £3 per meter. Needless to say I am delighted with my haul and I’m already itching to go back for more.
Marché HLM is gloriously chaotic but amidst the chaos lies some basic order. One side is lined with shops and stalls selling fabrics, shoes, ready-to-wear, lingerie. And on the other side lies an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ rabbit warren of alleys bursting at the concrete seams with tailors in full swing. I won’t lie. Much like Alice, when she came to and thought ‘shit, where the hell am I’, I was completely dumbfounded by the scenes in these passageways. Beautiful clothes being manufactured in conditions as basic as they come. And beaming smiles from all those I passed. I once submitted a document at work in order to improve our working conditions and office environment. I felt we needed better storage, a lick of paint and more space in the kitchen. Needless to say after a visit to HLM’s tailoring labyrinth, I now feel like a prize moron.
I arrived home with a sack full of fabric and am now on the hunt for a tailor to explore ideas and ultimately kick off the design process, tout suite.
Although tout suite may turn into ‘Africa time’ so do stay tuned…