Family, photography, memories: Africa Fashion

Museums are not only about objects, they are also about people.

Dr. Christine Checinska, Senior Curator of Africa and Diaspora: Textiles and Fashion

To celebrate our Africa Fashion exhibition, we made a worldwide public call-out for material to feature in the forthcoming show. As well as seeking out early designs by notable designers such as Kofi Ansah and Shade Thomas-Fahm, the call-out asked for 'Family portraits and home movies from the independence and liberation years, showing African and African diasporic fashion trends of the day'. We hoped to be able to borrow these for the exhibition and tell the personal stories, and unique fashion histories of individuals across the continent.

The response was incredibly generous, with dozens of people getting in touch and sharing their fascinating and beautiful garments, textiles, accessories, photographs and other objects with us. A particularly striking element of the responses was the wonderful stories behind each of the treasured photographs. The abundance of memories and emotions that these precious, personal images embody form a key part of the exhibition narrative, offering a poignant insight into the lives and fashions in and following the independence era in Africa and within African diasporic communities in the UK.

Explore a selection of photographs and stories sent in by members of the public below. Highlights can also be seen in the Africa Fashion exhibition, alongside original garments.

Alice Beckley and a friend at a family wedding, 1980s, Nigeria

Two woman wearing blue and white aṣọ-òkè  and matching gele
Alice Beckley and a friend at a family wedding, 1980s, Nigeria. Lent by Tosin Adeosun

These photographs are an insight into a past that I am part of. This is a photograph of my grandmother and her friend at my auntie's wedding. They wear the same aṣọ-òkè but they've each made it their own with the way they've chosen to style it, the accessories, the way they've each tied their gèlè. They’re unique but together, ushering unified support for my auntie on her wedding day.

Tosin Adeosun

Mary Kufuor (née Abrokwah) and Rose Owusu-Boateng (née Abrokwah) photographed at their mother and father's home in Awudome, Accra, Ghana, 1968

Left: two women wearing sunglasses and 1960s dresses, smiling and pointing for the camera
Mary Kufuor (née Abrokwah) and Rose Owusu-Boateng (née Abrokwah) photographed at their mother and father's home in Awudome, Accra, Ghana, 1968. Lent by Michael Owusu-Boateng

My mother used to make all of her clothes, she was very stylish when she was young. Later, it was her main source of income when we lived in Tooting, and she also made clothes for my sister, cousins and aunts. We always had an industrial Singer machine sat somewhere. I had to take quite a few trips to Petticoat Lane with her to get fabrics. I didn't enjoy them then, but I do have a rush of nostalgia when I am anywhere in the East End. When designing garments, simplicity was her thing. There was always a story behind the style of her dresses.

Michael Owusu-Boateng

Bright Owusu-Boateng, 1969, London, England

Left: man standing in a brown suit, smiling. Right: Man sitting on a chair smiling. He wears pink trousers, brown shoes, a red shirt, and purple jacket
Bright Owusu-Boateng, 1969, London, England. Lent by Michael Owusu-Boateng

My dad (Bright Owusu-Boateng) was from a small farming village called Adeusena. Being accepted to a school in Accra was the first of many major turning points in his life. It was a big deal to pose by a transistor, like posing in front of a big flash car today. After high school my father was employed by Barclays Bank in Accra. He later had the opportunity to come to England and partake in a Barclays Exchange Program, a much sought-after opportunity. These (photos above) are some of the first shots he took in England to send to his friends and family back home. Six years later he met a stylish young lady (my mother) at a house party in Wandsworth and the rest, as they say, is history.

Michael Owusu-Boateng
Two men wearing white shirts and dark trousers, stand in front of a transistor. Each has a hand on the handle of the transistor
Bright Owusu-Boateng and friend Agyeman pose in front of the dormitory transistor at St Aquinas Boys Secondary School, Accra, Ghana, 1957. Lent by Michael Owusu-Boateng

Mr Michael Kweku Abrokwah, 1988, Ghana

Man sat on a white bench, wearing orange kente cloth, watch, ring, and ahenema slippers
Mr Michael Kweku Abrokwah, 1988, Ghana. Lent by Michael Owusu-Boateng

This is my grandfather, the man I'm named after. This is the first photo I ever saw of him. He's dressed for a formal occasion in his kente cloth…he's got on his best watch, his ring, and his ahenema slippers. There's a lot of prominence in what he's wearing. If there were family gatherings or celebrations this is what he'd pull out. Kente cloth often gets passed down through families.

Michael Owusu-Boateng

Kofi Owusu, 1970 or 1971, Accra, Ghana

Teenage boy wearing a white Jeromi with embroidery around the neckline, trousers, dark shoes and glasses
Kofi Owusu, 1970 or 1971, Accra, Ghana. Lent by Elsie Owusu and Kofi Owusu

This picture was taken around 1970 or 1971 when I was about 14 or 15. It was taken at a photographer's studio located on the Ring Road in Accra, near the Liberation Circle or what was then called 'Circle', and next door to a very popular hair dressing salon called Bea's Beauty Parlour. To put the picture in context, it was taken at a time when many Ghanaian families kept photo albums, usually displayed in sitting rooms and shown to visitors. The most common way of filling and replenishing these were by use of studio-based professional photographers, who took and developed the photographs. It was very common among our peer group to have pictures taken in this way. This wasn't a special occasion. As I recall my friend and I just happened to be passing and decided to get our pictures taken. The top was not particularly fashionable but was, and still is, very popular around West Africa and is called a Jeromi. Jeromi refers to the stitching pattern around the neck and chest.

Kofi Owusu

Alhaja Aduke Ojora with her ladies in waiting during the Islamic Chieftaincy title ceremony at the Lagos Central Mosque, 1977

Left: four women sat down, wearing ìró (skirt), bùbá (blouse), ìpèlé (shawl) and gèlè (headwrap) made from woyonsi: floral hand-cut organza made in Switzerland. Right: the women are celebrating around a car
Left: Alhaja Aduke Ojora (second from right) with her ladies in waiting during the Islamic Chieftaincy title ceremony at the Lagos Central Mosque, 1977, Lagos, Nigeria. Right: Alhaja Aduke Ojora leaving the mosque after the ceremony, surrounded by attendees singing and dancing in celebration, 1977, Lagos, Nigeria. Lent by Abiola Balogun

My grandma was the first woman to be bestowed the prestigious Islamic Chieftaincy title of Samori-Adinni of Lagos. This prominent title was given for her dedication and charity work supporting the presence of women in the Islamic culture in south-west Nigeria and her works within its community. Princess Ojora was known for her fashion style and in these pictures she is wearing the traditional Yorùbá outfit of ìró (skirt), bùbá (blouse), ìpèlé (shawl) and gèlè (headwrap) made of a fabric called woyonsi: floral hand-cut organza made in Switzerland. In Yoruba culture female peers are expected to dress for special occasions in the same attire called aṣọ-ẹbí. The way in which they carry themselves should depict poise and elegance, showcasing their garments.

Abiola Balogun, granddaughter of Princess Aduke Moradeun Ojora

Princess Sherifat Balogun (née Ojora), Victoria Island, 1979, Lagos, Nigeria

Woman wearing a white dress with delicate sleeves, standing at the top of a staircase
Princess Sherifat Balogun (née Ojora), Victoria Island, 1979, Lagos, Nigeria. Lent by Abiola Balogun

This is a photograph that my father took of my mother after they had returned home from a trip to New York. They went via Paris and took a Concorde flight. She wears an outfit by French designer Serge Nancel that she had bought on the trip.

Abiola Balogun, daughter of Amusa Fowosere Balogun and Princess Abioye Sherifat Balogun (née Ojora)

Cindy Deeds, about 1978, Yola, Nigeria

Woman wearing white lace top and orange skirt, leaning against a white car as she chews on the arm of her sunglasses
Cindy Deeds, about 1978, Yola, Nigeria. Lent by Cindy Deeds, Rachel Deeds and Esinam Jordan-Deeds

I had got dressed up to go out to visit a friend. The lace top was sewn in Nigeria. The fabric was from Ghana. I'm standing by a Fiat 132 – there were only a few of them at the time, what they call 'one in town' – a nice car, people admired it. I remember it was a car that one of my friends came and gave me. Her name was Esther. She just came and parked the car there one day and left. I called her and said, "Esther you've left your car here". She said, "It's for you, it's a gift". Life in Nigeria then was a very social time, at that time Nigeria was booming, there were so many parties – all night parties until breakfast.

Cindy Deeds, as told to Esinam Jordan

Cindy Deeds, about 1970, Cape Coast, Ghana

Woman with a 60s hairdo, sitting in a chair, wearing a floral dress and holding 60s sunglasses
Cindy Deeds, about 1970, Cape Coast, Ghana. Lent by Cindy Deeds, Rachel Deeds and Esinam Jordan-Deeds

This photo was taken in a photographer's studio, in roughly 1970. It reminds me of good times. I loved and still love fashion. I always received compliments on my dresses. This was a beautiful, special dress. I had it made by a seamstress. I love the pattern. I was wearing this dress one day and my friend Maggy and I were invited to a hotel ball where we frequently dined. People were ballroom dancing and I watched. A man approached and asked if we wanted to dance. I declined because I wanted to watch and learn the steps. Maggy went up. He asked if Maggy was my sister and he said she looked like she was being pulled like a fishing net out of the sea. Her legs were all over the place. We laughed so much that day. I was laughing too much to dance.

Cindy Deeds, as told to Esinam Jordan

Dinah Osei and friend, 1960s, Kumasi, Ghana

Two women outside, wearing white shirts with African print cloth wrapped over
Dinah Osei and friend, 1960s, Kumasi, Ghana. Lent by Akua Appiah

Looking at these pictures of my mother back in 1960s Ghana gives a wonderful glimpse of the past, as well as an insight into the merging of cultures through fashion. When I saw these pictures, it was like, 'wow'. She's the one with the big smile, which was the best accessory to everything she wore. She was at teaching college at this time. She's wearing a white shirt with an African print cloth wrapped over it – a mixture of western style with traditional clothing was her style choice from her youthful days into her later years.

Akua Appiah

As well as lending her photographs, Akua also very generously donated two of her mother's tailor-made outfits:

Orange and blue ensemble with short sleeves, a long skirt and a head wrap, featuring letters of the alphabet
ABC kaba ensemble, by Vlisco, 1990s, the Netherlands (manufactured), Ghana (sold). Museum no. T.36-2022. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Madam Esther Suwaola, 1960, Akure, Nigeria

Woman sat on a chair, with her hands on a bag on her lap
Madam Esther Suwaola, 1960, Akure, Nigeria. Courtesy of Clara Sade Howell

We all called her Mama… she was the boss, the anchor of the family. She always wanted to make a statement. She had a strong personality but most of all a big heart, anyone who went to her with an issue, would leave knowing that issue was solved. Her words of wisdom were always everlasting. She had two children, ten grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren and they are all strong-willed individuals. She was a judge – the only female judge working alongside seven male judges in the Customary Court of Appeal in the city of Akure, Nigeria. During her time as a judge she wouldn't dress like in this picture – she would wear Agbada, which is a traditional men's attire, on occasion when attending Ogun, a traditional indigenous festival. Not only was she a judge, she was a great politician who was well respected, a cloth merchant and the women leader of Akure town – she would be the one to advise the people of Akure during the Nigerian elections.

This photograph was taken the day my mum was born. She wore this outfit to celebrate my mum's birth, her second grandchild. This was the outfit she would wear to celebrate, or when she was going to an event.

Luluyetha Howell, great-granddaughter of Madam Esther Suwaola

We would like to thank everyone who got in touch in response to the Africa Fashion call-out, and extend our deepest gratitude and special thanks to our lenders for generously sharing their photographs, memories, time, and input for this part of the exhibition.

More about the Africa Fashion exhibition.

Header image: Mary Kufuor (née Abrokwah) and Rose Owusu-Boateng (née Abrokwah) photographed at their mother and father’s home in Awudome, Accra, Ghana, 1968. Lent by Michael Owusu-Boateng