I remember wondering in to a high-end fashion store in Bethesda, Maryland. I was looking at some long-sleeve shirts and not really looking to buy anything. A store clerk came to me and asked if I needed any help. The shirt I was looking at, at the time, was clearly above my price range. The store clerk probably had assessed my outfit (black shirt, and jeans) as soon as I entered the store and had made some assumptions about me. They consolingly suggested I looked at the cheaper on sale shirts at the back of the store. I didn’t like being placed. I felt a need to show them my ‘wealth,’ so I proceeded to buy the more expensive shirt (worn it once in 5 months). My above experience is a brief and personal example of the somewhat regular but silent confrontations we experience in the realm of fashion and social status.
Reflecting on this experience and other subtle pressures wider society places on me as a man to look a certain way, I imagined how it must be for African women in similar positions. This isn’t to say African men don’t experience similar pressures, but women are not only more of a target of the fashion industry but also face more obstacles to their mobility up the social ladder (Claudio, 2007). Buying clothes becomes more than just ‘for fashion’. It is a fundamental means of communicating multiple intersectionalities of our personality, which are consciously/sub-consciously scrutinized. But how real are these burdens an African cosmopolitan woman faces? To answer this question I prepared a qualitative questionnaire and sent to a few women in my network, and conducted an interview, hoping to receive some idea of how they perceived themselves in the global and local arena, and how they saw the clothes they wore connecting to their access to opportunity.
Perspectives of Accra’s Women of the Cosmopolitan Elite
The number of women I was able to contact was quite limited given the time constraints. The women varied in careers, and educational backgrounds but were in the same age group (25 - 30) and had lived or were living in Accra. All had accessed global urban spaces, and were somewhat autonomous in regards to work life. I would definitely admit that it is not representative of this sub-group of women known as African and cosmopolitan elite. But one thing these responses are is hopefully a step in the right direction to revealing the obstacles these women face in regards to their access to the global economy.
The results of the interview conducted and questionnaire received aren’t conclusive but are useful in aiding the questions we asked in the first part of this essay. The participants had diverging views on fashion, for instance one is a fashion blogger and places an emphasis on what she wears and the others spent less on clothes to free up funds for travels around the world.
When asked of there being an awareness of their identity as an African in the global world, the participants had similar responses. They both didn’t really consider themselves as conventional African when first moving from place to place but over time both expressed a renewed sense of being African. However, both experienced the feeling of being black in public spaces abroad. One felt it wasn’t necessarily an uncomfortable feeling but a distinct one nonetheless, while the other participant described an uncomfortable encounter with a Caucasian girl who asked her “how come you don’t sound like them?” Tellingly, both participants did admit of observing and personally witnessing the pressures of ‘fitting in’ or ‘standing out less’ whether it was in school abroad or moving around in a global city. Elaborating on the issue of ‘standing out less’ one participant described how it could be problematic for finding work and pointed to situations in class where students from Africa became a certain “kind of target.” On another note, referring to my experience in the up-end store in Bethesda, a participant also described wanting to prove to “non-Africans that many Africans were modern and ‘normal’ and had the same luxuries or conveniences that many in the West had.”
An interesting finding was participants’ heightened awareness of being a woman in Accra as compared to places abroad. One participant was explicit about how being a woman was particularly pronounced in Accra, and was derisive of Ghanaian men who are “more comfortable chatting you up.” The other participant expressed a different sort of pressure being in Accra entails and eloquently put it as “nobody accepts the individuality.” Furthermore, the pressures were seen as suffocating and could be perceived as uncomfortable to a certain extent. Though movement in the local urban spaces may not seem as significant in comparison with global urban spaces, it becomes relevant for women if they want to be taken seriously and thus gain access to global spaces through local networks. Another interesting and complicating finding, was the issue of not having as much access to high-end fashion here in Accra, and having to take advantage of being abroad to shop for clothes.
I would like to reiterate that this study is inconclusive and not entirely representative of women of the African Cosmopolitan Elite. With further reflection the intersectionality of African, cosmopolitan and woman can’t simply be understood as one category since within those identities there are different perceptions of self, and they play out differently in different spaces.
Identity and Pressures of Cultural Hegemony
One thing we can conclude from the section above is identity is complicated. My argument for it being more so for African women of the cosmopolitan elite may still be ‘up in the air’ but referring to Costello’s (2004) identity dissonance could open up for more interesting findings. Identity dissonance refers to the conflict between what a professional role entails and pre-existing identities. There are two forms of dissonance, namely positive and negative identity dissonance. Positive is where a person favors professional identity over personal, and negative is vice versa. Given the context of traditional global north/ south relations I would say that a standard professional identity is characterized by values and ideals shaped by the global north. This assumption is in some way an observation based on the theory Gramsci put forward as cultural hegemony, whereby the ruling cultural groups set the values, beliefs and norms for the ruled (Gramsci & Forgacs, 1988). Though Gramsci was writing on class, his idea can be expanded to the present to reflect a new hierarchy of global north over global south. For our context, one can not deny the level at which contemporary cosmopolitan Ghanaians aspire to lifestyles of a western make-up, and evidence of this can be seen in Accra where there has been a profound shift from traditional compound houses to more Western style nuclear family homes (Grant, 2009). With access to foreign-currency being such a crucial element for people in Accra looking to move upward, being able to fulfill this standard professional identity becomes precedent for many aspirants. How far they perceive themselves to be from establishing their professional identity can potentially translate in many forms, and buying clothes to ‘fit-in’ may be one of them.
This is where more needs to be done to investigate how for Cosmopolitan Ghanaians, not necessarily in the elite, perceive or deal with this pressure of fulfilling a professional identity and whether they prefer doing so over their personal identity. As Costello’s (2004) study observed a dramatic change in wardrobe of the female students in the professional schools, the same should be done for Cosmopolitan Ghanaians, not only the women but men as well. These pressures are significant not only because of their implications for people’s upward mobility, but also because the pressures can have an effect on work/study performance.
The Price of Fashion
It is unfortunate that there is we can’t dig further into the second message of my blog post to do with the consequences of acquiring material possessions for African cosmopolitan elite. What I can do with the limited space is briefly layout some points on the issue.
Fundamentally, the way fashion is consumed and produced is unsustainable. Firstly, the production processes are highly polluting. Whether it is the pesticides used in the production of cotton, which accounts for a quarter of all pesticides used in the US, for instance, or the fabrication of polyester which is a petroleum derivative and involves high energy intensity in its manufacture, or the movement of these materials across the world, global fashion has a high polluting footprint (Claudio, 2007). Secondly, the consumption patterns for fashion is almost as rapid as it is for fast food and this can be attributed to the price and availability especially in global north markets (2007). Aside the rapidity at which consumption of fashion occurs is the rate at which it ends up as waste or just stocks up in our wardrobes. As waste, clothes either continue to be clothes, absorbent industrial rags, or material used in stuffing upholstery, insulation or paper products (Claudio, 2007). For us African cosmopolitan elite, our indulgence in the global fashion industry, to an extent, suffocates local industry. Even though jobs and trade occur in second hand clothing and provide cheap clothes and income for the lower classes, it is not a sustainable model to rely on, or one that benefits our developmental goals in the long run.
Finally, there is a limit to which material well-being positively relates to happiness. On a macro scale the point at which GDP increase doesn’t improve well-being but rather decreases happiness is known as the ‘futility limit’ (Daly, 2007). On a personal level too, only a certain amount of material possessions will provide happiness. To an extent, the problem with clothes is in some ways related to the global discourse on whether global south should develop in the same material intensive way the global north developed. But what is becoming clear is that the biophysical conditions that we humans live in are not infinite. If we were all to live as most people do in the global north we will deteriorate our environment and in so doing, make it harder to exist on this planet. Pursuing a fulfilling lifestyle in harmony with the environment is not impossible and there are many cultures and sub-cultures, which have tapped into a way to be happy without accruing excessive material wealth. It is up to us to be aware of what we do and be honest to ourselves about why we do it.