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We Wore What? Centuries of Global Fashion as a System of Power

Two new books, ‘The African Look Book’ and ‘Dress Codes’, offer fascinating insights into fashion history, the first of which speaks to the unrecognized influence of African design, and the second on the ways in which fashion was deployed to exert power. For some 30 years, Catherine E. McKinley, a curator, author and educator, has been collecting images of women from across Africa that capture the vastness of the continent’s fashion. Her collection largely focuses on the countries of the Sahel, like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and on countries with Atlantic coastlines, from Morocco to Angola. At a time when popular culture might have us believe that the only African creativity worth praising must be linked to the royalty and wealth shown in works like “Black Panther,” “The Lion King” or the forthcoming “Coming 2 America,” McKinley delicately reminds us that African traditions, styles, creations and the people themselves — with their many layers and differences — don’t need to come from fictional kingdoms like Zamunda or Wakanda to deserve attention. The real, everyday beauty of Africa is worth canonizing beyond the continent.