My earliest recollections of fashion in Ghana start in the 1970’s when I loved trying on my cousins’ clothes. Smyly Chinery’s children were a fashionable teen lot, and my other cousins and I haggled for hand me downs from them even though the clothes were many sizes too large. Among the fashion items I inherited from them were a couple of crimplene trousers with five inch waistbands, a four inch wide belt with a kaleidoscope lion buckle and a couple of ‘guarantee’ or ‘platform’ shoes which I stuffed with socks to prevent them slipping off my small feet.
My father’s travels ‘overseas’ did not yield the fashion items we craved as children and I was always in awe of my friends 4 inch platform shoes and 24 inch ‘bars’ or bell-bottom trousers, when mine were a pitiable 17 inches. Bigger was better. The Osei-Bonsu brothers, (Sirbones,Crazo and Wazzo) at Roman-Ridge had huge ‘bars’ that swept the ground!
Without much TV fare then, JET and Ebony magazines and photos of musicians on records excited us and aroused our fashion sense. Brass Construction, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, The Commodores and the venerated James Brown were fashion icons in our simple, small world. We worshipped their large Afro hairdos, bushy moustaches and full beards, their multi-colour, large lapel plaid jackets with matching bell bottom trousers and huge shirt collars. Ghanaians aped them.
On the streets of Accra, the spectacle of someone struggling to cross the road in ponderous platform shoes often generated a “mi she guarantee!” shout. The Stiletto shoe with a metal toe-cap and the two inch wedge-heeled shoe later replaced the guarantee shoe for men.
Fashionable men grew their hair and ‘blew’ it. Those who could not afford creams that made kinky African hair more manageable and give it a ‘blown’ look would brush their hair violently backwards and having left it for several hours, and shortly before party time, grease their hair with Vaseline and painfully and tearfully comb it with an ‘afro-comb’; a process called ‘raising’.
This procedure gave ones hair length. But a lot of hair was lost in the process. Then it was gently patted into a round shape with a scarf. Some people, after ‘raising’ their hair went further to ‘stretch’ it with a hot comb and scald their ears! The Stiletto shoe with a metal toe-cap and the three inch wedge-heeled shoe later replaced the guarantee shoe for men.
Middle aged men wore political suits of varying shapes, colours and styles to work. A lot were ill tailored and fitted poorly. Some were made from combustible fabric. My father wore them for decades. He must have made hundreds at Gyamfi Garments. It has been worn by all classes of people from drivers, bureaucrats to socialist politicians. Unloved by the youth, the political suit endures. The stuffy three-piece suit was a must for weddings and other high-brow events.
Stylish women wore crimplene flower patterned dresses with elasticated waists and puffed sleeves. The mini skirt of the 60’s became the midi-skirt, a mid-calf length number which revealed little. The ‘Maxi’ a full length gown with a high waistline was a must for formal high-society evening parties.
Atop their high heeled ‘guarantee’ shoes and wearing afro wigs, the ladies of the seventies were quite chic. Faustina Acheampong, Ghana’s first lady at the time was its chief exponent. ‘Woodies’; noisy wooden slippers with a little leather strap came in all colours and sizes and everybody from little girl to grandma had to have one. The clunky unisex wooden Dutch Clog replaced Woodies.
Middle aged women wore full length ‘Joromi’s’ for informal evening parties. Unlike now, breasts were hardly on full display. Fashionable middle aged women kept their hair shoulder length during the day and did it up in a Pompadour for parties. However braiding the hair with strands of black thread, a throwback from the 60’s still persisted.
Toward the end of the decade, the ‘jelly curl’ or ‘wet-look’ a greasier, softer, curlier variation of the ‘blown’ hair held sway. Its downside was the fact that anything or anyone that came into contact with it was doused in grease. Suspicious wives detected erring husbands by finding traces of oil on their shirt shoulders.
The 80’s was the decade of Jeans. They came in denim and corduroy. Labels like Falmer’s, Jordache, F.U.S., LEE, Lee Cooper, LEVI’S and Wrangler dominated. From the regular straight cut, through the hugging ‘stretch jean’ and the baggy look of that decade, a common design thread was the contrasting colour stitching. The piped-jean was a must have. Pleated trousers ‘Gasbys’ made their appearance. Bandsmen loved the blue jean-jacket. It went unwashed for weeks and acquired a musty smell. The ‘hanging belt’ and the Hawaii beach shirt came in various colours and were a must for fun-fairs and Meet Me There beach events. Ashia Fabrics popularised the tie-die (tie and die) wrap-around skirt. The sleeveless ‘muscle-T’ was a favourite of bodybuilders, whilst Karate shoes and yellow rubber sandals called, ‘kayabale’ or ‘kayabs’, were worn by everyone.
Did the Kayabale inspire Ghana’s young leaders of the early eighties to wear ‘Afro-Moses’ sandals made from disused car tyres? Did the insistence of our young leaders during the revolutionary era of the 80’s that we led simple lives inspire the austere batik and tie-dye fashion of the eighties? ‘Adwoa Yankey” as batiks were known were worn everywhere.
Later christened ‘we shia wo nua’; ‘you’ve met your brother’, because everyone you met wore them, they are in my opinion, Ghana’s only successful recent attempt at enforcing the mantra; ‘Buy Made in Ghana goods’.
The palm-sandal was loved by the youth, though businessmen in Kantamanto, Abossey Okai and Okaishie preferred the slightly elevated, rugged Opanka. Blanco was used to tidy up jaded white Dunlop trainers, which Accra’s dust and repeated over scrubbing had given a permanent light brown hue. Back then Dunlop, not Nike was the ‘camboo’ to have. Old over-Blanco’d white leather shoes had a thick crust of paint on them. Flat moccasins and tasselled shoes (Ring my Bells) were in and Moro Stores was the place to get them.
Leather soled shoes with the Vero-Cuoio symbol were deemed a sign of quality, and the sound of them pounding on concrete floors earned one positive attention. People nailed ‘talkies’ to their rubber soles to get that rich sound to no avail. Dark wrap around glasses aka ‘Benhurs’ were later replaced by Ray Ban Wayfarers.
Men’s hair was kept moderately bushy and flat at the top, cut sharp and parallel at the sides and back; the Benzerino. Popularised by my mate Benze, it was a hit among both young sexes and though the ‘backbush’ came to replace it, the Benzerino was iconic. It went through several incarnations. Those who preferred to chemically treat their hair waved it. Their pillows suffered from the grease.
Some ‘Burgers’ (Ghanaian men who returned from Germany and the Netherlands) wore shower caps to bed to prevent them upsetting their partners, ruining their pillows and help protect their greasy manes. Their peculiar dress sense consisted of oversized clothes in non-matching colours, with trousers pulled up to just under their chests; ‘Pimpiniis’.
They preferred oversized, silky ‘shaky’ print shirts. Armed with Duestche Marks and Dutch Guilders and driving 1st generation 5 series BMW’s and often in the company of two or three women light skinned from bleaching, they attracted attention with their loud dress sense, gold-plated ‘copper’ chains and raucous behaviour.
Popular men’s cologne, (not perfume) included Jazz, Ralph Lauren’s Polo, Kouros, Azzaro, and Aramis. Calvin Klein’s Eternity was rumoured as a favourite of drug (then cannabis) barons. Boys had to ‘time’ Dad to get a few squirts of the conservative Old Spice or 4711 Cologne before stepping out. We could only afford Lomani. Classy women ‘feinted’ us with perfumes like Anais-Anais, Organza, Giorgio Beverly Hills and Samsara. Poison as its name suggests, stank but it was a hit.
Poorer secretaries and female students could only afford cheap, cheerful scents like Charlie, Elitis and Musk. Even poorer people used ‘tunlale’ a dark yellow musky scent mixed and sold in markets which stained clothes and clashed violently with body odour. Awful!
The black 6 inch wide elastic belt with 5 dart buttons was popular among women. Labelled the ‘abortion belt’ because it seemed to throttle the wearer, they were meant for shapely women, but larger women, ill-advisedly insisted on wearing them.
In the nineties people dressed to express their sexuality openly. Fitting Lycra dresses slit high up both thighs and Lycra pants were worn even by women with more than slight bulges, prompted the yell ‘Yokohama thighs!’ Tight low jeans hugged bums, blouses and T-shirts got smaller and exposed hitherto banned from public view cleavages and navels, whilst skirts were worn far above the knee and gave one a fair view. The ‘pious’ shook their heads in dismay.
Sheer fabric dresses which clung to women’s bare skin made men drool. Cleavage sightings became more frequent as older women tried keep up with younger girls less covered up look which engaged their husbands’ attention and threatened their marriages. Girls started discarding their bras in favour of a less inhibiting, liberated look.
The G-string, hitherto unknown to the Ghanaian woman who had played it safe with the ‘bowler pant’ made its appearance. Initially thought to belong to naughty girls wardrobes, it has since won many converts including middle aged women. In the 90’s however, unlike now, the G-string, and its precursor, the ‘sexy pant’ were worn privately. They were not for public view.
The ‘combination’ Kaba which consisted of combining African wax prints with strips of garish cotton fabric was popular among some women. The discerning frowned on it. This ‘combination’ consisted of ruining a fine wax print by contrasting it with ugly purple, red, green or yellow detailing. Some women clutched bags and wore shoes which matched these contrasting cotton strips. Some made 4inch belts in these garish colours. I hated it.
Teenage boys, inspired by American rappers on videos, wore over sized, over inscribed jeans which sat low on their bums and exposed their boxer shorts. It was called ‘Otto Pfister’ after a German coach who regularly wore his trousers low. The habit of showing fake Calvin Klein and other fake designer underwear was frowned upon by ‘right-thinking people’. Teenage boys ensemble included heavy neck-chains, bangles and rings, Timberland boots, over sized Nike and Fubu trainers and colourful baseball caps. Some had gold capping on their teeth and wore ‘bling’ ear studs.
Derisively called ‘Yo-Yo boys’, they moved in groups at social events and drew attention to themselves with their boisterous greetings, silly antics and fake American drawls. Given to drinking large quantities of cheap gin, they often staged gang fights and swore frequently using 4-letter words. The Yo-Yo boys were probably the precursors of the more worrisome ‘Sakawa Boys’.
Corporate women retired their batik and tie-dye skirts of the previous revolutionary decade for western skirt suits tailored by Accra’s clothes makers. Made mostly in linen and crisply starched, these suits came in all the colours and often featured 2inch diameter buttons in contrasting colours arranged in two parallel rows of 5 down the jacket front. The matching skirts started out full length, but with time rose to above the knee and had a small slit behind.
However, some women insisted on ‘combining’ their linen with flaps, strips and pieces of other colours. It made them look regimental. Women combed shops like Nayak, VM and Benjillo looking for the right ‘lin’ fabric. Generally they looked efficient in these suits with their permed hair, often tied in a ‘pony tail’. Unlike now, both men and women had their clothes made for them and hours were spent waiting futilely for tailors to make ones shirt, trouser or skirt.
Please permit me a few lines on the subject of tailors and seamstresses. If there ever was a collective group of persons for which the word “unreliable” was coined it is them. Unable to meet deadlines after making promises to deliver on dates and times they set, they regularly disappointed their clients or ‘customers’ and made silly excuses like not finding the right thread, zips and buttons and lack of electricity or ‘light off’. Clients were at their mercy.
The reign of tailors and seamstresses ended, maybe justly, in the 90’s with the recognition and widespread acceptance of ‘Oburoni Wawu’ a euphemism for ‘dead Caucasians clothes’ as a cheap, reliable way of finding ones peculiar and preferred clothes. Initially these clothes were donated by Oxfam and other charities to be distributed to the poor. They did not belong to the dead. Prior to the 90’s people would not sacrifice their dignity by wearing a ‘dead Caucasians clothes’.
Tofiakwa! This disdain for seconds has waned. Why did Ghanaians change their minds? Was it economic hardship? Was it was frustration with tailors and their lying ways that drove them to a reliable source of ‘ready-made’ clothes, which once washed were as good as new? Was it the wholesale preference for foreign goods and tastes? I cannot tell.
‘The Bend Down Boutique’, so called because the clothes are strewn on pavements, is, in the unwavering conviction of its adherents, a cheaper, better option to acquire fashionable, good quality clothes and leather goods and accessories for next to nothing. ‘Rags’ or ‘Folks’ as they are also known, have since the 90’s been ardently patronised by many classes of people. Male and female bankers, accountants, lawyers, secretaries, receptionists, radio and TV presenters have their ‘1st grade’, designer label, second hand clothes, tagged ‘factory rejects’ supplied quietly to them at home.
I’ll not attempt a dissertation of the influence of second clothes and its impact on the Ghanaian fashion scene here, suffice, its influence has grown steadily and endured from the 70’s when they were quite exclusively the preserve of the struggling class to now when they adorn the shelves of many top-line shops in Osu, Adabraka and East Legon.
Since the 90’s when poor ‘imitations’ of good clothes started appearing in our shops and markets and shops, the ‘Bend down Boutique’ aka ‘Folks Line’, consistent in terms of quality and price, and found in every major town and city in Ghana, has purveyed designer clothes and fulfilled the clothing fantasies of millions of Ghanaians young and old, and whole families at a snip.
But one cannot attempt to recount 90’s fashion without mentioning the role of linen; ‘lin’ as it was then known. Its advent in the early 90’s coincided with the age of embroidery and everywhere you went you were sure to find a linen shirt, suit, boubou or blouse.
A lot were over-embroidered. Linen has to be starched and it was. Cassava starch ensured a rigid look, whilst spray starch was used to smoothen the fabric. Men bought cassava starch at the market.
I remember a man from Osu who was rumoured to be gay wearing a lurid yellow linen boubou with large shoulder pads with a huge question mark embroidered in black on the back of his boubou. The overstarched three-piece Agbada for men relegated the western suit at state functions and gave its wearer a false air of importance.
There’s too much to be said for fashion trends in Ghana. So much I cannot draw a conclusion arising from the above. Everyone has his/her clothing preferences. Some ‘conform’ to society’s expectation of decent dressing. Others will not. Some are conservative, others are showy. Everyone has their style. Don’t foist yours on someone. But there are “criminals” lurking. In Ghana we have no Fashion Police. We ought to.
If we did they would find several of our Ministers, MP’s, DCE’s and pastors violating some of fashions ‘no-no’s’, catch them and hang them. Two DON’TS for our MP’s! DON’T leave the designer’s label on your jackets left sleeve. That tag lets you know made the jacket. Please cut it off! DON’T wear a mustard, lime green, green or burgundy shirt or jacket to Parliament. No reason, just don’t!
Sorry, I just imposed my views on you……Wear your clothes with pride.
Note: I did this article a couple of years ago as my contribution to the maiden edition of a lifestyle magazine that didn’t quite take off. I hope it evokes some memories in you…..