The head wrap was brilliant blue. It mirrored the applique on the long yellow bodice of the strapless gown and was echoed in the shoes and handbag.
The designer of the dress is fashion queen Carolina Herrera, born in Venezuela and now living in America. But the head tie is pure Nigerian. That got Nigerians buzzing. And they weren’t necessarily buzzing in admiration.
Before we get to that matter, let’s consider the history of the Nigerian head tie.
In Nigeria a head tie is called a gele — that’s the word used by the Yoruba, one of the country’s many ethnic groups. But the wearing of head wraps is traditional for all Nigerians and indeed for most African cultures. An artfully folded gele is part of everyday wear and de rigueur for special occasions like weddings
You can use any kind of fabric to wrap a gele, and handwoven cloth has long been used. Today’s towering and intricate styles work are best executed with a thin crisp rectangle of cloth imported from Switzerland. Its paperlike consistency is ideal for folding, wrapping and layering.
There are many ways to tie a gele. In 1960, geles were tied to mimic the architecture of Nigeria’s first skyscraper. When the National Theatre was built with a peaked roof to mimic a general’s cap, Nigerian fashionistas folded and twisted their geles to echo the design.
I learned to tie my geles from watching my mother, but these days you can hire a professional to do the job. It’s a big business, especially for weddings.
Tying isn’t the only option. Some gele experts will create the style on a base and stitch it down, so you put it on like a hat.
If you’re curious about technique, you can call up 859,000 how-to tie gele videos on YouTube. That’s a testimony to the intercontinental and international reach of Nigerian fashion, spurred by a growing entertainment industry and a renaissance in art and culture on the continent.
Go to a Nigerian wedding in one of the world’s megacities on any given Saturday and you will find friends of the bride styled just like Lupita Nyong’o was in Toronto: an ankle-length dress topped with a gele, all in identical fabrics. Family, friends and old schoolmates signify their relationship to the celebrant by wearing aso-ebi — a Yoruba word that means family cloth. They all buy the same fabric and make an outfit, in the style of their choice. Even men will sometimes make a cap in the fabric.
That Nigerian love of fashion has fueled a booming business.
Ibifagha Cookey, a Lagos-based financial analyst, estimates that
custom-made apparel from self-employed tailors generates $8.2 billion annually out of the clothing industry’s $19 billion in sales. That’s right, the majority of Nigerians get their clothes custom-made. So this is an industry that is not fettered to any seasonal dictates. Color reigns, embellishment is supreme and bold unusual combinations, like the yellow and blue of Lupita Nyong’o’s outfit, are standard. And when, like Nyong’o, the outfit is beautifully coordinated, Nigerians will say you’re “dressed to match.”
It’s not just working-class tailors who are part of the fashion scene. Nigeria is home to a fast-growing group of couture class designers who headline fashion weeks in Johannesburg, Lagos, Durban, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Dakar, Capetown, London and New York — names like Ituen Basi, Tiffany Amber, Ituen Basi, Lanre da Silva, Fred Eboka, Lisa Folawiyo, Jimi King, Maki Oh and Deola Sagoe, to mention a few.
But let’s get to the real question: Did Nyong’o wear it well? And this is not simply a question of whether she looked good. I sampled a number of opinions from Nigerians in New York, Johannesburg and Lagos, from Accra and Toronto. Most said that Nyong’o’s gele needed practice. Basically the style was vintage to put it nicely, an old look, reflecting 1980s styles. It does not have the crisp architectural look of current gele fashion.
Of course, whether you like the look of Nyong’o’s gele is a matter of taste. Some people don’t go for the latest look.
And then there’s the question of the designer of her gown. There’s no denying that Nyong’o looked outstanding. But in the opinion of some, she missed an opportunity.
“I was so in love with her outfit and so happy that she was dressed in that manner and so shocked that it was CH [Carolina Herrera],” a friend said to me.
Another friend agreed: “The fact that she’s wearing a gele at the premiere for Disney’s first movie with an African female lead suggests she was probably trying to pay some homage to African attire. In that case, I do think it would have been more appropriate for her to wear an African designer.”
I don’t think the cultural appropriation question arises here — that is, the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture, without acknowledgement. Nobody can accuse Nyong’o of cultural appropriation! But sweet sister, if you were attributing the source of everything you wore, you should have said who designed the gele!