Sunday, 9 August 2020

Evolution of 'gele' as female fashion, from Nigeria to African diaspora stage

A 'gele' headwear with ipele (scholl) adorned by Juju musician, Ayo Balogun. Pic: c/o Ayo Balogun.

A Yoruba adage of old that says ‘a woman’s fashion is incomplete without her gele’, has proven its resilience, even in the 21st century contemporary African culture.

With its increasing popularity, recently, on the international fashion space of ethnic minority, it is important to track the modern evolution of gele (pronounced 'gaylay'). The origin of gele as emanated from Yoruba culture and virtue is not exactly known. However, many archival photographs of over a century old suggested that gele must have been around much longer than the time those pictures were taken.

The gele phenomenon in African female fashion, over the centuries, has also given rise to women consciousness in native dressing generally. As a design, the gele female fashion tradition, in the diaspora, has been, quietly, exposed at social gatherings of most Nigerian descents wearers, over the decades. However, its journey into broad  international space as seen in Beyoncé’s Black Is King film, most likely, would increase its popularity beyond the Nigerian origin and to other parts of the world, as the 21st century fashion space gets more ethnic in textures.
Apart from artistic impressions of a nineteenth century popular businesswoman, Madam Efunroye Tinubu (c. 1810-1887), there is at least one photograph of her that suggested a basement on which gele evolved. In the picture, dated 1887, Madam Tinubu adorned what looked like a mini gele, but covered by a long shawl that flows down her shoulders to the back. It is of note that the shawl is known as ipele or iborun (pronounced ekpaylay or eeboroon) in Yoruba female fashion. The ipele still form part of the Yoruba female fashion till date as it goes with gele most times.

Supporting that the gele may have been around before nineteenth century was a picture, courtesy of Kingsley Mary Henrietta (1862-1900) and published in 1901. The picture shows two women and a girl as all three adorned gele and ipele.

As at the middle of the 20th century, the gele headwear has grown into a more stylish and bigger sculptural design. Perhaps one of the reasons that gele grew into a more stylish female fashion statement as Nigeria approached its independence period, from the British colonial rule, was the love for native Yoruba dressing. In the nineteenth century, according to quite a lot of archival photographs, Yoruba women were dressing mostly with only the iro (wrapper), which cover their torso as the main dress supported by ipele. However, the emergence of buba (native Yoruba blouse) increased more interest in the gele. The three-piece: buba, iro and ipele was perhaps seen as incomplete without the gele, just as the people's adage of old advised that a woman's fashion statement makes more meaning with the native headdress.
With the euphoria of the 1960 independence came increasing elaborate social activities, particularly in ceremonies such as wedding, burial and naming of new born babies. Such social events, which led to adventure in fashion trends, particularly of Yoruba origin also gave rise to aso-ebi (identical family dressing). The aso-ebi (pronounced ashor-ehbee) culture is the Yoruba people's way of identifying different families or lineage during large gathering of ceremonial kind. Such social gatherings for party is also known in Yoruba parlance as 'owambe, a contemporary Yoruba street slang for 'get down to the beats of music. 
Beyoncé in gele, from her musical film, Black Is King. Pic:

Between the 1960s and late 1970s, women fashion of strictly native African styles, specifically with gele was highly in vogue. The 1960s, for example, according to works of photographer JD Okhai Ojeikere (1930-2014) gave rise to more women wearing the three piece-native dress of iro, buba and ipele with gele as a must.

After the Nigeria-Biafra civil war 1966-1970, Lagos increased its attraction as the seat of political power and economic hub of a new country just out of an avoidable war. Despite the oil boom eras that continued from the early 1970s till the late 1980s, there were gross underdevelopment of other parts of Nigeria. And in addition to the devastating effect of the civil war on the Eastern parts of the country, the migration to Lagos also came with the increasing social gatherings in the country's capital city.

Lagos, which was predominantly Yoruba, subconsciously, spread its culture of elaborate party events among other ethnic groups in the city. Gradually, Lagos' constant social gatherings of aso-ebi became norms, even with people who came to the city from other non-Yoruba speaking areas of country. And by demographic texture, people from the Eastern and Niger Delta parts of Nigeria were more in population than other non-Yoruba ethnic groups, trooping to Lagos for economic survival. It was just a matter of time that women of Igbo and Niger Delta origin also got the gele fashion trend.
It is important to note that head-wear, mostly in scarf and less elaborate wrap were not exactly missing in women of the non-Yoruba extractions such as Igbo, Niger Delta, the Middle-belt and core north, so explain many archival photographs of the Nigerian people taken across the country, pre-colonial and post-indepedence periods. Also there are other photographs that show social gathering of women in groups in non-Yoruba parts of the country, dated pre-civil war, which had women wearing scarfs and head ties, but without gele as being worn in Lagos and western Nigeria, in general.

The Lagos and western Nigeria factor, apparently, had a strong influence in the female headwear fashion known as gele. For example, Mrs Eguzo Ironsi, the mother of the then Nigeria's first military Head of State, General Aguiyi-Ironsi, in an undated picture adorned gele over a blouse or gown. The photograph, which was published in Ironside, a biography of Aguiyi-Ironsi (1999), by Chuks lloegbunam, however does not show, clearly, the style of the blouse worn by Eguzo.

While buba and iro are, currently, becoming less popular among young Yoruba ladies who prefer tight fitting western gown and skirt, the gele, even till date keeps growing in diverse designs. In the diaspora, the gele has become so popular such that there are people who are professional wrappers of the headwear.

Nigerian women in the complete three-piece of iro, buba and ipele (shawl), during Ojude Oba Festival, 2018, in Ijebu Ode, Ogun State.
Among such designers and fashion professionals is Azeezat Abiola Amusat who worked with Beyoncé in the African American singer’s musical film Black is King. Amusat, a nurse who moved from Nigeria to the US over 15 years ago, had shown her gele designs at different exhibitions in the host country. For example, from March 26-July 30 2017, at a group exhibition titled African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style, organized by Fowler Musuem, UCLA, Amusat's gele styles were shown with other African fabrics from  Cameroon, Côte d’Ivore, Ghana and Senegal.

It was doubtful if Beyoncé's stylist and wardrobe manager of Black is King, Zarina Akers knew much about gele before the start of the film project. With the expertise of Amusat, there was no doubt that the details of the different gele styles complied with contemporary female Nigerian fashion depicted in the film. From Beyoncé's different gele of either processed lemon green or red colour to that of a 69-year-old Mojisola Odegbami, the basic sculptural textures of the native Yoruba head-wear are not lost in the film. The difference, however, is that Odegbami, who lives in Abeokuta, an ancient town near Lagos, matches her gele with its natural Yoruba female fashion outfit of buba and iro. For Beyoncé, her gele on non-African design blouse and gown represent the contemporary combination of African and western fashion of most young Nigerian ladies.

It is also important to note that buba has its gender style. The buba for male is longer in length to as far as the knees, but the arm is usually the same with that of the female. The male buba, for those who do not know, is being mistaken for 'kaftan.' No: buba and kaftan are not the same.

Is there a male style for gele in Yoruba fashion? No: the male's head-wear is a cap known as gobi or fila.
 -Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based Art and Culture Advisor.

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