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Black Panther was bound to be a fashion moment. The landmark Marvel film, groundbreaking as a comic book movie with all black leads, not only features the fashion-forward Lupita Nyong’o, but also takes inspiration from an array of ethnic dress found across Africa. Styles from a variety of groups, including the Maasai, Tuareg, Akan, Mursi, and Ndebele, are represented in the film. And black fans around the world used the film’s opening to showcase their African or African-inspired fashions.
“We knew Black Panther wasn’t going to be just any other movie,” Mohammed-Hanif Abdulai of Ghana told Racked via email. “It was a movie about representation, culture, and diversity; a movie that had a message. In that spirit, we decided we were not going to treat this as just any other movie premiere.”
Abdulai’s Wildrness Productions company produces the film review series Couch Critics. The Couch Critics Twitter feed tracked what Ghanaians wore to see Black Panther, capturing images of fans in modern West African fashions, traditional dress, and even carrying drums.
“We asked our fans to come dressed in their best regal attires and they didn’t disappoint, showing up in their fine kente, batakari, dashikis, wax prints, ahenema adorned with rich jewelry, and beautiful drumming and dancing,” he says. “We proudly turned the lobby of the cinema into a beautiful cultural fest. Ghanaians showed the world how proud they were of their culture.”
In the United States, Black Panther fans were no less enthusiastic, using the film’s debut to wear clothing that represented their heritage. Ivie Ani, music editor of the music website Okayplayer, attended a private Black Panther screening with the film’s director, Ryan Coogler, at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn. She says a stylist from Zuvaa Marketplace, a purveyor of African fashions, styled the staff of Okayplayer and OkayAfrica for the occasion. Ani chose to wear a handmade ankara jumpsuit from Nigerian brand Studio One Afrique. The garment is called the “Tobi.”
“The word ‘Tobi’ is Yoruba for ‘great’ or ‘big,’ and it’s usually used in male names,” she says. “This ’fit encapsulates that definition: the ‘masculine’ element of choosing pants instead of a dress, the ‘feminine’ element of its form-fitting tailoring, the mélange of the primary colors — red, blue, and yellow — that would normally clash, I felt had a bold, grand effect instead.”
Ani initially planned to wear all black to see the film, but she felt her colorful jumpsuit made a subtle statement. She’s Nigerian and asserts that bold color defines fashion in her culture and a variety of others in Africa. She described color as “the soul” of African fashions.
“The Black Panther premiere has been such a moment as far as fashion goes because black people will take any opportunity to show up and show out at a function,” she says.
Paris-born New Yorker Esther-Lauren Mutolo, a stylist, considered wearing a T-shirt with a pro-black statement to Black Panther’s opening night. In the end, she opted for a vibrant African print, as her father hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“When I came across this jumpsuit in a local boutique, I immediately fell in love,” she says. “This jumpsuit reminds me of everything I was told not to be in life as a black woman. It is loud, obnoxious, eye-catching, and colorful. It represents my personality in its truest form. For years, I was told to be quiet and fit in with society’s definition of what a woman of color should be. When I wore that jumpsuit, I felt like I was defying every expectation set upon me by society. I felt beautiful and black.”
She also noted that black people in the United States face barriers in and outside of corporate America that make it difficult to wear African dress to work or even as everyday attire. Moreover, while white people can cosplay characters from any number of movies, black people have fewer options. Dressing up as an enslaved person or a Jim Crow-era servant would hardly be uplifting.
“This is more than just a movie for us,” Mutolo says. “This is about being acknowledged for something that is not directly tied to slavery or some sort of white suppression. Black Panther is about black people getting a chance to be themselves... Black Panther gave blacks a chance to let loose and wear their most obnoxious, vibrant outfit without being judged.”
Winston Wotse and his friends, Orlando Selasi Baeta and Goncalves Sena Baeta, did use the film to cosplay. They showed up to a cinema in Accra, Ghana, dressed as the Black Panther. As a Ghanaian, Wotse says he regularly sees people in traditional dress, particularly on Fridays, considered to be “African Wear Day,” he says.
“The clothes we wore are the agbada — which underwent some slight modifications to make it a bit more casual and to suit the Black Panther movie themes — and the kaftan,” he says. “Being comic book fans and slight dabblers in fashion, we created these designs from the iconic ‘fang’ necklace that adorns the neckline of the Black Panther’s suit and a merger of the ‘adinkrahene’ and the power line designs on the Black Panther suit for the kaftan.”
He said that not everyone appreciated how he and his friends dressed to their screening of the film. Some people demanded to know, “Why are you dressed like that?” But the questions didn’t ruin his filmgoing experience.
“The Black Panther movie was a great opportunity for us Africans and African-Americans to showcase our fashion because the entire movie had its visual structure and fashion inspiration from many cultures in Africa,” he says. “Ryan Coogler and his team put in a lot of work to create a Wakanda that was very realistic, relatable and stemmed in true African culture and traditions... For us this wasn’t cosplay, this was tradition, this was our heritage, this was our identity.”