Culture Trips

How African fashion has conquered film

Black Panther was not the first time a costume designer for a major studio production relied on real African influences to portray a fictional African country. In 1989, in the first Coming to America, Deborah Nadoolman Landis looked to the late Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, for the outfits of King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and to Senegal for the kaftan that Queen Aoleon (Madge Sinclair) wore in Zamunda. Nadoolman, who scored an Oscar for the costumes, had been an avid lover of African arts and textiles, long before the Coming to America screenplay was written.

While the storyline itself may still have a way to go in its reliance on old tropes, Carter, as costume designer for the sequel, elevated Coming 2 America by tapping actual designers working in Africa to assist creating the film’s 800 costumes. Expanding what she started doing on Black Panther, she helped expose local fashion designers to a wider audience, and also showcased their individual triumphs. In the patterned knitted vest that Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem wears in a scene with his newfound son is the 10-year success story of South African designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s Maxhosa. In the dresses that Prince Akeem’s daughters wear is the fashion empire that Palesa Mokubung – the first African designer to collaborate with H&M, in 2019 – has built.

“Their collections mean so much more to them than just fashion,” says Carter. “Their collections represent their childhood and their pride in being South African.” Indeed, Ngxokolo’s creations come from a desire to update clothing for the initiation ceremony of his Xhosa upbringing. Ghanaian designer Mimi Plange, too, draws on Nuba painting and scarification in her work, like the hand-painted leather skater dress that Kiki Layne wears in Coming 2 America. The details contribute to giving film-goers a more expansive view of Africa, and not stuck in time either.

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