Zanzibar has an extensive and contentious history. The island was famous worldwide for its spices and its slaves. During the 19th century, Zanzibar was known all over the world as "a fabled land of spices, a vile center of slavery and a place of origins of expeditions into the vast, mysterious continent.'' The island was all these things during its heyday in the last half of the 19th century. Even though Zanzibar's spices attracted ships from as far away as the United States, it was the Zanzibar lady's dress style that caught my eye recently. While French designer Marcel Rochas is credited with originating the idea of pairing pants with women's suits in 1932, the women of Zanzibar should be credited with originating the dresses and long shirts paired with leggings look.
I was going through an old exhibition by The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art titled
I was going through an old exhibition by The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art titledWorld on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean when I was captivated by the style of the ladies of Zanzibar at a time when in other parts of the world, women could be arrested for wearing pants. The photos from the exhibition are mostly of women, decked in elaborate clothing and jewellery, wearing serious or playful or romantic expressions. These portraits were captured in photography studios throughout Kenya, Tanzania, and Somalia from the 1890s to the 1920s. The images offer glimpses into the subjects’ lives — and have an unusual history.
One particular trend among the Swahili women’s style of dress stood out in these historic photographs. Bold, statement trousers, tight like leggings with ruffles and flares at the ankle. These leggings like trousers were paired with matching blouses, also ruffled and flared at the sleeves and collar. These outfits could be as a result of the mixtures of several cultures on the island as the people of Zanzibar are of diverse ethnic origins. The first permanent residents of Zanzibar seem to have been the ancestors of the Bantu Hadimu and Tumbatu, who began arriving from the African Great Lakes mainland around AD 1000. As far back as the 8th century, Persian, Indian, and Arab traders used Zanzibar as a base for voyages between the Middle East, India, and Africa. Swahili people became intermediaries and facilitators to local, Arab, Persian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese merchants. During Zanzibar’s brief period of independence in the early 1960s, the major political cleavage was between the Shirazi (Zanzibar Africans), who made up approximately 56% of the population, and the Zanzibar Arabs, who made up approximately 17%. Today, Zanzibar is inhabited mostly by ethnic Swahili, a Bantu population of sub-Saharan Africans. There are also several Arabs, as well as some ethnic Persian and Indian people.
Photographer Pereira de Lord and his brother were among the most prolific photographers in Zanzibar history and their work made up a large part of The Smithsonian exhibition which closed on September 3rd, 2018 in Washington DC. Prita Meier, the co-curator, chose these postcards because “they show the compelling and amazing ways” that people living on the Swahili coast quickly embraced photography, especially portraits, and made the art their own. Meier also acknowledges the problematic history the postcards had as they were produced specifically for European and North American audiences — without the knowledge of the subjects.
In spite of this, these images of women in their stylish outfits tell us about the history of photography on the coast of Africa. They also tell us a story about women’s fashion — and how women and others on the Swahili coast enjoyed and remixed other traditions. Those living along the Swahili coast were not merely passive consumers of Western culture. They made it their own, and in turn influenced Western culture, too.