Taking a moment to stand up and admit that I, Katie Roberts, am a doco-holic. Most days I devour at least one documentary (usually while writing… I’m apparently good at multi tasking). Then there are days where I come across viewings as addictive as Freetown Fashpack and have to indulge in every episode. This series is currently available to Aussies on ABC i-view (sadly everyone else has to wait six months) and shares the stylish stories of some of the residents of Freetown, Sierra Leone a country commonly associated with civil war, blood diamond, and the recent Ebola crisis. Ranked as the eight worst place to live where the average income equates to just $1.70 per day. Despite dealing daily with what most Westerners would consider to be very important ‘developing world’ issues many of the residents of Freetown have a passion for fashion and style. This was interesting for me, as a passion for fashion is a topic that I have personally been attacked for on social media in the past being informed by Facebook commentary that it’s a ‘first world concern’ and a pursuit of fashion is frivolous and vain. That we should not care about silly stuff like clothing when there are wars, hunger and disease happening across the Globe. Here, though Freetown Fashpack, we see those surrounded by seemingly ‘far-off’ issues, using personal style as a way to bring happiness into their every day, where even those who struggle to make ends meet still want to look their very best.
This brilliant series was developed by Jo Dunlop (who in the documentary is accused of being unstylish by a sneaker store owner), an Australian living in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She moved to Freetown in 2011 to work for UNICEF, and was surprised to find herself surrounded by stylish, colourful, and creative personalities. She states that upon moving to Freetown
…it soon became clear that what Freetown lacks in high street shopping, it makes up for in style. The streets are teeming with some of the most resourceful, brave and outrageous fashion decisions ever made.
She started her blog Fashpack Freetown (showing off the ‘Freestyles’ of the residents) to document the style she saw and to try to understand how fashion became a force of creativity in the face of catastrophe.
Where your Charity Donations End Up.
So how do folks living in the slums afford to look as good as the chap above? A chap named IB Love who is a sprinter, lover, and graphic designer who happens to live in one of the poorest slums of Sierra Leone with a life expectancy of 35. Believe it or not, these people might just be wearing your cast-offs! Many of the items you send to your local charity store (approximately half) end up bailed and sold to the global secondhand clothing market. You may remember a post a little while back that showed charity items in India being recycled into blankets, well another adventure your used clothes could take is a trip to a secondhand clothing market in a developing country like Sierra Leone. These markets in Freetown are called the ‘Junks’, where vendors (try to) make a living selling your used items, and those looking for stylish finds can pick up items that fit their budget. Of course, as many of us ‘styled minded’ people know secondhand clothing shopping doesn’t always result in the ideal item. Freetown residents take what they can find in the Junks and creatively redesign using local tailors to create items that fit their desired look and religious beliefs. There are a couple of religious beliefs shared throughout the series with one highlight, Mariama (a barmaid who uses fashion as a tool to get better tips spending half her wages to buy new clothing) identifying as being ‘not-a-good-muslim’ due to a love of crop tops, and others considering dressing for a trip to church as the fashion equivalent of a night out or a fancy event for us westerners. While the global secondhand clothing market is a contentious issue due to the fact that it reduces the need for a local clothing industry, can result in the loss of traditional clothing production techniques, and moves our textile landfill offshore where it’s no longer our responsibility, it seems from this documentary series that tailors are in high demand for custom junk designs and alterations, with tailors workshops on every corner!
Jo highlights that we Aussies generally dress to fit into our lifestyles, situations, and locations. This is not the case for Freetown’s fashionistas. People are loud, dress to make heads turn, and dress to create a character (style characteristics that are only seen let loose in Australia at music festivals). Residents of Freetown play up their character every day. The best example of this is a fellow called ‘The Councillor’ (pictured in the first photo in white with a blue beret) who dresses like a cop but is an entirely self made man. As the leader of the taxi motorcycle union consisting of 3000 members that the police would love to ban, his authority comes from the way he chooses to dress. With a collection of medals and ribbons he has awarded to himself (why the heck not… shouldn’t we all reward our own brilliance) he worked his way up from regular Freetown boy to head honcho with attitude and a signature look. When he’s not dressed in his finest and annoying the police The Councillor was aiding in the burial of the victims of the Ebola crisis.
Fashion is taken seriously in Freetown. When residents aren’t enforcing high style standards on themselves the President has made a national mandate that they dress in traditional fabrics on Fridays, resulting the the colour-pop that is ‘Africana Friday’. Fabrics native to Africa include but are not limited to Bazin, Kente, and Kontri Cloth (which is from Sierra Leone), with the most recognisable for us being Wax Print Cotton which is in fact a bit of a hybrid Dutch/Indonesian/African cross-breed that is increasingly being produced in China. It’s amazing to see the variety of colours, designs and prints that are worked back with traditional Western designs on Fridays. Many of the outfits put together by these Freetown folks would rival the ‘it’ crowd of any international Fashion Festival event. In a country that has been deeply affected by Ebola (where 3589 people died including 221 health workers but is now Ebola free) many considered fashion as a way of looking like you ‘have it all together’ when times are tough and that looking good on the outside can make you happy on the inside. Some health carers donned African fabric scrubs as a way to lift ‘spirit and zeal’ in trying times with one nurse (an Ebola survivor), Sorie claiming that his printed scrubs make him ‘dance and go to the ground’ (stated with a smile and and a happy dance).
If you have the opportunity to watch this doco series I highly recommend it. Let’s shake the tree and share with the World that fashion and style is a global issue! It’s not exclusively for Western folks. It’s a culture-crossing language of style that transcends status and situation. Fashion is not frivolous and it’s a Global issue! Take cue from the Freetown Fashpack and be loud, be proud, and dress your insides on the outside.