Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 8.34.35 PM

This muslin fabric with embroidery is pretty, right? It could be made into a lovely, lightweight summer dress or top that would be wearable in hot season. That’s what my friend thought too. But she was very perceptive in noticing that although this fabric is easily available in Dakar, it’s usually only seen for tying babies on backs.

Wise woman that she is, my friend asked about the fabric’s appropriate use over on the Gazelle Skirt, a blog and Facebook group on fashionable living in Senegal. The answers came rolling in and were in agreement that the cloths are used for tying on babies but also as slips, nightgowns of a sort and some even have rather, ahem, interesting uses between the sheets. But the question remained: would it be okay to have a tailor fashion this special-use cloth into everyday clothing and then wear it around town?

There the opinions ranged from “Probably shouldn’t” to “Well I guess you coooould…” to “Go for it!”

And that’s when I got tapped on the shoulder to write about the choices we make to dress culturally appropriately or venture (boldly or naively) out of bounds.

Rocking the wax -print 'complete' in the early 90s.
Rocking the wax -print ‘complet’ in the early 90s.

To give a bit of background, I grew up in West Africa and then returned to work here in Senegal after college. Then we moved back about five years ago. So I’ve lived and worked in a village and also in the big city of Dakar.

But let me tell you – 2003 Dakar and 2016 Dakar in are not the same place. The rules have changed, and they continue to evolve. For example, just three years ago, women exercising on the Corniche wore those swooshy, baggy track suits and usually with a headscarf and/or (yes, I said ‘and’) baseball cap. Today, you see women in spandex leggings and shorts. Yawn. No big thang in the oh-one-six.

Very thankful to be living under a 2016 dress code.
Very thankful to be living under a 2016 dress code.

Well, unless you’re in a more traditional neighborhood of Dakar, like say Yoff. Then it would still be a very big thang for a woman to wear leggings that showed her derrière or shorts that showed above the knee.

It’s not just about modesty though. As with the muslin cloth my friend wanted for her summer dresses, some of the guidelines are cultural – and whether we understand or not doesn’t make it any less inappropriate (or possibly even offensive) if we push these limits.

Before you get too up in arms about pressure to comply to local cultural norms, let’s imagine for a minute that the tables were turned. What would you think if you were strolling through the aisles of Target and saw a nicely dressed mom-of-three who was using a pair of skimpy underwear to tie back her ponytail. Or an oblivious middle-aged businessman wearing a suit with ratty flip-flops. You’d probably wonder how they could not know that they are doing is so… odd. It’s not necessarily immodest or offensive, just not the way things are done if you want to be taken seriously.

Me in 2004, dressed way too casually for work. Oops.
Me in 2004, dressed way too casually for work. Oops.

Years ago at a conference in Dakar, I remember an expat woman in her 60s bragging about having been here 15 years and speaking multiple languages as she lived in all these villages so culturally immersed… And even though I’d been here only 18 months, even I knew the brightly colored dress she was wearing with her fancy jewelry was actually just a Senegalese housedress that no woman in her village(s) would have ever worn outside of her home, much less to a big conference in fancy Dakar!

Oops. I did it again...
Oops. I did it again…

I’m not here to point the finger though. That same year I repeatedly and repeatedly wore wax print skirts (the kind with ties, not zippers ’cause I was so local) with solid cotton tops I’d brought over from the US. Now I realize this was horribly inappropriate and far too casual to wear to work in a clinic, even in a village setting! But in my mind, it was a compromise between the cultures. It was like a clothing mullet: American for the shirt, Sunugal for the sër. Alas, no…

...and again. (And being honest - basically every day, okay?)
…and again. (And being honest – basically every day, okay?)

Looking back, I remember noticing that the clinic’s cleaning ladies arrived wearing beautiful ensembles and then changed into work clothes (wrap-skirts like mine and smocks) that they wore only while cleaning. Zoom. That little nuance went right over my head until years later.  As a toubab, I ‘got away’ with wearing stuff that makes me cringe now to think I was THAT culturally unaware or insensitive. But mostly just I was just plain clueless.

So how can we determine if clothing is appropriate or not?

  1. Look around. What are your peers wearing? Just as in any country, styles and guidelines for appropriateness vary with age, social status, level of professionalism, etc… Let’s take the example of men wearing shorts. Look around and you’ll see that shorts are for actively participating in sports or worn by talibé boys and maybe window-washers on busy intersections. Does that mean adult men should never wear shorts? Of course not! But it does mean that it’s worth thinking it through before putting them on. Where are you going? Who are you meeting? Will it be disrespectful to them if you are wearing _____?
  2. Ask a trusted friend. “Is this okay?” will get you far down the road of dressing appropriately. Especially if you actually listen to the answer and take it to heart even if you don’t fully understand the ‘why’ behind it.
  3. Realize it’s a ‘yes’ culture. Even your trusted friend may be sparing your feelings and allowing you to save face by saying, “Yes, you can wear that.” So if what they say goes against what you’re seeing when you look around, try asking, “But would you wear it?”
  4. Understand that it may be like skimpy underwear on your head. Sometimes it’s ‘okay’ to wear something meaning that it’s not immodest or offensive, but that doesn’t mean you should do it.
  5. Remember you are a guest. Respect the host culture. We live in a Muslim country where legs, thighs and derrière are where it’s at. Period.

One final thought to keep in mind as you as you thumb through your closet… “Lekkal lu la neex, waaye solal lu neex nit ña.” This Wolof proverb means, “Eat whatever you like but wear clothes that please others.” You will never, ever, ever be overdressed in Senegal. Dressing to impress means giving the other person respect. And why wouldn’t we want to do that?