Fashion Lookbook

How a popular West African robe blends mainstream fashion with cultural expression

I’ll never let my boubous go. The first question you’re asking, dear reader, is what is a boubou? A boubou is a West African robe, worn by both men and women.  It’s a wide, light garment with a usually triangular neck. They come in a variety of colors, often bright ones. When people think of boubous they are usually in relation to ‘aunties’, or middle-aged women. Growing up, the boubou dress made many memorable and distinct appearances in my life.

Some of the earliest memories I have of my mother are of her in her tomato red boubou, the hem rustling on our kitchen floor. So attached was my mother to this particular boubou that we had to throw it away behind her back when it could no longer be salvaged. Boubous were my first experience of having an intense loyalty and attachment to an article of clothing. My grandmother had one too, a speckled green one, still in my mother’s possession to date.

The monochrome polka-dot frock dress made by Zara stole this past summer without a doubt, but in addition to its popularity, the dress is also changing popular fashion trends. Exactly what is considered sexy or ‘current’ about an essentially shapeless dress? Before the Zara dress, nothing. After it? Everything.

Mainstream fashion is currently transitioning from form-fitting bandage dresses and skinny jeans to something different, bringing back the strange whimsy of prairie dresses and other loose-fitting, flowy silhouettes. Personally, I love it. I love the lack of a waist and the voluminous sleeves. I love the high necks and the billow factor these dresses allow for.

The reason why I love them is simple: they remind me of boubous.  The similarities between prairie dresses and boubous are pretty striking, including that both have historically been considered to be matronly and unflattering.  At least, that is how we are supposed to perceive them. But these dresses invite us to ask a different question – instead of ‘how do I look?’, they prompt us to ask, ‘how do I feel?’. It’s nearly impossible not to feel extremely comfortable and at ease in these types of dresses, although they have often been met with ridicule. The phrases ‘milkmaid’ and ‘potato sack’ tend to be particularly popular in describing them. Now, arguments are being made in their favor.

However, in my eyes, boubous go one step further than prairie dresses: they are a cultural signifier. If I ever saw another woman in a bright boubou, I would know immediately that there was a shared history between us. I would be aware that she, too, spent the better part of her childhood between her mother’s legs, getting her hair braided. I would be able to guess that a boubou is the first thing she throws on to grab some milk at Whole Foods. Boubous were a staple for us well before the ‘cozy girl’ aesthetic went mainstream.

But despite their popularity in West African culture, I have faced a surprising amount of backlash for wearing boubous. Until recently, boubous were seen as clothing for a woman of a particular age. I am of the personal belief that fashion should have no age restriction, and in defiance of aunts and uncles alike, I wore them everywhere. Going to different places and watching people first take in the formidable fabric that dances around my frame and then my clearly evident youth has been amusing.  The general perception of young peoples’ style is surprisingly limited – fitted, figure-hugging clothing is what most often comes to mind. But with artists like Billie Eilish, whose trademark baggy, comfortable clothing has differentiated her from many of her peers, and sustainable and environmentally friendly brands like Everlane, which is creating super comfy tent-like dresses for a mainstream market, this is changing.

Embracing clothing that is not considered conventionally flattering may seem like an odd choice, or even an unnecessary one. But in my life, it’s an integral part of my identity and culture. The imposing nature of what boubous represent demand instant respect. Walking through large market squares in a boubou in my country automatically ensures that you are seen as a ‘madam’.  When haggling with sellers, this is always a good thing. I am aware that the style and silhouette of boubous, much like prairie dresses, are changing.  I recently splurged on a boubou jumpsuit much to the chagrin of my friends. Did I care, though? No, I did not. I felt like Missy Elliot, and that’s really all I want in life. Nevertheless, the conventional boubou still reigns supreme in my heart and in my wardrobe.

The parallels between the new wave of oversize clothing in Western culture and one of the oldest styles of dress in mine has been fascinating to witness. Like just about everyone else, I am aware that fashion trends come and go with each season. Nevertheless, boubous demand that I be seen in a way only fashion can dictate.  In my style evolution, the original oversized fashion item in my life, the boubou, will always be here to stay.

By Modupe Adio

Modupe Oladiwura Adio is a writer and lawyer from Lagos Nigeria. Modupe is obsessed with all things pop culture and the intricacies of global black culture and its impact on the world.