Fashioning the Nation: A blouse created by a Nigerian fashion innovator
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Often regarded as “Nigeria’s first modern fashion designer” (Denzer, 2010a, p.332) Folashade (“Shade”) Thomas-Fahm created innovative garments which combined traditional Nigerian textiles and styles with a western silhouette. Her designs appealed to urban elites throughout southern Nigeria as well as to the global fashion scene, as Thomas-Fahm participated in many international fashion shows. This particular garment – an embroidered tie-dye buba (blouse) carrying the label ‘Shade’s Boutique of Lagos’ – was purchased in Brighton and now forms part of the collection of Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.
Thomas-Fahm was born in 1933 into a Yoruba family who migrated from Oyo to Lagos whilst she was young. After completing her education in Lagos, in 1953 Thomas-Fahm left Nigeria for the United Kingdom to undertake nurses’ training. Inspired by the boutiques of London’s West End, she quickly changed to a course in design at Barrett Street Technical College (later London College of Fashion) and then went on to study fashion at St. Martin’s College of Arts (later Central St. Martins). Her determination to succeed in the field of fashion saw her secure a role at Stenoff and Sons Furrier, a couture house on Old Bond Street, London (Denzer, 2010b, p.335). She also worked as a fashion model.
In 1960 Thomas-Fahm returned to Nigeria intending to establish her own fashion business, just months before the country celebrated its independence from British rule. She opened a boutique and factory, Maison Shade (later Shade’s Boutique), on an industrial estate in Yaba, a Lagos suburb. The factory remained in that location but the boutique moved, first to the Federal Palace Hotel and then to the Falomo Shopping Centre.
Inspired by the wider project of post-independence nation-building, Thomas-Fahm sought to create a new, modern fashion identity for Nigerian women. Frustrated by the apparent preference of many Nigerian women for British fabrics and designs over Nigerian ones, she sought to innovate Nigerian fashion, popularising the use of aso oke (Yoruba handwoven textiles), adire (Yoruba hand-dyed fabrics), akwete (Igbo handwoven textiles) and Nigerian-produced cotton prints in western styles. Her garments initially found popularity amongst European women living in Nigeria, but then attracted the interest of Nigerian elites. In 2018 she was recorded as recalling that, in the 1960s:
Nigerians were greatly influenced by everything that came from abroad. The socialization process, made Nigerians feel that the English culture was better and superior to ours. …. And so, we abandoned what was ours and embraced the fashion that was brought to us at that time. The years of colonial rule also gave many Nigerians a complex, about wearing ankara dresses or the tie and dye. When I returned to Nigeria at that time after my studies abroad, I had a hard time trying to convince Nigerians to wear dresses made with local fabrics, because we were under the British rule, we always felt that the English culture was better. That was what we were brought up to believe. … Luckily for me, with hard work and continuous pushing, it was the colonial women who first embraced the African designs much more than our own people. And when the European women started talking about Shade’s boutique and wearing my designs, Nigerian women followed suit. (Thomas-Fahm quoted in Akintoye, 2018)
Thomas-Fahm created garments for the modern, urban woman which offered a uniquely Nigerian aesthetic. As Victoria Rovine has observed: “She created zippered skirts that resembled wrappers but were easier for working women to wear, kaftans for women adorned with local styles of embroidery or made of adire, and beachwear made of locally woven fabrics” (2015, p.109). In pioneering her fashion business and demonstrating local and international interest in and demand for Nigerian fashion, Thomas-Fahm established a professional pathway which other designers would follow. Her accomplishments were recognised in a lifetime achievement award in 2011 given at Arise Magazine’s Fashion Week in Lagos. She remains a vocal champion of Nigeria’s fashion industry.
Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art / Member of the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition team
Akintoye, Omolara, 2018. “FOLASHADE THOMAS-FAHM: Allow your imagination run wild”, The Nation, 3 June 2018. Available at: https://thenationonlineng.net/folashade-thomas-fahm-allow-your-imagination-run-wild/ (accessed 1 July 2019)
Denzer, LaRay, 2010a. “The Nigerian Fashion Scene”. In: Joanne B. Eicher and Doran H. Ross (eds.) Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress: Africa, Oxford and New York: Berg, pp.331-356.
Denzer, LaRay, 2010b. “Snapshot: Shade Thomas-Fahm”. In: Joanne B. Eicher and Doran H. Ross (eds.) Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress: Africa, Oxford and New York: Berg, pp.335-356.
Rovine, Victoria, 2015. African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.