Dashikis, An Old Symbol for Renewed Wokeness, Make a Comeback

Dashikis have been widely available in the Unites States since the late 60s but their popularity rises and falls with black struggle.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Nearly half a century since they were first popularized in the United States, dashikis are making a comeback as a fashion statement of identity and expression among black Americans. 

Tatiana Walton In a Dashiki

“I  think with everything going on in the world, America specifically, African Americans really want to show off their culture,” 20-year-old Tatiana Walton told Complex. “A lot of African-American students wear them. Not only that, they look fly as hell...It's equally a fashion statement and a cultural statement.”

Walton, an African-American studies and political science double major at University of California, Irvine, says she bought her dashiki from a family-owned business in Los Angeles that imports its inventory from Africa and, as a biracial black woman, wearing it makes her feel connected to her roots.

“I might not be West African, but having a little bit of African culture for my own while I seek out my roots makes me feel stronger,” she says.

As Walton noted, the Dashiki-style shirt is much older than its history in America. The brightly colored, sleeveless tunics originate in West Africa. In fact, the word “dan-ciki” translates to “shirt” in Hausa, a language spoken in Niger, Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Togo. The dashiki emerged onto the U.S. fashion scene in the late 60s and early 70s alongside a rise in black political consciousness as the Civil Rights Era gave way to the Black Power Movement and its Afrocentric aesthetic.

A black businessman named Jason Benning is credited with coining the term “dashiki” and developing the now classic dashiki prototype for mass production in 1967. Along with and three other men -- Milton Clarke, Howard Davis, and William Smith -- Benning produced and began selling his dashikis under the New Breed Clothing, Ltd label out of a Harlem storefront. In keeping with the Black Power Movement’s efforts at black uplift and cooperative economics, New Breed Clothing was led by Benning and a team of black designers. The business was even financed initially using a $20,000 loan from the Black Economic Union, an organization which used investments from black professional athletes to fund the creation of black-run businesses.

New Breed Clothing

By 1970, “dashiki” had been entered into Webster’s Dictionary and the item, along with the afro hairstyle, soon became a go-to symbol for black Americans. Jesse Jackson and Marion Barry began sporting dashikis, as did Sammy Davis, Jr. and Stevie Wonder, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver, and countless other black public figures.

As early as 1969, however, there was concern that the dashiki was becoming a hollow symbol, more of a fashion trend than a fashion statement. Poet Haki R. Madhubuti articulated his unease with the dashiki’s trendiness in a poem Ebony magazine featured in a profile of the young poet.

“He didn’t say | wear yr/blackness in | outer garments | & black slogans fr/the top 10,” adding, “The double-breasted hipster | Has been replaced with a | Dashiki wearing ripoff”

Before long, what was considered an expression of black pride became a source of embarrassment for many black Americans. Dashikis, no longer considered avant-garde, became costume and black Americans began putting the items away in favor of business suits as the Black Power Movement of the 60s and 70s waned into the 80s.

Marion Barry Dashiki and Suit

“The triumphant era from the African dashiki shirt to the 'Superfly’ look — a period of heightened black fashion consciousness — did not phase out without adding new meaning to the world of men's fashion,” noted a 1985 Ebony Man article on the state of black fashion. “Bizarre, outrageous and overdone’ are words that once described the 'Superfly' image of black male fashion. These words are now replaced with ‘conservative, chic, and elegant,’ as personified by the smooth sophistication of the present black professional."

After subsequent decades in the margins of popular fashion, dashikis are back. Indeed, a Google Trend analysis confirms that interest in the item has been consistently on the rise since November of 2012. And as was the case decades before, the current dashiki moment is happening alongside an increase in black political consciousness. There's no discounting the celebrity factor in the dashikis reemergence, though. In 2014, Rihanna caused a stir when she posted a photo to Instagram of her in a dashiki by Dimepiece LA Vintage. Earlier that year, Beyonce was photographed in an"African Leaders" dashiki by Ron Bass -- publicity so good it led to Bass' line of dashiki-inspired items for Forever 21. Finally, last prom season, New Jersey teen Kyemah McEntyre further boosted the dashiki's popularity when her dashiki-inspired prom dress went viral via Instagram, garnering McEntyre write-ups in Essence, Teen Vogue and The New York Times.

Ronnie Duncan is another fan of the dashiki. The 18-year-old Claflin University student believes young black Americans are beginning to wear dashikis again in the 21st century as a sign of black pride and appreciation for African culture.

“Actually, I’m seeing a lot more dashikis on campus,” Duncan said. "Because of the recent violence and racial discrimination towards blacks, I think that we’re starting to connect to home and embrace the culture more than before.”

Ronnie Duncan and Friends

Recently, Duncan and three friends at Claflin broadcast those feelings about the dashiki into the Twittersphere. In photos posted to Twitter, the group posed in assorted dashikis and jokingly declared August 29 “Dashiki Day."

Dashiki Pride is an online boutique founded in 2014 by three sisters from Nigeria with the goal of making increasingly-popular West African fashions more accessible in the United States. The boutique sells various items with distinctly African patterns, but its founders say the classic dashiki shirt is by far their biggest seller.

“We’re pleasantly surprised that the business is doing so well and so soon,” Dashiki Pride co-founder MarySonia Ugokwe told Complex. “When we began the business in 2014, there were only a few companies selling dashikis online. Now there are a lot. In a short period of time, the market went from very small to huge.”

Like New Breed Clothing before them, Dashiki Pride's Mirian Chinyere, MarySonia Chizoba, and Lilian Chioma Ugokwe are leveraging renewed consciousness and black celebrity power to sell their dashiki designs, and to great success -- the three say that their business sells between one and two thousand dashikis a month. In addition, the Instagram account for Dashiki Pride has more than 215,000 followers and celebrities including Blac Chyna, Remy Ma and Monica Brown have all worn dashikis sold by the boutique.

“We’re just trying to spread love and peace,” says Lilian Chioma. “We want people to come together and appreciate the culture and feel empowered. We can march and do other things, but there’s also power in standing out and catching someone’s eye.”


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