Thursday, April 8, 2010


I saw a great T-shirt today. In sassy lettering across the chest of a large Liberian man, it said: “I'M NOT ONLY PERFECT, I'M ALSO A REDHEAD” (. . . which seemed like unnecessary repetition to me, but whatever).

Both here and in Kenya, everyday attire is a wonderful, colorful mix of Western and African styles. Tailors in Liberia are cheap, numerous, and skillful, and lappa (bright cotton wax-print fabric, mostly manufactured in other West African countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria) is sold everywhere. Many people (especially women) reserve their tailor-made African suits for Sundays and other special occasions, while wearing cheaper Western used clothing during other days of the week.

The women's African suits are absolutely beautiful. There are many different styles, from medieval-looking princess dresses with flowing sleeves, to severe square-cut suits with boxy 80's-style shoulders, to outfits featuring sleeveless tops and skirts that are tight around the thighs but flare out around the lower legs (reminding me of a mermaid tail). They are almost always flattering on every shape of woman, being tailor-made to her specifications. (I adore these outfits, but am far too aware of my whiteness to wear a complete African suit. As a compromise, I often wear a mix of African and Western clothes – like a tailor-made skirt with a tank top – which has the benefit of making me look completely ridiculous by both Liberian and American standards).

The Western clothing is almost all used and varies greatly in quality. Younger women and professional men tend to dress in very attractive, well-put-together Western outfits – cute tank tops and funky skirts or jeans for the girls, and neatly pressed collared shirts with khakis or business suits for the men. Everyday work clothes, on the other hand, tend to be of the Goodwill reject variety. Did you ever wonder what happens to the T-shirts of 14-year-old princesses once their owners grow tired of them? They're here, letting the world know that a Liberian mother of two is “SPOILED ROTTEN.” The “WORLD'S GREATEST GRANDMA” is apparently a middle-aged Liberian man, and, though I wouldn't have guessed it on first glance, there are several people here who would like someone to “KISS ME I'M IRISH.”

Then, of course, there is the massive merchandising machine that is Obama gear. Ugly, poorly printed Obama T-shirts, often an obnoxiously bright red, white, and blue, are everywhere. Obama keychains (many of which appear to be manufactured in someone's basement from pictures they found online), ostentatious Obama belt buckles, Obama backpacks, and Obama flip-flops (with “BARACK” or “OBAMA” printed along the sole) are hugely popular. I've even seen Obama jeans, the “OBAMA” daintily embroidered in fancy script over the right butt cheek, next to an intricately rendered picture of a dragon. Basically, if you can imagine it, someone in African will slap a picture of Obama on it and make a profit. (Who knew that the our national politics would revolutionize the fashion industry a continent away?)

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