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Fashioning identities and performing transnational ‘imaginaries’: fashion practices as diasporic spaces among the young Congolese community in London

Diasporic communities and language memory

A case study of the cultural and commercial production of Kiyana Wraps

The poster illustrates one of the case studies of my PhD research, which focuses on various forms of transnational fashion and beauty practices among members of the young Congolese community in London. By portraying the work of a London-based Congolese fashion brand, Kiyana Wraps, the poster aims to document Congolese young women’s diasporic geographies in relation to the commodity culture of headdress fashion. The fashion brand shows how the headwrap practice produces socio-cultural and symbolic meanings which are essential for the construction and performance of racial, ethnic and gender identities. Through the “re-appropriation” and “re-formulation” of the traditional African head garment, young diasporic women maintain a strong connection with past experiences, evoking the creation of a sense of Africannes/Blackness; tracing and enhancing a “Congolese/African/Black story”, which is embedded into collective homeland memories, often affected by an idealised idea of the DRC and the African motherland (Tulloch, 2004). Additionally, the headwrap ritual is used to embody gender configurations, where “feminist” and “feminine” identities are intertwined, representing a symbolic hybrid marker able to unite disparate women. Importantly, Kiyana Wraps cultural and commercial fashion production simultaneously exceeds specific cultural borders, being deeply affected by a direct multicultural influence from the city of London. It challenges strictly defined racial and ethnic boundaries and transcends the binary of the “imagined” transnational attachments. In this sense, the headwrap practice produces various forms of “ethnicised difference and multiculture” (Dwyer and Crang, 2002), creatively blending ethnic tastes with several cultural/stylistic inputs coming from a network of consumers with heterogeneous cultural backgrounds. In doing so, Kiyana Wraps team is, in fact, consciously deconstructing the stereotypical idea behind the headwrap tradition, trying strategically to expand economical horizons.

The poster seeks, in particular, to highlight how the use of multiple languages shapes the transformation of Kiyana Wraps into a transnational geography and a multicultural lived social field (Dwyer, 2004). This embeds and evokes diasporic memories while interconnecting several places and cultures and transmitting a multifaceted experience of diaspora. The multilingual combination of Congolese Swahili, French and English names, used to describe the brand merchandise, demonstrates how young Congolese women embrace “authentic” cultural and linguistic memories, preserve postcolonial linguistic legacies as well as being actively stimulated by the contemporary London environment.

Dwyer, C. (2004) 'Tracing Transnationalities through commodity culture: A case study of British-South Asian fashion', in Jackson, P., Philip, C. & Dwyer, C. (eds.) Transnational Spaces. London: Routledge.

Dwyer, C. and Crang, P. (2002) 'Fashioning ethnicities: The commercial spaces of multiculture', Ethnicities, 2 (3), pp. 410-430.

Tulloch, C. (2004) Black Style. London: V&A Publications.

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