As most of you know, I am not a big stickler for fashion. Jeans or shorts or shpants (more recently) and a t-shirt have suited me very well for over forty years. But, like when we lived in France back in the 1980s, I feel that Kigali is the place to get a bit more style on. In France, I got right into it, having my colours “read” and going on shopping sprees. I had a closet full of wonderful clothes that I wore all the time there. It felt good to fit in better and it felt good to dress up in a society that dresses up. But these clothes languished in Canada and I rarely wear my few remaining pieces – in part because none of them fit…
In Kigali, I feel sheepishly underdressed a lot of the time. I brought a couple of skirts with me, but they are pretty utilitarian (read straight and khaki). People accept me as I am, as that weird foreigner who wears jeans, but when I put on something pretty, my one skirt that has some fullness and colour, or maybe just a pair of earrings, people notice and tell me how lovely I look. Thumbs up all around.
Almost all the women here wear dresses or skirts. At school, children are separated by the clothing they wear. Trousers or shorts for the boys and skirts for the girls, regardless of a child’s preferences. I am aware that the reasons for dressing differently have a lot to do with accentuating the differences between men and women. And I am not terribly comfortable with that. But, nonetheless, I do feel drawn to fit in better, at least from time to time.
Simone has been hunting for a pretty fancy dress, all long and shiny and laden with embroidery. I really can’t go that far, although I did try on a top of that style that comes with a wrap around skirt (called a pagne – pronounced just like it is spelled, using French pronunciation) as well as a head scarf. This fashion is very expensive. I have included a photo of that moment for your viewing pleasure – or perhaps astonished hilarity! I have spared you the photo of me in the whole outfit, complete with head scarf! Just in case you are wondering, all the fancy embroidered stuff has some kind of stiffening material in it like maybe starch? For some reason, this is a sign of an expensive piece of clothing and very desirable. Myself, I prefer to feel the actual fabric, like it would be after it is washed. Nice and soft. And I am suspicious if I can’t rub the product between my fingers to feel the quality.
Last week, Jeanne brought in a dress that she thought would look good on me. Everyone approved but I feel I looked ridiculous – all bust and shoulders. Not flattering from my point of view. But you can be the judge! Apparently, this style makes me look like a “real Rwandan woman”. I have purchased some fabric that I like and feel I could actually wear, and I will have a dress and a suit made from two of these pieces in the near future.
But back to Kigali fashion. My observations tell me that whenever people go out, men or women, even if they have only one outfit for going out, they really try their best to look sharp. Everything is clean and ironed. You can tell that no one dashes out the door in their housework clothes to buy some milk. Ever. When women come to the centre, they almost always look quite elegant, regardless of their age or shape. One exception is for yoga class, but even then they cover up their sweat pants with a pagne. As well, when people receive us in their home, people wear their Sunday best.
The traditional dress in Rwanda is a matching skirt (or wrap), a top, which can sewn be in a variety of styles, and a head scarf, which is worn in a variety of ways depending on preferences. The head scarf denotes a married woman I am told. There are very particular styles of dress for weddings, and I also assume for other occasions like funerals and baptisms. Everyday wear ranges from the traditional to the very modern. Simone finds that young people wear incredibly stylish clothing and I agree. There is great attention to detail in both the clothing and the accessories. The western style clothes have way more flair here than they do in the west.
I will never give up my jeans and t-shirts, but for a few short months and maybe two or three times a year, on special ‘granny’ occasions, I will dress up in Rwandan style with all the attention to detail that entails.