Bags of hopes, fears and dream
Since the beginning of the month the talk of a new ‘IT bag’ has been doing the rounds on social media and Nigerian blogs. No, this is not Dior, Chanel or Celine. It is more high street than high fashion. The bag in question is Topshop’s take on the humble laundry bag – a zip-up square of woven plastic in a variety of coloured plaids and stripes, light and discrete when folded away, but capable of enormous volume. Made in China of course. It is also known in this part of the world as ‘Ghana Must Go.’
Its manufacturer (Zhejiang Daxin Industry Co. Ltd, China; minimum order: 10,000 units) describes it simply as a tote bag, but it boasts many other monikers depending what part of the world you are: the Chinatown tote in the US, Turken Koffer in Germany, Ghana Must Go in Nigeria, and Refugee Bag elsewhere.
This summer alongside straw bags and bucket bags, Topshop is trying to make the humble chequered bag with a suitably chequered history into a fashion statement, much like Marc Jacobs tried in 2007 for Louis Vuitton when he sent model sporting the woven chequered plastic bags down the catwalk, as did Phoebe Philo for Céline in 2013 when the label created high end designs inspired by the laundry bag pattern, and as did German designer Chris Rehberger in 2016 turning them into luxury must-haves with a price tag of 850 Euros plus.
While some Ghanaian and Nigerian social media users are bemoaning what they consider the West making a quick buck out of what is quintessentially ‘African’, let’s set the record straight: made in China, used pretty much everywhere around the world, these bags are anything but African, their use by high fashion and high street designers goes beyond intercultural inspiration.
Stripped off geography, all the sobriquets of this humble plastic bag suggests a history woven with struggle, displacement, heartache and hope. From the 1 million Ghanaian nationals forced to leave Nigeria in 1983, to the hundreds of thousands of Turkish ‘Gastarbeiter’ (guest workers) flooding into Germany in 1961 to the millions of displaced people pushed from pillar to post in present day, the humble laundry bag can tell a thousand tales of woe and joy.
One of the biggest cultural buzzword of the last few years, and one that causes some of the most heated debates has to be cultural appropriation – the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another, generally used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.
In an age where we are wary of cultural appropriation from Miley Cyrus sporting a bindi, to enturies-old corn rows being attributed to Kim Kardashian as ‘boxer braids’ and named a style inspiration by clueless Caucasian beauty writers to hundreds of American girls traipsing around Coachella in Native American headdress, how does a global fashion brand getaway with an item that culturally appropriates one of the largest and most ethnically diverse group in the world?
While there may not be a ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant worker culture’ as such, using a £1 bag signifying their flight, fears, hopes and dreams and refashioning it into a fashion item with a price tag of £22 seems just as curious as it is callous. Why anyone would want to shell out for the privilege of carrying a £1 bag filled with so much social stigma is beyond me.
I used these bags, long before I knew their cultural significance for Nigerians and Ghanaians, or for German Turks, for that matter, first to haul laundry to the nearby laundromat at the university halls of residence, then carrying all my life’s possessions from one London dig to another, while living the student life. Clothes, books, pots, pans; they would all go into a shapeless, voluminous zip-up bag, only to be spewed out into the new bedsit at the other end. They didn’t look fashionable then, they sure do not look fashionable now. And let’s face it, a student’s life, with all is privileges, creature comforts and the promise of a diploma to make life better is a far removed experience than that of the average owner of a laundry bag.
These bags are never about fashion, style or swag; they are about practicality, frugality, ingenuity to throw your life into a shapeless bag whatever life throws at you. They are about displacement, despondency, flight tempered with dreams and hopes for a better future. Turning that into a fashion item and shelling out £22 for the privilege? Just doesn’t wash.
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