Tanzania Wears Prada Posted on March 29th, 2010 by

Brand names.  Americans love them. Abercrombie and Fitch, Banana Republic, Columbia, GAP, Nike, Talbot, Birkenstock. Fashion is important in America, especially to younger people.  Social status is defined by the names on the tags of your clothing.  Consumers faithfully return to their favorite stores, spending a fortune on a pair of blue jeans.  Many even fall into debt because of their want for the best, newest clothing.

 In Tanzania, appearance is as, or perhaps even more, important than in America.  But people here aren’t concerned with brand names.  A different kind of style reigns.  It doesn’t matter who made your clothes, or so much how they look or fit.  What matters is that you are wearing nice clothing.  Everyone wants to look ‘sharp’ and respectable.  Brand names mean nothing to Tanzanians.  Clothing is clothing.  Having an outfit that matches isn’t key.  But your overall appearance is essential.  It doesn’t matter who designed your dress slacks just as long as they’re ironed and creased properly.  Westerners have the stereotypic image of an African child in a baggy, tattered shirt and old flip-flops.  This stereotype is wrong.  Sure, you can find children dressed like this.  But anyone who can afford it, dresses well.  You won’t find anyone wearing sweat pants and torn sweatshirts for anything other than working out.  People place much importance on looking good.  Not on having the right brand names or latest fashions, but on the statement that you have taken care to look your best. 

 Though Western clothing has become a dominant style in Tanzania, tradition still holds on.  Traditional dress is still apparent, especially for women.  Custom-made dresses cut from richly patterned fabrics are sewn with old Singer machines on street corners.  These dresses come in countless styles and have a truly African flavor.  Swaths of fabric known as khanga are wrapped around the the waist as a skirt are sometimes worn with the Western T-shirt.  Many Maasai, a tribe in East Africa, completely refuse to wear anything Western and proudly display their traditional shúkà dyed deep red and blue.  On the coast, where Arabic influence is apparent, men wear white tunics with matching caps and women are hidden underneath floor-length burkas. 

Clothes shopping is a mêlée of noise, heat and colour.  There are no shopping malls and clothing boutiques here.  Buying clothes must be done from a secondhand clothing market.  The clothing market near where we live sits atop red African soil and under the brilliant equatorial sun.  It’s quite expansive, extending a area comparable with that of a Western shopping mall.  The sharp smell of second-hand clothing permeates but doesn’t repel.  Wooden lean-tos with tarp roofing house ever type of clothing imaginable.  Some specialize in women’s blouses, others in blue jeans and others in hats.  In some, clothing is displayed from wire hangers and in others, clothing is left in rumpled heaps for the shopper to sort through.  Other vendors don’t have the convenience of a lean-to and pile clothes on low tables or on tarps spread on the ground.  Women with fanny-packs of small bills yell out prices like auctioneers and school-girls dig through piles of shirts for something that suits their fancy.

All clothing that passes through these markets is second hand, some used more gently than others.  Brand names are stuck next to nameless designers, with nothing to distinguish the two.  For some articles of clothing, it is clear how they got here – stained or torn or so terribly out of fashion they shouldn’t ever be allowed to be worn again.  Other garments are hidden treasures that don’t even show signs of wear.  Some obviously came straight from the garage sale, 25¢ masking tape price tag still attached while others could have walked right out of Macy’s.  The ones in better shape fetch higher prices – $2 for a shirt and $7 for a pair of pants at most.  If you’re lucky you can find great deals in the piles of clothing that would cost you only pennies.

Finding suitable clothing is somewhat challenging in this environment.  For starters, you have to find something that you like.  Once that is accomplished, does it fit?  Is it clean?  Is it damaged at all?  Finding an article of clothing that meets all of these requirements can be tricky.  But once you find something that works, you have a distinct feeling of accomplishment.



  1. CHICHI says:

    i am a Tanzania, i have to say ur article is not true.. do you people ever get facts straight…
    who said there are no boutiques in Tanzania… gosh… maybe you were in rural areas.. im sure even in America there are places with no shopping malls or boutiques…
    who said finding good clothes was challenging… stop misleading article.. i feel sorry for your editor because this is so wrong.


  2. Mara Johnson-Groh says:

    I am sorry to have offended you. It is true that there are boutiques here but there are no real clothing stores in the American sense, at least that I have come across. Also, many of the boutiques still deal in second-hand clothing.

  3. chichi says:

    no worries, i just love my country .. i hope you unddersatnd… are you a journalist, which paper do you work for?

  4. Mara Johnson-Groh says:

    Hamna shida. I’m just volunteering as a seconday school teacher here for the year and Gustavus asked me to write for them. I don’t work for anyone and I don’t have an editor; I’m just writing for leasure.

  5. Kenton says:

    Well am a Tanzanian too, ur article is very misleading, not all tanzanians wear 2nd hand clothes, there no boutiques that sell 2nd hand stuff, u must have been visiting 2nd hand shops.