Threads of Identity

Fashion isn’t just clothes — it’s identity. From the confidence of a corset to the vibrant stories in African wax prints, our choices say something about who we are.

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Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

Coco Chanel

As I stepped into the striking corset covered with vibrant African wax print, a surge of pride washed over me. Amidst the flurry of activity backstage, I felt a whirlwind of emotions and a connection to my Zimbabwean roots. I was doing more than just putting on clothes to walk down a runway; I was embracing a piece of wearable art and allowing it to become an extension of myself. 

With each step closer to the runway, my nerves grew, but the corset hugged my curves, giving me confidence and echoing the strength and resilience of generations past. As I stepped into the spotlight, I couldn’t help but feel honoured to embody the designer’s vision and wear their creativity with pride. 

Though I’d walked in other shows since moving to Winnipeg in 2021, this was the first that incorporated African wax prints. 

Walking down the runway, I felt empowered. I held my head high as I embraced the connection between fashion and identity. The vibrant colours of the corset — a garment with a story of its own — echoed the richness of my culture and heritage. As I glanced into the audience, my heart swelled with gratitude, knowing that I was not just representing myself but also connecting with others through the power of fashion. 

According to professor emerita Karen Tranberg Hansen, fashion has deep roots in our cultural heritage. From ancient civilizations to modern trends, each era has left its mark on fashion, shaping the way we dress and express ourselves. 

My experience on the runway got me thinking about identity and how fashion connects back to who we are. 

The corset illustrates the connection between fashion and culture beautifully. The corset’s journey through time is not just a tale of fashion evolution; it’s a narrative of restriction, empowerment, confidence, and allure. Originating as a tool to shape the female silhouette, the corset has shifted to become a symbol of power, status, and even subversion. 

African wax prints also transcend being mere fabric; they represent a unique form of communication among African cultures, conveying messages silently yet powerfully. These prints serve as potent symbols of cultural pride, fostering connections and celebrating heritage.

These two fashion pieces share a common thread: they both serve as means to connect those who wear them to their identities.

The spell of the corset 

Allan Roberts wearing a black leather corset. (Thandi Vera)

Allan Roberts, an 18-year-old model signed to Panache Management in Winnipeg, exudes confidence in his all-black ensemble as he navigates the vintage store. His platform boots echo on the scuffed linoleum floor, blending with the rhythmic undertone of the music playing in the background. He examines the array of garments on display with meticulous care.

Roberts’s fascination with fashion began early. 

“I knew from a young age that I wanted to express myself through fashion,” he says. “Even at three years old, I’d say things like, ‘I want to be seen, I want to be on TV, and I want to have the best outfit on when I am.'” 

Growing up in Winnipeg’s North End, Roberts says his unconventional interest in fashion raised eyebrows within his family. “They noticed how differently I dressed. While the men mostly wore men’s clothing, I preferred to stand out so I would incorporate women’s clothes into my outfits,” he says. 

“I’d choose a fur coat over a plain men’s jacket any day!” 

Reflecting on fashion’s role in his life, Roberts noted, “Fashion definitely helps me express myself. It’s hard to put into words, but I think it truly reflects my personality.” 

From integrating women’s clothing into his wardrobe to finding his stride on the catwalk, Roberts says his journey in fashion has been marked by passion and determination. “Fashion has always been my way of standing out and showcasing who I am,” he says. 

Roberts’ love for clothes extends to experimenting with various pieces, including corsets. “I have worn a corset before, and I think it’s very cute,” he said with a grin. “It’s one of my favourite things to wear when I’m going out. It’s not something I’d wear for everyday occasions, but when I’m dressing up, it’s definitely a go-to.” 

Describing the allure of wearing a corset, Roberts said, “It makes me feel very curvy in places, and I really enjoy that feeling. I feel like I’m the most attractive person in the room when I wear one.” He chuckles adding, “People at parties always compliment me and say I look out of this world when I wear a corset. It’s a confidence booster for sure.” 

Roberts says he loves how now anyone can wear a corset; it’s become a gender fluid piece. 

“I love how they define your body, and I hope others enjoy that feeling too.” He emphasized the importance of feeling good in what one wears. “When people wear corsets, I hope they’re feeling themselves, feeling good, and enjoying the experience. It’s a fun accessory, in my opinion.” 

Corsets through time 

Over time — as corsets have evolved — so too have perceptions of them. At some points in history, they have been celebrated; at others, they are viewed in a negative light. 

According to the Hagen History Center, the Minoans, who lived on the island of Crete near Greece around 1,000 BC, were among the first to wear corsets. They wanted small waists, so they wore corset-like pieces. In fact, the earliest depiction of a corset comes from a statue of the Minoan snake goddess, where she is shown wearing a corset-like garment.

Fast forward to the Renaissance era, where Queen Catherine de Medici of France elevated the corset to a new level, making it a fashion statement synonymous with sophistication and influence. It became widely popular across Europe, according to an article by Deborah Brand.

However, it was during the Victorian era that the corset became incredibly trendy, and women embraced its transformative power. Despite the discomfort caused by tight-lacing, women embraced the corset as a means of accentuating their curves and radiating an aura of grace and sophistication. 

While corsets may have seemed empowering in some instances, their popularity was also deeply intertwined with societal expectations and norms. The widespread adoption of corsets often reflected complex ideas about femininity and a woman’s role within the confines of the home and society. 

Research conducted by physician Von Sömmerring suggests that the back-laced corset, popular among fashionable ladies of the time, posed a health hazard. He found that it compressed the ribs and internal organs, potentially leading to tuberculosis, cancer, and scoliosis (curvature of the spine). His illustration starkly contrasted the natural shape of the female body with the artificial hourglass figure created by tightly laced corsets.

Yet today, the corset has become a symbol of self-expression and body positivity. Customizable to complement every woman’s individual shape, they accentuate curves and inspire confidence, empowering women to embrace their bodies with pride and assurance. 

According to a blog post by Corset Deal, an online shop that sells a variety of corsets, in 2021, when COVID-19 rules eased up, people were ready to ditch their comfy loungewear for something more exciting. Suddenly, corsets were everywhere. They became a top choice for people wanting to show off their style and creativity. Fashion shows in 2022 featured corsets from big names like Weinsanto, Acne Studios, and Mugler, making them the must-have accessory of the season. 

Jasmine Gonzalez, 21, recently graduated from MC College in Winnipeg and designs corsets. She has always known that her future lies in fashion design. 

Jasmine says as a child she found solace in creating art and designing outfits for her Barbie dolls. Inspired by her grandmother’s introduction to a sewing machine and the freedom to create it offered, Jasmine’s passion for fashion took root early. 

“Barbie was also a huge inspiration,” Jasmine reminisces. “She was the first person I designed for. My first outfit I made for my Barbie was a tissue skirt set with rainbow rubber bands.” 

Throughout high school, Jasmine honed her skills, sketching outfits and developing her aesthetic. However, it was during her time at college that she delved deeper into the intricacies of design, focusing on the fit and technicality of garment construction. 

When it came to designing corsets, Jasmine looked to history for inspiration. Drawing from the structured silhouette of traditional corsets, she sought to create garments that accentuated and enhanced the wearer’s features rather than constraining them. 

“Creating a garment that followed the silhouette of the body and accentuated the curves and figure rather than hiding it was my goal,” Jasmine explains. 

Transitioning from designing for women to creating corsets for men presented a unique challenge for Jasmine. Drawing inspiration from tailored suits and historical references, she aimed to empower men and enhance their physique through her designs. 

“Back in the 18th century, men did use to wear corsets to maintain a certain physical image,” Jasmine notes. “I wanted to create a men’s corset that empowered them and made them look stronger in their physique.” 

Perfecting the patterns proved to be the most challenging aspect of Jasmine’s design process, especially when crafting corsets. Yet, she believes that understanding the body types of both men and women is crucial in creating comfortable and confidence-boosting garments. 

“Corsets becoming more gender-neutral is just another playing field for many designers,” Jasmine says. “I hope when people wear corsets, they feel empowered and confident, showing off their body shape rather than changing it.” 

Reshaping modern silhouettes 

Siobhan Bganya, a 22-year-old international student from Zimbabwe studying at the University of Manitoba student, spent years feeling uneasy in her own skin. 

“I’ve always been a bit curvy,” she says, reaching for a vibrant red corset adorned with delicate lace frills. 

Despite her own struggles with body confidence, Bganya dreamt of creating designs that would empower others to feel strong and secure in their bodies. “I haven’t always felt comfortable in mine, so as an aspiring designer/stylist, it’s been crucial for me to promote body positivity,” she says. 

One of Bganya’s go-to fashion statements is the corset. 

“I adore corsets,” she says with a chuckle, gesturing to a section of her wardrobe brimming with them. 

“There’s something about wearing a corset that makes me feel powerful, confident, and sometimes even sexy. I never imagined someone with my curves could pull off a corset until I saw celebrities like Lizzo and Ashley Graham rocking them.” 

Inspired by seeing more plus-size celebrities embrace corsets, Bganya decided to step out of her comfort zone and wear one in public. 

“I remember feeling nervous, wondering what people would think,” she recalls. However, to her surprise, the reactions were overwhelmingly positive, with expressions like “slay” and “get it, girl” greeting her that day. 

“Since then, I’ve only felt more confident,” she reflects with a smile 

Similar to the corset, African wax print fabric serves as a means for people to establish a deeper connection with their cultural identity. 

Connecting culture through fashion 

African wax prints burst with life, lining the walls of FOT Collection, a store located on Henderson Highway in Winnipeg. In the vibrant space with its bold gallery-like wall, Ola the store’s owner says her journey into fashion began with a childhood fascination for dressing up, inspired by her mother’s impeccable style. “My mom always knew how to make me look good,” she recalls with a smile. 

It wasn’t until she turned 21 that Ola decided to turn her love for fashion into a career. 

Skipping the traditional route, Ola learned the ropes of sewing and design in Nigeria, guided by the expertise of other designers. “I initially didn’t go to a formal design school,” she says, running her fingers over a piece of fabric thoughtfully. “I learned by doing, by practising, by making mistakes. I learnt from watching others.” 

Seeking to expand her skills in her later years, Ola pursued formal education at MC College, located just off Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. The college, primarily a beauty school, offers a one-year fashion design program. Here, she dove deep into the art of pattern-making and garment construction. It was at MC College that she grasped the significance of patterns in fashion, a revelation that would influence her own design philosophy. 

Today, Ola’s creations are a fusion of tradition and modernity, a tribute to her Nigerian roots and a celebration of African wax prints. “I love playing with Ankara prints, ninety percent of my designs use Ankara prints” she says, gesturing proudly at the fabrics adorning her space. “They’re so versatile, so full of life. They speak to who I am, where I come from. 

African wax prints 

African wax prints, also known as Ankara or Dutch wax prints, have become synonymous with African culture. These vibrant and intricate fabrics are a hallmark of the region, worn by men and women alike for everyday attire and special occasions. But what many may not realize is that wax prints did not originate from Africa. 

According to Anne Grosfilley’s book African Wax Print Textiles, in the mid-19th century, during the Dutch colonization of Indonesia, European developers sought to replicate traditional batik fabric using large roller printing machines. However, the imitation wax produced by these machines did not find favour in Indonesia due to its crackled appearance. 

So, the Dutch developers turned their attention to West Africa, where the vibrant patterns and colours of the fabric were enthusiastically embraced. 

Ghana became a hub for wax print production, with local women drawn to the bold designs and lightweight cotton fabric, ideal for the region’s hot climate. As the popularity of wax prints grew, European companies sent workers to West Africa to immerse themselves in the local culture and gather inspiration for new designs. 

This cultural exchange led to making popular designs and symbols that West African people really liked. 

The designs that make African wax print cloth so interesting are not only colourful and jazzy, but they often tell a story or send a message about their wearer. Many prints in Ghana have local Akan proverbs attached to them, offering a non-verbal form of communication between the person wearing the cloth and the people around them. 

The cloth names and meanings have evolved over time, with stories often being passed between the women working in the market and their customers. 

For example, in Ghana African wax prints are known as kente cloth and the designs have had different meanings through time for certain tribes/groups of people. An example of a design is Nsubra, an Akan word for “well.” The tiny dots which are in a spiral form resemble the ripples made in a well after water is fetched from it or when a stone is dropped into its depths. 

In Ghana, these kente cloth/African wax prints were initially worn by royalty and other members of society as a symbol of prestige, wealth, and cultural identity. They are still worn for special occasions and ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and festivals. 

The colours and patterns of kente cloth have symbolic meanings rooted in Ghanaian culture and history — red represents blood, black represents aging and wisdom, and gold represents wealth and royalty. The patterns and designs also have meanings, such as the “zigzag” pattern, representing a snake, a symbol of wisdom. 

Now, African wax prints are more modern than ever. They’re not just for special occasions anymore — they’re part of everyday fashion. People all over the world wear them, mixing and matching with all kinds of styles. 

African Prints are more than a fashion statement

Today, wax prints are a symbol of African identity and heritage. They are embraced by people across the diaspora. For Ola, these fabrics hold special significance especially living in Winnipeg. “I’m promoting my culture,” she says. “I’m proud to use the prints, they’re colourful and almost always go with anything.” 

Ola says though the style of wearing Ankara prints has changed, the fabric to her will always remain the same to her. 

“I’m always happy to wear African print because it helps me feel closer to my roots,” she says. 

Bganya cherishes her African wax print designs as a way to stay connected with her roots. “This is my favourite piece in my wardrobe,” she says, gesturing to a gown adorned with vibrant red, black, and grey patterns. “I had it made before leaving home because I wanted to carry a piece of my culture with me.” 

Growing up in the city of Harare, Bganya was surrounded by the vibrancy of African wax prints. “I was always fascinated by the bright colours and shapes as a child,” she recalls. 

While these prints were once reserved for special occasions like weddings or funerals, Bganya has noticed a shift toward incorporating them into everyday fashion. 

“I think with the rise of social media, more people are connecting from different cultures, hence the different designs that weave cultures together,” she says. 

She carefully selects a corset adorned with African wax prints from her closet, almost identical to the one I wore on the runway. 

“Take this piece for example.” 

“It’s modern yet cultural,” she explains with a smile. “When I wear it, I feel confident and connected to my heritage.” 

“I think that’s the beauty of fashion and why I love it so much.” 

Siobhan Bganya and model Laura Munyaka wearing African wax print outfits. (Thandi Vera)

Connecting through style 

I vividly remember the moment I fell in love with fashion: It was my first time attending a fashion event in Zimbabwe. As I settled into my seat anticipation hung thick in the air, the dimming lights cast a hush over the room, and the palpable energy pulsated through the crowd. I was swept up in the collective thrill.

As an eager eight-year-old, I was transfixed by the spectacle unfolding before me on the runway — a world of colour, texture, and style that seemed to tell its own stories. My mom and I exchanged excited whispers, connecting over our shared love for fashion and creativity. 

From seeing a runway show for the first time to wearing a corset made with African wax print on a run way years later, it’s clear to me that fashion shapes and defines who we are in profound ways. Through fashion we can express ourselves and connect to our identities and cultures.

People like Allan Roberts, Jasmine Gonzalez, Siobhan Bganya, and Ola remind us that fashion — including the corset and African wax print — can also be used to change the way we see the world and ourselves, reminding us of the boundless power of self-expression and creativity. 

Headshot of Thandi Vera.

Thandi Vera

Thandi (she/her) is a dedicated storyteller with a multicultural perspective, drawn from her upbringing in Zimbabwe. She thrives on crafting inclusive stories through various media platforms. In her spare moments, she immerses herself in Winnipeg's vibrant fashion culture or indulges in dreams of her next sushi feast.