Clothing Matters: Asian-African Businessmen in European Suits 1880-1980
Summary Asian businessmen in East Africa supplied goods, services and capital to African, Arabic, Asian and European customers, traders and other businessmen. In this complex cultural environment, they had to choose what to wear on any given what occasion. Expressing dignity, wealth, trust and reliability are key variables in making cross-cultural business contacts and building an appropriate image. When they arrived in East Africa between 1880 and 1920, Hindus and Muslims alike wore their own traditional attire, headwear and footwear, or no shoes at all. When they left Africa – around 1970- they wore a typical European business suit, including a tie and shined black shoes. In this article I explain the changing dress habits of Asian businessmen in East Africa as a result of –among others- the change in political environment from European colonies to African states, and the shift in economic preferences from dealing with India to dealing with Europe. Nevertheless, these factors should not be seen as a social economic structure imposed from above. This article shows that adopting a European dress style was a way to demonstrate an ability to modernise, move with the times. In the context of Asians in East Africa, it should be emphasised that European clothes are an indication of their „progressive‟ ideas, but must also be seen as a critique of their own culture.