Jan 1, 2017

Fashioning Change: Zanzibarian Fashion Through the Photographer's Eye

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

Black and white photos on paper are often distancing; seeming to present people whose worldview is far removed from our own; fictional caricatures flattened on a page. In these studio photos from Zanzibar, however, spanning the 1830s to the early 1900s, we see individuals whose faces bear the casual and knowing expressions we instantly recognize as "modern" and their chosen poses and fashions tell a story of social change.

Turn-of-the-century Zanzibar studios thrived on elite patronage, while also marketing urban views and portraits to growing numbers of temporary residents and visitors.

The abolition of slavery in 1897 marked a turning point in the history of photography as well. Demand for touristic images of Zanzibar’s legendary beauties, posed and smiling, coincided with the moment when newly freed women began to dress and adorn themselves in ways previously forbidden.

Though such photographs were mass-marketed as postcards and souvenirs, these images nevertheless suggest a complex interaction. Wearing expensive clothes, many of the women’s poses and demeanors suggest a strikingly modern and assured connection with the camera.

Taken within the context of photography’s sudden expansion to include wealthy and poor—aristocrats as well as the newly freed—these portraits remain an extraordinarily valuable trace of the island’s untold histories.

The Sutlanate of Zanzibar

Sultan Seyyid Said established the Omani Arab sultanate on Zanzibar in the 1830s, allying with the local hereditary rulers, the Hadimu and Tumbatu dynasties. The new sultanate brought women from central and east Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean islands, Oman, Persia, Circassia, and India to marry the Sultan—as freeborn wives and as concubines.

The Palace in Zanzibar, seen from the sea, in 1894.

National Anthropological Archive

Upon arrival, they were renamed and adopted Omani dress. Royal wardrobes brought together influences from the Indian Ocean - marinda pants with flared ankles, thought to be a Circassian introduction, were worn with long chemises and shawls of fine silk and cotton cloth, intricately wrapped kilemba (headscarves), and heavy, imported silver jewelry.

High ranking, young native woman

Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890

In Behind the Veil: Zanzibar Costumes author and fashion designer Farouque Abdela tells us, "Here, a confident and elegant Zanzibar woman, circa 1890, wears Marinda-style clothing, which is still commonly worn today for Bomu, the Umbrella dance performed at weddings."

"The outfit illustrates a new trend where contrasting design and pattern captures the attention of the observer.
The costume, Kanga dress, and the long scarf were made from block printed, imported, bleached cotton with black and white design."

"The trousers have frills which are hand-painted."

"The head covering is made from printed coloured cotton. Ear and nose jewellery were very much in vogue in Zanzibar."

"The style of the woman in the photograph depicts a creative adaptation of the clothes of the Zanzibari aristocracy by women from lower socio-economic backgrounds."

By 1850, Zanzibar Town was populated predominantly by people brought forcibly from east and central Africa. Others were traded or migrated from across the Indian Ocean, from Madagascar and the Comoros, Oman, Persia, Georgia, and India.

A seated woman with one arm draped over the back of the chair, in native dress, turban and simple jewelry including multiple ear studs.

Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890

That Zanzibar was the hub for so many exchanges and migrations perhaps encouraged photography collectors to ascribe portraits by location or origin.

Though captions are not entirely reliable—such as “Jeune Malagache Majunga” (Young Malagasy woman from Majunga).

Three photographs from the Coutinho Brothers studio show women reflecting distinct and different engagements with the photographer and each other.

A girl in native dress, looking disgruntled, arms akimbo and standing at an angle to the camera.

Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890

Alternately resistant...

...playful...

Portrait of a woman dressed in a kanga and turban with her feet wide apart, arms akimbo, looking provocatively toward the camera.

Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890

...and decorous...

Two girls in native dress, one arm of each linked at the shoulder, the other akimbo.

Coutinho Brothers
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890

..this range of interactions leaves a complex and ambiguous photographic record.

References from the albums in which they were collected suggest two may represent Comorian women...

...likely referencing the long chemise and trousers and the stylish kanga.

During the 1870s, Zanzibar Town’s first commercial photography studios were among the earliest established in east Africa.

Of this woman, Adbela notes, "This stylish Christian woman wears a more elaborate headdress and Kanga, indicating that this mode of style was worn by Christians and Muslims alike."

Swahili woman posing with arms akimbo, flamboyantly dressed in printed kangas and turban and wearing jewelry

A.C. Gomes and Co.
Gelatin silver print
Zanzibar, c. 1900

A. C. Gomes and the brothers Felix and J.B. Coutinho, probably part of the Portuguese/Goan diaspora, sold portraits, views, and commercial subjects to the Sultan’s family and Zanzibari elite, as well as to the stream of foreign visitors and emigrés.

But an entirely different kind of subject would soon emerge with the end of slavery in 1897...

Swahili woman

Photographer unknown
Gelatin silver print
Zanzibar, before 1905

...images of newly freed women.

After 1897, newly freed people, many of whom had come from the east and central African mainland, immediately embraced new fashions that reflected their shifted status.


Seated Swahili man in a flamboyant cotton robe and wearing an extravagantly coiled turban at a jaunty angle.

Gomes & Co.
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1900

Prior to abolition, unfree Zanzibari women working in the city or countryside would have signaled their position as slaves by wearing inexpensive white merikani cloth wrappers or the indigo-dyed cloth, kaniki. After abolition, women immediately choose to buy kanga, cloths printed with lush colors and bold graphics.

Nyassa-Sklavin

Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1896

Free women could choose to cover their heads and shoulders with ornately folded turbans in public, a sign of Muslim propriety previously the prerogative of Zanzibar’s elite women.

Portraits of the Zanzibari elite of the 1890s reveal changing vogues of fashion and personal adornment, glimpses of which were seen in the city, in women’s private domestic spaces, and in the photographic studio.

Zanzibari lady of consequence

Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890

Collections of elite portraits suggest that photography studios were a liminal place, semi-private and semi-public. In them, photographers captured a woman’s adornment as individual expression—ephemeral beauty refined into a still image.

One unattributed portrait presents a royal woman in her finery and barakoa...

Arab woman wearing face mask

Photographer unknown
Albumen print
Zanzibar, c. 1890

...a mask made of silk and embellished with silver and gold threads, which both shielded and featured her eyes.

Feminine beauty was viewed as both intensely personal and a commodity; for example, beautiful servants were highly sought after and enhanced their owners’ reputations as they moved through the city streets.

Swahili Girls

Photographer unknown
Gelatin silver print
Zanzibar, c. 1900

Wives were sought for the hope of bringing beautiful children. Sailors working on the Indian Ocean for ten months of the year relayed tales of Zanzibar’s legendary beauties, whose images were captured in touristic photographs.

Studios experimented with the formal qualities of their models, as seen in these photographs for the commercial market.

Two Swahili Girls

Photographer unknown
Gelatin silver print
Zanzibar, c. 1900

Photographers framed young women’s faces and bodies with careful lighting, emphasizing their adornment, decorum, and elegance. The effect is at once inviting and distancing.

Finally, this puzzling image of a young man dressed as an elite Zanzibari woman might be a joke played by the studio, or the trace of a costume party.


Man Dressed as Zanzibari Woman

Photographer unknown
Albumin print
Zanzibar, c. 1900

It also brings to mind Swahili stories of the possibilities of transformation through dress. Sultani Majinuni, Sultan Darai, and Kisa cha Kihindi all feature tales of mistaken identity effected with a change of clothes—of slaves dressing as sultans, and a man who, when dressed as a woman, was disinherited.

National Museum of African Art - Smithsonian Institution
Credits: Story

Derived from the online exhibition
Sailors and Daughters:
Early Photography and the Indian Ocean
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

Fashion Commentary from
Behind the Veil: Zanzibar Costumes
by Farouque Adbela

Project Management by
Nicole Shivers
Education Specialist, Author, and Cultural Producer and
James Parker
Program Assistant
Smithsonian Institution
National Museum of African Art

Exhibit Synthesis and Layout by
Marc Bretzfelder
Smithsonian Institution
Office of the Chief Information Officer

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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