Every so often we stumble across a particularly great fashion Instagram account before it gains traction and goes viral, and it feels like a delicious secret leading us down a rabbit hole of inspiration. Often, though, these accounts pay homage to the '70s, '90s and '00s, offering us throwback photos of Jane Birkin, Kate Moss or Paris Hilton. While we relish the nostalgia hit these feeds provide, it can get a little repetitive.
That's why, when we discovered African Style Archive – with just 240 followers at the time of writing – it felt like a welcome change of step. Curated by Tosin, a London-based art project assistant, the account is "an archive dedicated to fashion and style as seen through the lenses of African photographers". Portraits of men and women dressed in the most incredible 'fits – think '70s dagger collar blouses, '60s wiggle dresses, dance floor-ready flared trousers and printed sun dresses – the account offers a fresh perspective on personal style.
Tosin, who has always been interested in fashion history and photography, conceived the idea after visiting her paternal grandmother's home in Nigeria a few years ago for the first time since she was much younger. "I was immediately drawn to the many photo albums my grandma possessed. There were individual studio photographs and group shots of my grandma and her stylish friends (my grandma told me they’d put on their 'best' outfits to have their photo taken). I found that these photos captured so much of the elegance and sophistication that I strive for in my own personal style that they inspired me."
Taking photos of the images on her iPhone, Tosin began sharing them on her personal Instagram account. "I got lovely responses so I knew that it wasn’t just me that loved to see these photos. I started doing more research about African studio and portrait photographers in the 20th century and discovered so many amazing artists and images, so I started collecting these photos which are now being shared on the African Style Archive page." Now using museum and archival websites to source her photographs – and amassing a growing collection of coffee table photo books by photographers such as James Barnor, Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta – Tosin's page is a treasure trove of slick style inspiration.
From religious to regional dress, there's no singular definition of African sartorial style, so what does the term mean to Tosin? "I think it's hard to define in a monolithic sense. To me, it is the presentation of style and trends interpreted with traditional and westernised influences and elements. It is clothes and accessories being worn with a unique way of being presented because of how African hair is styled and how we look."
The most common misconception about African style more generally, Tosin says, is that it's "limited to the bold and super colourful Dutch wax fabrics that we see in the media, but there is so much more to it than that. These fabrics are predominantly used to make clothing in west Africa, therefore neglecting other parts of the continent in the narrative." Her favourite discovery so far is a sunny '60s photo taken by J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere of a woman in thick-rimmed oval sunnies, drop earrings and a headband. "I love her pose, how she is facing the camera, her top and particularly how she has accessorised the outfit, her sunglasses, also her hair! I think everything about this look works and it genuinely makes me curious as to what the rest of her outfit was and what her personal style was like."
While the page remains a passion project for now, Tosin has her sights set on collaborations with historians and institutions – "I feel like African style is still underrepresented in fashion and art history" – with a photo book and exhibition a dream for the future. In the meantime, click through to see the save-worthy photographs Tosin has curated, and give African Style Archive a follow.