Dressing in Africa: Identity & British Imperial Authority

Kristina Akhrarova

Excerpts from the book "With the Tin Gods" by Mrs. Horace Tremlett.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the British Empire controlled a quarter of the earth's surface and nearly a quarter of its population. Even in the middle of the jungle, dressing for dinner was a cherished ritual for British officers. Excerpts from the book "With the Tin Gods" by Mrs. Horace Tremlett tell that in Nigeria, British officers were accustomed to dining alone after a hot, long day at work. An officers would bathe, then wear a dinner jacket and tie to endure the tropical heat. Who was his audience? What was the purpose of this ritual?

In the heat of Africa, three British officers, 1918.UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

During the British Empire's reign, dressing for dinner was a common occurrence among governing elites, regardless of whether they were dining alone, in isolated outposts, or in social centers. This image of rigid formality and aloofness remains one of the British Empire's most widespread stereotypes. There was no exception; all officers always wore dinner suits, and women wore evening long dresses. When they would go for walks along the bush trail after dinner, the local inhabitants would flock to watch them, perplexed as to why they were all dressed and covered in such frightful heat. The English were quite justified in following their clothing standards, since dress is a major means of self-expression, where one's identity should be remembered. One would need a symbol, some external sign, to support daily remembrance of what one was. When someone's identity is rejected, this person becomes invisible. English people found such artificial means of regaining their identity through clothing strange. It reflected a lack of confidence on their part in Africa. Identity can be easily lost.

The ritual of dressing for dinner held different values depending on one's position within the colonial hierarchy. The diaries of British wives during the early years before the First World War can provide insight into the life of a foreigner in Nigeria. Among them was Sylvia Leith-Ross, who was a bride of a colonial officer when she arrived in Northern Nigeria in 1907. In her memoirs she described: "When you are alone, among thousands of unknown, unpredictable people, dazed by unaccustomed sights and sounds, bemused by strange ways of life and thought, you need to remember who you are, where you come from, what your standards are. A material discipline represents-and aids-a moral discipline".

Lord and Lady Lugard in full dress.UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

Using color and style, the dress conveyed power and authority. It became a visible indicator of racial, gender, and social rank disparities. British men were not only uniformly dressed in the summer and winter, but their buttons, rosettes, and stripes had special meanings and were worn according to regulations. Yet even more bizarre than the clothes were the ceremonies that men performed together in the jungle, always in step and always in uniform. Actually, all British people did with clothing was advertising the wearer's social, professional, or intellectual standing. Symbolically, these clothes covered men in mantles of social prestige, appeasing their vanity. It was the finest of clothing. Clothes reflecting such old traditions would also reflect masculine decrepitude. For instance, as the judge dined in the jungle, he wore a scarlet robe, an ermine cape, and an artificial curling wig, yet he seemed blissfully unaware of his own extravagant appearance. All the medals and ribbons were on display. As a result, these uniforms could impress the beholder with the majesty of military authority and entice young British men to join. Military uniforms have been studied to enhance a man's impression of masculinity: a head-dress exaggerates his height, a stripe on his pants exaggerates his leg length, and epaulets exaggerate his broad shoulders.

British individuals who joined the British Colonial Service were typically from lower socioeconomic classes rather than from the upper social strata. If they joined the Service and took part in its rites, they could eventually obtain knighthoods that would satisfy their desires for higher social status. It was clear that the etiquette of the gentry would boost the self-confidence of a person to a greater extent. Such "dressing for dinner" became the visual expression of "innate superiority" in the elite social heritage passed down through public schools, military academies, and ancient universities. Even the schoolboy retained the correctness of dress far longer than his declensions of Latin verbs. Britain maintains its aristocracy of rank to this day. Young British officers could drive the road, bridge the river, and water the desert. They could be the arm of justice and the hand of mercy for millions. However, the colonial officials in Nigeria were not exactly of high moral standards.

British women were forbidden to wear such uniforms. They would sit separately in long-skirted, high-necked, long-sleeved dresses and elaborate hats tilted at just the right angle. As a society's way of thinking, the discipline of apparel was tied to a moral code. Imperial dress symbolized personal and national dignity, moral discipline, and the fortitude it took to rule an empire. Traveling in Africa, some British women were able to break free of gender restrictions. For wading across rivers or crossing swamps, they changed into belongings owned by male family members. As they traveled through the tropical forests of Central Africa, most women wore the same long, heavy black skirt and long-sleeved, high-necked blouse they wore in London and Cambridge.

"With the Tin Gods"Mrs. Horace Tremlett

In 1914, Mrs. Horace Tremlett, a wife of an engineer for a tin mining company in Northern Nigeria, narrated about her experience as an outsider of the Colonial Service in her book “With the Tin Gods”. The author described the antagonism that existed within government circles towards the mining enterprise, which made tin explorers an anti-imperialist pun. Officials were fearing that uneducated miners without suits would lower the prestige of the white man. She said: “The officer clings so desperately in Nigeria to his dress suit, not because he wishes to look nice, but because he knows he is expected to live up to certain traditions, and because he likes to feel that he is a gentleman — especially if he has any doubt on the subject. The white man there is king as he is nowhere else in the world; and a most diverting spectacle he is, playing little tin God…”

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