Fashion & What We Stand For
Fashion is a universal language said to be understood by most. It is highly influenced by what we see through our screens and dictated by some of our favorite celebrities like Lady Gaga, who always catches our attention with her “out of the ordinary” looks. One of our other favorites, Rihanna, has rocked silk pajamas (PJs) and nightgowns publicly, raising some eyebrows. Regardless, in many countries other than the US, subverting traditional fashion norms is not admired but rather looked down upon.
I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country in central Africa. Being raised in its richest city and capital, Kinshasa, I was constantly told to dress well to make a great first impression. For example, wearing clothes as casual as PJs would diminish how seriously people took you. In fact, wearing a simple t-shirt and jeans was heavily judged. For the sake of reputation, I was always dolled up in my sunday’s best dress.
A silver lining to these strict codes was that women were expected to dress in “maputa”―hand-made designs and brightly colored African prints―they always looked colorful and elegant. Although this sense of rich culture was lost when I came to the US, I felt a sense of relief knowing that my culture would no longer be forced upon me.
Living in Koreatown for almost 8 years now, my fashion was reborn. I had a new hairstyle every month, wore heels more frequently, and had crazy hair colors. My hair was red, blue, purple, and gray. You name it and I had it.
Now at Berkeley―a liberal school―every morning as I head to Dwinelle, as I pass Sather Gate and Barrows Hall, I feel the piercing glances transform into mesmerizing looks. It still feels unusual, but expected. Everyone I know in Berkeley has a slight appreciation for fashion. In the fall semester of my African American Studies class, my GSI, Ree, was a fashion figure we all aspired to be. A staff at Berkeley, an intellectual being―truly fashion’s future. Even if we didn’t agree with some of her fashion decisions, we respected the risks that she took.
Although to many people I am an “American” version of myself, fashion is all about trial and error. Berkeley students truly embrace what it means to be born and raised in different parts of the world. While conforming to our own codes, we simultaneously reject other ones. I simply have a passion for fashion and I slowly convinced my parents, peers, and the world around me to allow me to dress the way that I wanted. I don’t dress like I’m from Kinshasa, raised in Koreatown, and now living in Berkeley. I dress like Raissa Ngoma―encompassing Kinshasa, Koreatown, AND Berkeley.
Words by Raissa Ngoma
Photography by Jessy Tsai