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Street style fashion in Sierra Leone

Kathleen Lee-Joe
Published: November 16, 2012 - 12:24PM

Jo Dunlop has been living in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for just over a year. Relocating from Sydney to research maternal mortality rates for an international development agency, she soon noticed the vibrant, juicy-hued fashions on the street. Sundays, her only day off, are now spent hunting down street style looks for her blog, Freetown Fashpack. Taking distance from trends, Dunlop’s subjects favour hand-dyed wax fabrics and bold matchy-matchy three-pieces, demonstrating the many ways in which clothes can make a statement and style cannot be bought.


I’m originally from Sydney but work for an international development agency based in Freetown. It was the maternal mortality rates that drew me here originally and not so much the fashion. I’ve been living here for over a year.

Where did your interest in fashion stem from?

I’ve always been interested in clothes. Maggie Tabberer inspired me when I was little with her Women’s Weekly fashion pages. I remember poring over the pages of ‘what people are wearing overseas’, it was such a great window to the international world of fashion when we didn’t have the internet. Unfortunately I’m cheap so vinnies and flea markets are more my thing than expensive designer stuff.  

How did the blog start?

The blog started only recently.  When I arrived in Freetown I noticed some very individual looks on the street and at work. I think the word ‘brave’ gets a bit overused by fashion editors to describe particular styles but in Freetown it definitely applies. I started stockpiling photos of people and then started posting them.  The blog is as much about Freetown life as it is about fashion. I’m obviously not a fashion photographer or writer (the photos aren’t great) and my interest is just as much with the people as the fashions. I meet some wonderful characters and have some entertaining conversations.

How would you describe Sierra Leonean street style?

Sierra Leonian street style is utterly unique and fun and very diverse. People are just so resourceful, that‘s what I like most. Along with more traditional Africana, most people wear clothes from the second hand markets known as ‘junks’. I’m also slightly obsessed with hair. The ever changing weaves and wigs on Sierra Leonian women keeps things very interesting.

Where are your favourite places in Freetown to photograph people?

Anywhere on Sunday, it’s the day when most people dress up and go to church or visit friends, it’s also when I’m not working. People make an effort and really put on their ‘Sunday best’. The Congo Markets are heaving with people, they’re like Freetown’s answer to Surry Hills Market with way better bargains. My work colleagues can be very well dressed. Events like weddings and sport can also be interesting.

How do people react when you say you’re a blogger and ask to photograph them?

I'm lucky that most Sierra Leonians love having their photo taken and people really know how to pose.

What clothing styles have you picked up in Sierra Leone that the West could learn from?

A lot of Sierra Leonian style I like just looks a bit crap on me. I’d love to wear a wedding cake style West African head wrap or a do-rag but as I’ve said on the blog, I think they can look bad on white girls. I’m delving into Africana prints. I had two suits made last week. I love the bold colours. I’ve never liked muted tones and Sierra Leone has cemented my disdain for them. I’d like to see less of that in Australia and more colour. Are you listening Country Road?

What’s the fashion scene like over there? Tell us about some emerging designers.

The fashion scene is dominated by hundreds of tailors and some wonderful fabrics from different parts of West Africa. You see some magnificent Africana dresses and suits with very creative silhouettes . At the moment I feel like peplums have taken the city by storm. There are some emerging local designers as well who make more western style clothes using Africana prints. There is an enormous second hand clothes trade. All that disposable fashion that lasts a season at home seems to end up in Africa. I find piles of primark, topshop, French Connection etc. There are occasional gems, last week I found a pair of Michael Kors heels for $8!

How can fashion be political?

Fashion seems to be a very judgmental business. I guess particular ‘looks’ can indicate a certain political affiliation.  On the streets of Freetown right now fashion is certainly political. If you’re wearing red you clearly support the APC (All People’s Congress) and green means you’re an SLPP (Sierra Leone People’s Party) supporter. I’m avoiding both colours. There’s a lot of commentary around fashion these days and it’s often taken far too seriously. I think it’s mostly just fun.

What’s your most memorable shot?

Some of the people I photographed at a recent political rally were great. There was one guy in a red onesie who had a pair of red framed ray-bans. He belonged in a Spike Jonze film clip. It was hard to take him seriously when he started lecturing me on the virtues of his party though. Also some of the motorbike taxi drivers (locally known as Okada) in Freetown are very cool and always up for a photo.  

What are your hopes for the blog? Where do you want to take it from here?

It’s all quite new to me but I’d like to keep blogging and I’d like some more readers J Unfortunately I have painfully slow internet connection, if that could improve I’d be happy. Some advertising would be good. Fashion blogosphere domination and front row seats to New York Fashion Week where I would be sitting next to Anna Wintour and Rachel Zoe wearing an Africana matching three piece and a head wrap is the big dream.

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