What It Means to Dress in Lagos

LAGOS, Nigeria — Charly Boy decided he would wear rouge. It was the 1970s, the height of the sexual revolution in the West, so it wasn’t unusual for men to be seen in makeup.

But for a young student in the United States coming from a small town in Nigeria, dressing in ways that drew attention to himself — painting his cheeks and lips in bright colors, lining his eyebrows in kohl, wearing studded leather, acrylic talons and plastic fangs — felt like an act of defiance.

“Sometimes I would release pictures of me sleeping in a coffin and tell people I like to suck blood,” said Charly Boy, a former musician and television personality, now 67. He returned to Nigeria in the ’80s, at which point his appearance became a deliberately provocative performance.

The country was going through a series of military juntas in which cultural and artistic expression were suppressed and heavily policed, and Charly Boy wanted to make himself seen and heard. Consequently, his music and videos were often censored.

Sal Gbajabiamila at home in Lagos, Nigeria.CreditJan Hoek and Stephen Tayo for The New York Times

Since then, the government has returned to a democracy, but most of Nigeria remains politically, socially and religiously conservative. Men and women tend to dress accordingly, in loosefitting garments made from vivid traditional textiles (brocade, adire, ankara) and Western-style business professional attire. They wear their hair in gender-conventional fashions: long for women, short for men. Much of their clothing is stylish, but it is also meant to attract little attention.

“If I don’t dress how I feel now if I’m not true to myself and how I want to express myself, when will I ever?” Ms. Gbajabiamila said.CreditJan Hoek and Stephen Tayo for The New York Times
These sartorial norms are upheld by institutions and social groups. In some congregations, deacons scold female churchgoers for keeping their hair short and suggest that they try weaves instead. Most universities often considered places for self-discovery, value obedience above personal expression. Stylistic accouterments — tattoos, makeup anklets, too many waist beads or rings stacked atop one another — are seen as excessive and inappropriate.

Still, some Nigerians continue to style themselves in the name of free expression. As Charly Boy said, “When you do something long enough, even if you will have unbelievers in the beginning, they turn to converts.”

Ezra Olubi had to contend with bans on jewelry, pants for women and jeans for everyone on campus when he was a university student. So it wasn’t until after graduation that he found freedom in M.A.C. lipsticks and Deborah Lippmann nail polish.