Growing up in Ibadan, Nigeria, taught me three things. One, girls do not climb trees. Two, girls do not pop their gums so loud they sound like one of the streetwalkers that populated the streets of Mokola and Dugbe. And three, girls do not wear boys clothing, particularly the agbada: a loose-flowing extra large gown worn by Yoruba men as a symbol of wealth, class, prestige, heritage and a masculinity that gave them the swagger to stride into a room like they owned it. Unfortunately for my mother, she had been given a daughter who lived to break every one of her rules and the agbada was my Moby Dicks of rules that I was hell-bent on breaking.
To understand my relationship with this symbol of masculinity, we’ll have to start with my journey of queerness I had no idea I had embarked upon until I was turning 28, the sleeves of my buba — the tailored agbada shirt — all rolled up to my elbows and my fingers rubbing down on the clit of a girl I had only met a couple of times prior to that moment.
But shit happens when you’re wearing an agbada.
Looking back, I was deep in crushville, but I didn’t realize that was what it was. I just knew I liked being around her and dressing up the way she did strengthened that bond.
I’m an only child and with that freedom also came an intense longing for a connection I found with friends, most of whom were older than me. One of such friends was Julie, a girl five years older than me who lived two houses down my street. She was everything six-year-old me wanted to be when I hit my tween years. I followed her everywhere, gravitated to the flowing skirts she loved and those sandals that lit up with every step you take. I was a mini-Julie, my identity tied with that of my best friend, convinced that she was the most beautiful, brilliant, funniest person in the world. Looking back, I was deep in crushville, but I didn’t realize that was what it was. I just knew I liked being around her and dressing up the way she did strengthened that bond.
Some months later, my parents separated. They never married which within the Nigerian context was quite a travesty, although my mother’s lack of a marital status was not from lack of trying. My biological father was just too much of an asshat, an irresponsible asshat who wanted neither a wife nor kid but stayed with her long enough to rack up debt she had to pay until she got tired of the bullshit and left — without me of course.
You see, I was born in Ibadan, but my mother, a Delta woman was well aware of my father’s Esan tradition that stated that their daughters remained with their fathers. A lot of Nigerian tribes also push this narrative, but the Esans are particularly protective of their daughters, so much so that whilst in other tribes a dead wife is buried with her husband’s family, Esan folks will take their daughters home and bury her with her family. It’s a thing.
Why did I just spend the last couple of paragraphs needlessly talking about Esan customs? Well, because it made what my mother did next quite ballsy. My asshat father bailed immediately after my mother left so I was being raised by wolves, or as I like to call them my uncles and aunts. So after months of being shuffled from one relative to another, my mother showed up and took me with her to live with her parents and her very many siblings.
Whilst there, I entered my second wave of my fashion identity. Growing up, I had always been an only child. But now, I had two cousins who were both my age; boys who did nothing but tumble and somersault and run and be as loud and boisterous as possible in their torn jeans and oversized shirts and I was allowed to just… be.
For the next four years that was me. I was the tiny girl with jeans that barely stayed on her hips and 2pac t-shirts that swallowed her skinny frame. I ran with my cousins, and eventually ran faster than them. I climbed the fences they climbed. Went up mango and orange trees to pluck those sweet fruits and send them flying down to their waiting hands.
My mother tried screaming and sometimes even beating the tomboy out of me. It didn’t work.
My mother tried screaming and sometimes even beating the tomboy out of me. It didn’t work.
My step-father — the amazing Yoruba man who helped raise me till his death in February 2013 — tried reasoning with me, to please my mother. It didn’t work either.
T-shirts and jeans and sneakers were comforting, they were me, as vital to my identity as the sound of my voice and eventually my mother resigned to her fate.
Until I changed schools and in the fifth grade, met my new best friend: Maye, also beautiful, even more brilliant than Julie with that self-assured air that was alien to me but quite common amongst my classmates. She smiled like a woman who knew exactly who she was and what she wanted and the boys fell in line behind her. I fell right behind them.
Maye was fond of short skirts, flowery tops in bright shades of pink, blue and yellow and strappy wedge sandals. And as was my MO, my style changed yet again.
My mother didn’t question it. She counted her blessings and took me shopping, happy to see her daughter back to dressing like a “girl,” and even happier to see that I finally had a friend who was a girl. A friend I went everywhere with, a friend that was as irrevocably bound to my soul. I worshipped her. She could do no wrong in my eyes. I wanted her happy. The sound of her laugh could brighten my day like nothing else could.
In the sixth grade, as was the Nigerian tradition, we all entered Secondary School. Maye and I went to different schools but I still found my way to her house every weekend, like clockwork. But slowly, we started drifting apart. I tried, I tried in that panicked way of one who could feel happiness slipping through her fingers, but I wasn’t fast enough. Soon we were nothing more than strangers with the occasional flare of jealousy — on my part, of course — every time I heard mention of her then boyfriend, Tobi.
I merely existed as one did in those situations, a mannequin waiting to be clothed in the style of whoever it was I was crushing on at the moment.
Of course, at this point, I had no idea that all these emotions was anything other than friendship. Or that I was an empty shell who hadn’t come to terms with her queerness and as such had no identity of her own. I merely existed as one did in those situations, a mannequin waiting to be clothed in the style of whoever it was I was crushing on at the moment.
Which was why my third style wave happened when I was studying to take my A-levels exams. Mariam, just like every one of my best friends until that point was brilliant, and gorgeous, with a smile that could steal the collective breath of everyone in the room. She was a year younger than me, but was so brilliant, she skipped a class. I was so in awe of her that rather than sit in my AS class, I moved to her A2 class and had to catch up on a shit ton of work just so I can sit right beside her, so I could spend our afternoons driving shotgun style beside her, both of us screaming Asa’s Jailer to the hot Ibadan sun.
Mariam, style-wise, did it all. She wore jeans but they were tight, cupped her full figure and left her gorgeous derriere for us all to lose our collective breath at the sight of. Her tops were fitted v-necks that dipped into a glorious valley of perky breasts. Her dresses were fitted at the waist and twirled around her and her skirts always stopped at mid-thigh to show off her gorgeous legs. But her makeup, that was the real deal. She learned how to make a winged liner before I’d seen it on anyone else. Mascara made those long lashes pop, her brows were always on point and all the flaws on her already flawless face as far as I was concerned, were even more concealed. And her lips were always wet and always looked good.
So, once again, my wardrobe changed. Although this time around, rather than go shopping with my mother, it was Mariam who took me shopping. She dressed me like I was her own personal doll and I loved it. She marveled at the thickness of my hair so I went to get it straightened. I’d already been introduced to a relaxer at age six like most Nigerian children were, but this was the first time I was going to use a straightening iron on my already fairly straight but still puffy hair and the strands fell neatly in place, moving in the breeze like I was shooting a hair commercial.
All through our A-levels and even in our first year in Uni, we were joined at the hip. Or rather I was joined at her fashion hip. Every piece of clothing I chose, I weighed. Would Mariam like this? Would Mariam wear this? Would Mariam consider this appropriate? I should have asked myself if Mariam even liked me as much as I liked her. Because she was straight. And as at that point, I was still convinced I was straight as well.
By our second year though, I had finally gained enough self-respect to realize that she didn’t need our friendship like I did so I found another best friend. Oke was quiet, moody, introverted, and she loved Naruto and Bleach, which we bonded over. And then she introduced me to Kuroshitsuji, J-pop, SasuNaru fanfic and we had conversations about homosexuality and the internalized homophobia I had been dealing with, birthed from a society that hated my queerness and identity and that I had slowly imbibed till its toxicity permeated my entire being. Oke was the first best friend I had that was birthed from friendship and not an unidentified crush, so having those honest conversations with her was easier.
And it took me slow and careful steps before I arrived at full acceptance of my queerness. But as I took those steps, I slowly shed the fashion identities that weren’t mine along the way.
I’m not going to lie. Nineteen-year-old me was an idiot. And it took me slow and careful steps before I arrived at full acceptance of my queerness. But as I took those steps, I slowly shed the fashion identities that weren’t mine along the way. The first to go was the skirt. Short, long, fitted, flared, pencil. I dropped them all.
Next were the dresses, the bandage ones, the lace ones, the ones that were little more than slips, the wrap dresses and pencil dresses, although I did keep some shirt dresses. What can I say? I pair them with boots and they make me look like a million bucks.
The tops I swapped for my t-shirts. I collect them now. Preferably the ones that are gay as fuck, the band ones, the comic ones, the full-on nerd ones.
I let go of the heels and sandals and built a sneakers collection. And the jeans I made sure were looser. They still fit me well, but I didn’t feel like I’m bursting at the seams anymore.
But it took a while till I got to the agbada.
The first time I tried on an agbada, it was my dad’s (step-father’s) and it was heavy with so many yards of material that I almost toppled over. He laughed, reminded me that only boys could wear agbada and that I should go sew the traditional iro and buba that women wore if I wanted to embrace my Yoruba that much. But I didn’t want the iro and buba.
Nothing said you were a woman who was comfortable in her sexuality and knew she had game like the agbada.
The agbada was what appealed to me. I didn’t know what it meant then, but now I do. It was as masculine as you could get. Nothing screamed a fuck you to societal norms and traditions like the agbada. Nothing said you didn’t give a fuck about heteronormative desirability like the agbada. Nothing said you were a woman who was comfortable in her sexuality and knew she had game like the agbada.
So, after I finally came to terms with my queerness at the old age of 27, getting an agbada custom-made for myself, fitted into the design that was primarily for men, was the next logical step. It was me announcing to the world that “this is me, better get used to it.”
It took a while to get it done, and after it was ready, it kept prime position in my closet, waiting until I was ready to put it on. And I did — eventually. On my 28th birthday. I wore it to a party I had with a ton of queer friends, all laughing and drinking and smoking and having an amazing time.
The next morning, I took off the outer robe of the agbada — the large voluminous centerpiece with wide sleeves — and walked around in just the tailored shirt and pants and next thing I knew, I had my hands full with a gorgeous woman who knew what she wanted and was unafraid to go for it.
As she writhed on the couch, a couple of feet away from the sleeping form of one of our friends who was dead to the world, I smirked.
A couple of hours later, she called me, wanting to pick up from where we left off, telling me about how she loved the face I had on as she turned helpless at my hands. I asked her how I looked and she released a little sigh, a slight hitch in her voice. “Like you could wreck me. Like you wanted to wreck me. And fuck, I want you to.”
An agbada can signify a departure from the you that had no identity or sense of self; the you that floundered with zero idea about her queerness. Or it can be a fashion statement cooly informing the world that you’ve got game. And sometimes, it can be both.
edited by Yvonne.