My monograph, The Politics of Dress in Somali Culture, was published by Indiana University Press in June 2011. This is the first book about Somali material culture since Somalia in Word and Image (Loughran, et. al)was published in 1986. It is also the first book focusing entirely on the subject of Somali dress and the first to explicitly link Somali material culture with trends in politics. The book is available through IU Press as well as Amazon and other bookstores worldwide.
Shortly after the book's release I gave an interview for Somali Community Link on KFAI in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I also gave a television interview for BelAhdan, which is available for viewing for through YouTube:
The research for this book grew out of my dissertation on the history and aesthetics of Somali dress. Living in Minnesota (first as an undergraduate)—home to the largest Somali community in the United States—I encountered Somali refugees every day. Although I knew they were from Africa, they dressed very differently from what I had seen in West Africa even among other Muslims. As I began the research for my MA and PhD, I expected to find variations in dress between men and women, young and old, privileged and underprivileged, etc… What I did not expect to find was the strong political statements people were making through their dress. One person would tell me it was “traditional” to be covered from head to toe (despite the fact, as I soon learned, that no previous generation of Somalis had dressed that way), but the next would lecture me on the dangers of “Arabization.” How could I explain these striking differences in the meanings of dress among Somalis? Immersing myself as much as possible in the Somali diaspora community was important, but I also used historical, material culture, and aesthetic analysis to understand why Somalis had such different points of view.
Since the civil war in Somalia made it impossible to conduct fieldwork there, I decided to make creative use of resources in the United States: going to the “Somali malls” in Minnesota (full of Somalis—mostly women—selling items of dress such as clothing, jewelry, henna, perfume, and frankincense), attending public lectures given both for and by Somali refugees, photographing mannequins in Somali outfits in order to analyze the aesthetics more closely, doing archival research at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, and looking at all kinds of material objects with images of dress such as currency, postcards, posters, and stereopticon cards (including some I purchased on the Internet). After moving to Indiana I refined my analysis, but also collected and evaluated images of dress on postage stamps issued by the government during the first twenty years of Somalia’s independence. In particular, I am interested in how Somali material culture has been impacted by Somalis’ long history of contact with the outside world (not just with Europeans), as well as the experiences of people who have largely been left out of the mainstream political narrative. Focusing on a culture in which Western fashion has only played a small role has also allowed me to push the boundaries of costume history in new theoretical and methodological directions. Ethnography, for example, is not a common method used to study dress (at least outside of anthropology), but it was essential for me to understand Somali dress practices. Being an outsider to Somali culture, I could not pretend that I was already an “expert viewer” of Somali dress.
Akou, Heather Marie (2011). The Politics of Dress in Somali Culture. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
In addition to the monograph, my research on Somali dress has led to three chapters in edited volumes, a journal article, and an 8,000-word entry based entirely on my original research for the Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion. In my article for Dress (the major journal in costume history, which is published only once annually by the Costume Society of America), I critically evaluated a collection of photographs taken by Roland Bonaparte in the late 1800s. Although Bonaparte focused on images of nomadic Somali men—leaving out nearly all traces of urbanization and westernization—this is one of the largest and most important collections of photographs from this time period. In my entry for the Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion I analyzed how the forms and meanings of Somali dress have changed over the last two hundred years. This might seem like a simple thing (there are hundreds of similar books about various aspects of Western dress), but when I wrote this piece there were no other reference materials concerning dress in Somalia.
Akou, Heather Marie (2010). “Somalia.” In Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion, Volume 1, editors Joanne B. Eicher and Doran Ross. Oxford: Berg, pp 413-420.
Akou, Heather Marie (2008). “Documenting the Origins of Somali Folk Dress: Evidence from the Bonaparte Collection.” In Dress, 33: pp 7-19.
Two of my chapters were for anthologies on African dress (also published by Indiana University Press), one on fashion and one on the politics of dress. These volumes testify to a growing scholarly interest in African dress, particularly among anthropologists, historians, and art historians. In both anthologies I was the only scholar specifically from dress studies. In a chapter for another anthology called Dress Sense I explored how the concept of “dress” allows for a better understanding of the full range of dress as a marker (or not) of assimilation. Just looking at clothing it appears that many Somalis in Minnesota have adopted either Western fashions or Islamic dress, leaving “Somali” dress behind. Body modifications such as hairstyles, henna, incense, and perfume tell a different story since they allow Somalis to blend different cultures and hold on to pieces of their heritage.
Akou, Heather Marie (2010). “Dressing Somali (Some Assembly Required).” Contemporary African Fashion, editors Suzanne Gott and Kristyne Loughran. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp 191-204.
Akou, Heather Marie (2007). “More than Costume History: Dress in Somali Culture.” In Dress Sense: Emotional and Sensory Experience of the Body and Clothes, editors Donald Clay Johnson and Helen Bradley Foster. Oxford: Berg, pp 16-22.
Akou, Heather Marie (2004). “Nationalism Without a Nation: Understanding the Dress of Somali Women in Minnesota.” In Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress, editor Jean Allman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp 50-63.
In their everyday lives, most people do not perceive their dress as being political; they wear it because it “looks nice” or “feels comfortable.” Somalis are no different; however, as a scholar I recognize how changes in dress have coincided with shifts in political power and ideology. Islamic dress first became important to Somalis during the nineteenth century as a means of resisting European and Ethiopian colonization. In the 1970s and 80s, Islamic dress became a symbol of resistance to an oppressive dictatorship as well as a sign of growing interest in Islamism (a trend fostered by students and migrant laborers working in the Middle East). Among refugees in Minnesota, Islamic dress is once again being used as a safeguard against the loss of culture and religion, this time in the context of migration. For some Somalis, their dress represents the hope that by being “good Muslims” they will be able to rebuild their nation and return home. For others, it signals that they are “respectable” women even when working outside the home or seeking an advanced education (opportunities that were not commonly available to women in Somalia). Unfortunately, to many non-Muslims in the United States their dress marks them as dangerous outsiders, particularly since the events of September 11th, 2001. Highlighting the connections between dress and politics is a theme that has become an important aspect of my work in the last few years. It also connects my work on Somali dress to my research on Islamic dress.
 I built on Marilyn DeLong’s system of aesthetic analysis from The Way We Look (1998), taking into account that my status as an “expert viewer” depended on my ethnographic research.