Family Values: An Ode to Aunties and Their Inimitable Sense of Style

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Model Adut Akech sits pretty in a many-patterned Duro Olowu dress (ikram.com) and up-to-there gele, or head tie. Octave Jewelry earrings. Victoria Beckham boots. In this story: Hair, Shiori Takahashi; makeup, Ammy Drammeh.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020
From left: Model Akon Changkou wears a Chopova Lowena top ($244), skirt ($922), and leggings ($379); chopovalowena.com. Miu Miu shoes. Model Ariish Wol wears a Chopova Lowena dress, $1,044; chopovalowena.com. Marine Serre shoes. Model Maty Fall wears a Maison Margiela dress; maisonmargiela.com. Balenciaga pantashoes. Model Kesewa Aboah wears a Lisa Folawiyo Studio dress, $1,100; lisafolawiyo.com. Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh sandals.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020

WHEN I WAS A KID in my Alabama hometown, every year brought the same parties in our Nigerian-American community: the Fourth of July cookout in the park; the Christmas throwdown in the hotel banquet hall, where my family and our friends wore our finest traditional clothing, a sea of blinding-bright textures and elaborate head ties, called geles, that stretched toward the ceiling. During those holiday parties, as Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé played from the speakers, I inevitably ended up staring at my mother’s girlfriends, other married (but sometimes divorced or single) women, as they floated around the hall, eating, talking, laughing. Their hair and makeup were exquisitely done, with big curls and updos, red lipstick, and vivid eye shadow; their outfits, planned weeks in advance, melded glamour and comfort so they could sweep you up into their folds of crinkly, glittering fabric as they danced; and their jewelry, usually gold or coral, was dramatic. Their shoes and purses matched, obviously. Their swagger seemed both over-the-top and effortless.

A playful velvet coat from Etro (etro.com) makes for one effortlessly elegant look for day. EDAS x Cameron Tea hat. Perez Sanz belt buckle. Brother Vellies clogs.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020
Changkou embraces a fitful mix of patterns and a curtain of cowrie shells in a Marine Serre top ($915) and skirt (both at marineserre.com) and Lafalaise Dion headpiece. Lizzie Fortunato earring.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020

I was never exactly sure how to define my relationship to those women in my mom’s life. My mom’s sisters were naturally my aunts, beloved by my brothers and me. But her friends were also a constant part of the background—in our home, at gatherings at the houses of my parents’ friends, and at important moments like birthdays and graduations—and though they weren’t relatives, my mom instructed me to refer to all of them as “Auntie” anyway. The women were not my “age-mate,” as Nigerians like to say, not people I could treat like my school and neighborhood friends, and over time, they became like family. They flooded me with love and praise—and they disciplined me, shouting my name as a warning when I got out of line or ran around like a heathen. (In fact, sometimes I wanted to shout back that they were not my mom.)

A mossy shade is as alluring on model Akon Changkou’s Burberry dress and trench coat (burberry.com) as it is street-savvy on model Kesewa Aboah’s Tokyo James vegan leather blazer ($2,000) and pants ($1,100; both at tokyojames.co.uk). Fenty earring on Changkou. L’Enchanteur earring on Aboah.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020
Graphic stripes—and some very dramatic fraying—characterize this Kenneth Ize coat, top, and pants ($1,365); kennethize.net. Roger Vivier sandals.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020

But along with my mom, my aunties were visions of what life could look like when I eventually decided who I would be—a panorama of Black womanhood that included professionals, stay-at-home mothers, and the flyest “spinsters” I had ever seen. And by virtue of the ease they had in their bodies, my aunties radiated an attitude of feeling good about yourself, especially the healthier and curvier you were, that predated the idea of body positivity. The lack of distinction between my “real” aunts and my aunties was even more acute when my family visited Nigeria. There, every woman over the age of 25 in our social circles took it upon herself to act as my surrogate older sister, including one who saw no problem with reading my then-confidential diary. (There are few boundaries with aunties.) Aunties, I would later come to find out, are common not just among people I know from African communities but also Caribbean, South Asian, and Black American ones. In these fashion images, styled by Gabriella Karefa-Johnson and shot by Nadine Ijewere, it’s striking how the contemporary models are no more bold than the women in the archival photos curated here by researcher and archivist Daniel Obaweya. Their clothes are a cacophony of mismatched prints in brilliant shades that convey both confidence and the pleasure they take in their appearance. They see themselves clearly—and will make you see them, too.

On Akech, a delightfully outré JW Anderson ruffled top and metallic tunic (jwanderson.com) become a festive (and flirty) minidress. Loewe shoes.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020
Fall, in a Celine by Hedi Slimane dress and cape, worn as a headwrap (both at celine.com), leans into the not-so-discreet charms of a straight silhouette. Beads Byaree earring. Jimmy Choo boots.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020

Aunties had a singular role in my Alabama community: Whether or not they had children, they were maternal figures to the young people around—only a phone call away with advice and gossip, and able to step in if our parents were overwhelmed with work or personal crises. My experience in Nigeria, and across the African continent, is that as people grow older, contrary to the American obsession with youth, they gain more admiration and respect for their experience and wisdom. (When I was a child, my parents made sure I always appropriately greeted the older people in the room.) It is rarely heard of to put aging relatives in senior homes; instead, they often move in with their families until they pass on. And so older aunties are figures of authority, and they helped to make decisions for our local association of African families. They are indispensable. I remember one of my aunties both emceeing our annual holiday party—with a mic in one hand and the train of her skirt in another as she told embarrassing but entertaining jokes—and sitting in my family’s living room consoling my parents after one of my grandmothers had died.

While Aboah is sportif in a Wales Bonner shirt ($570) and pants ($570; both at ssense.com), Wol mixes the cozy and the chic with a Max Mara cape, worn as a top (maxmara.com), and a  Wales Bonner skirt ($670) and hat (both at walesbonner.net). Adidas Originals by Wales Bonner sneakers on Aboah.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020
A draped top and fringed skirt ($1,140) from Dries Van Noten offer surprising texture—and a bewitching sense of movement. Both at driesvannoten-la.com. Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello scarf, worn as headwrap. Beads Byaree earrings. Ulla Johnson boots.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020

WHILE THE IDEA OF AUNTIES has long been consigned to a specific part of the lives of people like myself, who belong to two cultures, and has not often been reflected in American popular culture, Generation Z is changing that. On TikTok, auntie videos are everywhere: from one about how African aunties can sweetly and passive-aggressively question you about your (unacceptable) choice of outfit—and when you are finally getting married—that made me laugh out loud, to another about nosy Indian aunties who promise to be discreet with your secrets but end up telling every single person they know. Aunties seem to be on their way to becoming a phenomenon; the delightful actress Tracee Ellis Ross is now Instagram’s favorite one.

Researcher and archivist Daniel Obaweya—also the steward of @nigeriangothic on Instagram, a tribute to Black pop-cultural history—compiled these images, including work by Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (left) and another image by Joseph Chila (below, left), both of whom lived and worked in Africa, to hint at the depth and breadth of auntie style. His sources range from 1960s-era historical archives to Tumblr, and showcase both traditional styles of African and Caribbean dress and the evidence of African-American influence.

Roland Freeman. Dancing at Jazz Alley, Chicago, Illinois, 1974. Founders Society Purchase, Drawing and Print Club Fund and National Endowment for the Arts Matching Museum Purchase Grant /Photo: © Detroit Institute of Arts, USA /Bridgeman Images; Jamel Shabazz. Church Ladies, 2004; Friends (or sisters) seated on rail. Ideal Photo Studio, Benin City, Nigeria Photograph by Solomon Osagie Alonge, c. 1965. EEPA 2014-004-0137. Chief S. O. Alonge Collection. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives. National Museum of African Art. Smithsonian Institution; © Bettie Ringma and Marc H. Miller; © Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos; © Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos; © Joseph Chila, 1980; Torrence Ngilima, © The Ngilima Photo Archive. Photo was taken by Torrence Ngilima in Wattville (Ekurhuleni, Gauteng) in the early 1960s. Torrence learned photography from his father, Ronald Ngilima, who was among the first black studio photographers in the area. Together, father and son produced over 5,600 images, which give a intimate glimpse into everyday life under apartheid in the black neighborhoods of Benoni. The collection is presently archived at Historical Papers (University of Witwatersrand).
Akech wears a Louis Vuitton top; louisvuitton.com. Tom Ford skirt; tomford.com. Miu Miu shoes. Fall wears a Post-Imperial x Homecoming T-shirt, $148; brownsfashion.com. Balmain skirt, $1,493; balmain.com. Bonnie Clyde sunglasses. Beads Byaree earrings. Tom Ford sandals.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020
From Ottolinger, an artfully splotchy silk jacket ($1,300; ottolinger.com) splits the difference between the prim and the punchy. Beads Byaree earrings.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020

Auntie style is mostly ephemeral—an unbothered mood, but still recognizable. It can look like a middle-aged woman on the street, flamboyantly put together, cradling a phone to her ear, balancing shopping and grocery bags and herding her kids home while speaking Yoruba and English to her caller and her children at the same time. It can also look like a 20-something student in a slouchy dashiki dress and big glasses giving no-nonsense romantic advice to her friends. If what a woman wears influences how she feels, the aunties I know aspire to be deliriously joyful. The women in this collage all have an elegance regardless of their age. “It’s the way they carry themselves. You can rock auntie style at 18, you can rock auntie style at 50—it doesn’t matter,” Obaweya says. Now in my 30s, I still aim for the flair of my favorite aunties when I pick clothes, move through the world, and reflect on how I feel about myself. So much about having aunties is the emotional experience of always feeling looked after—through moves to foreign countries, breakups, and job changes. It’s an experience I want to give another little girl one day, too.

Changkou looks every bit the 21st-century disco queen in a glittering Salvatore Ferragamo dress; ferragamo.com. Chloé earrings. Bracelets by Ariana Boussard-Reifel, Ippolita, Annoushka, Jennifer Fisher, Pippa Small, and Beads Byaree.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020
Akech has evidently taken a shine to this JW Anderson metallic tunic, ruffled top, and jersey pants ($1,290); jwanderson.com. Schiaparelli earrings.Photographed by Nadine Ijewere, Vogue, December 2020