Swagger and turbo-charged charisma: style lessons from my aunt | Life and style

In our family album, a grainy colour photograph shows me and my siblings in a boat in Hyde Park in London some time in the 1970s. Our parents had split up and we were with our father for the weekend. The day was spent feeding the ducks with thick, glutinous white bread and sailing on the Serpentine, where my father announced with a certain amount of reverence: “Your aunt will join us.”

As the youngest of a small family raised by a single mum, I had no concept of wider family members. To have an aunt was monumental, and took me into somewhat uncharted territory. Friends at school talked about aunts who visited laden with sweets, ill-fitting pullovers as Christmas presents and a faint smell of musk perfume.

But the only connection I had with my Nigerian aunts, uncles or cousins was through faded photographs. In them, one aunt stood out. And this was the aunt who glided towards us on that Saturday in Hyde Park.

Resplendent in a traditional Nigerian tunic in burnt orange and green complemented by an intricately tied headwrap, her “Africanness” was palpable. She embodied a confident Nigerian style at odds with my upbringing – Luton by way of a Jamaican mother. We were fully anglicised and, as children of the mass immigration of the 60s, the mantra of “keep your head down, assimilate and all will be well” jarred with the way my new aunt carried herself.

This aunt had swagger and turbo-charged charisma and she oozed the kind of presence that actors can only dream of. I was smitten. But there was a caveat: why was she wearing overtly Nigerian multicoloured clothes? Why couldn’t she just go with jeans and a T-shirt? Or, perhaps a nice floral dress? She was on holiday in London, after all. Couldn’t she tone it down or at least blend in with my rather fetching beige tank top and black flares? To blend in meant less scrutiny from our English hosts. But here was an aunt who did not comply with the rules. 

My aunt, known as Maama, the daughter of a wealthy and entrepreneurial woman, studied dress-making and millinery at the Polytechnic of North London in 1951. Her studies were financed by my grandmother, a force of nature who, according to Nigerian legend, helped to organise the Aba women’s riot – a protest against the taxes imposed by the British in 1929. At the time of her visit to Hyde Park, my aunt had been elected as the first female local councillor in Nigeria in an era when women in politics were frowned on. Of course, I knew nothing of this and just cringed at the way she referred to me as Adebisi (my Nigerian middle name) and her insistence that we children should visit “our homeland”. This confused me – wasn’t Bedfordshire home? She chided my father too. He had lived in England for far too long. Her words had an unintended effect – not long after her visit, he returned to Nigeria for good, and I never saw him again.

The day in Hyde Park came to an end – presents were handed out. A Fila hat for my brother and a series of brightly coloured outfits for the girls – dresses of the finest Nigerian cotton decorated in vivid expressions of orange, yellow, dark green and gold. Now, I was not averse to a vibrant palette. Indeed, my mother wore colour. She had arrived in London in 1960 in the midst of winter. Jamaicans and other Caribbeans no doubt wore bright clothes as an antidote to the greyness of English weather. “We injected Caribbean technicolour,” my mother told me. But, my aunt’s colourful ensemble blared “foreigner” like a foghorn. These were not the kind of clothes to wear in Luton’s Arndale shopping centre or Marsh Farm, the sprawling estate we called home.

Much as I appreciated my aunt’s gifts, there was no way I could wear them on the streets of Luton. Nor could they be worn at home. To my mother, they were a symbol, a reminder of her ex-husband, and his culture. She wanted no memory of this union, thank you very much. The clothes were folded and, once back home, they were neatly stored in a bottom drawer.

They were forgotten about and never worn, and we lost contact with my aunt for the next 37 years. 

My father’s death brought her back into my life. His passing meant a trip to Nigeria (my first, I had never visited him since he returned) and a reconnection with my now eightysomething aunt.

I gathered crucial snippets of information before I left for Abuja. The first was, bring Ferrero Rocher (they don’t melt in the heat and are the confectionery of choice for family members in Nigeria). One nugget of “aunt briefing” was imparted by a newly acquainted cousin. He casually said I should mention football, as she liked it. This caused some concern as I had no interest in football. I turned to my brother, a diehard Chelsea fan. He gave sanguine advice and suggested a mention of the “Super Eagles” – the nickname for the Nigerian football team. It was duly noted.

Before meeting my aunt, a cousin in Nigeria asked for my dress size. I’d never met this cousin and presumed her question was out of curiosity. Perhaps she wanted a mental picture of my appearance? But once I had landed in Abuja, a tape measure was whisked out and another cousin (I was to meet a plethora of them on this trip) had her personal tailor note all the necessary statistics for what she called “this and that”.

The next day an array of outfits made from the finest Nigerian cotton were laid out to rival anything from Savile Row. They were vibrant and unashamedly African: a white and blue ankle-length dress with a lace trim and white headwrap; a mid-length orange number with flecks of purple and matching headwrap – and so it went on. Garment after garment of brightly coloured clothes made especially for me – and no bottom drawer to hide them in.

My jeans were discarded and replaced by an orange dress. I had no idea how to create a headwrap, but a deft twist of material by my cousin and the crowning glory was complete. The clothes signified a deep-rooted change. I was ready to meet my aunt. 

There is an upside to having a family member whom you remember through the eyes of a child. There is no in-between. You haven’t watched them age or lose any of their physicality. In many ways, my aunt looked exactly the same as I remembered. She was less mobile, but her fierce intellect and enormous personality were intact. As was her sense of style. An olive outfit, with on-trend chandelier earrings and Zadie Smith-style headwrap. She gave a satisfied sigh at my appearance. I had passed the test. The clothes I wore reflected a small but significant acceptance of my African heritage. She said I was the African Queen of Abuja, and, in her deep, throaty purr, said: “Wear African clothes more often.” 

Each time I visited my aunt, a vast television played football in her formal sitting room. It took pride of place and was positioned so she could keep an eye on all the action. It turned out my aunt didn’t just like football – her knowledge of Arsenal bordered on the fanatical. She was an encyclopedic super-fan. Neither was she an armchair fan. She started the first female football team in Nigeria and, by all accounts, was a pretty decent player in her youth.

But rather than football, it was my aunt’s advice to wear brighter clothes that struck a chord. I left Abuja armed with a full suitcase. The drab blacks, browns and greys of my wardrobe were replaced with a collection of dresses, Fila hats, tunics, jumpsuits, and headwraps. A riotous celebration of colour. The perfect tribute to my aunt’s indomitable sense of style.