Starting at a young age, Christopher Richards was fascinated by the fashion and dress of other cultures. He was intrigued by the complex and layered meanings of fashion as an art form, but he never thought he could create a viable career centered on fashion.

Flash forward to college, where he studied anthropology and African/African-American studies at Rollins College. During this time, Richards became particularly interested in Black American and African histories and cultures. He then completed a master’s program in museum anthropology at Arizona State University, where he examined how African art is often misinterpreted, or provided with limited descriptions, in museums. As part of the degree program, Richards arranged for an internship at the Museum for African Art in Long Island City, New York.

Although the museum no longer exists, it was helping develop an exhibition proposal on African fashion that made him realize he could blend his love of fashion, art, and African culture into a viable career path. Since then, Richards has been able to study, learn, and teach the relevancy of African art, coupled with the importance of fashion as a meaningful art form.

With a Ph.D. in African art from the University of Florida, and now a decade of teaching experience as an associate professor of art history, Richards has recently accepted a new role as director of Women’s and Gender Studies. Richards talked about how diversity, inclusion, and understanding are at the root of much of his work.

Why is African art and clothing so important to you, and what can students learn from studying it?

What I have observed, and what I often teach my students, is that dress and fashion are one of the most important and valued forms of artistic and cultural expression for Africans. Whereas specific sculptures or forms of masquerade may no longer be practiced or understood, dress and fashion are constantly being engaged with, discussed, and reimagined. It’s also incredibly accessible; anyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or wealth, can adorn their bodies in meaningful ways. By exploring African art and fashion, students can learn the sheer complexity of African visual culture and how their own lives and heritages are often linked to practices rooted on the African continent. It also teaches them to be culturally sensitive, and that to fully understand a specific art form or practice, it’s necessary to know its original, cultural context.

You have a new multiyear exhibit this year showcasing Ghanaian fashion. How did that come about?

It started in 2015 when I guest-curated my first exhibition, Kabas and Couture: Contemporary Ghanaian Fashion. At the time, there had been very few exhibitions that examined the fashion culture of a single African nation. It was really a celebration of designer and everyday fashions in both historical and contemporary contexts. Almost 10 years later, the Harn Museum of Art has asked me to revisit that initial exhibition, drawing upon its unprecedented collection of Ghanaian fashion, which I helped build. Much has changed in the last 10 years in terms of research on African fashion, so I’m excited to be reassessing specific garments in new ways. There will be three distinct themes, with the first exhibition focusing on African feminism and fashion.

You are also the author of Cosmopolitanism and Women’s Fashion in Ghana: History, Artistry and Nationalist Inspirations. What inspired you to write that?

Cosmopolitanism and Women's Fashion in Ghana: History, Artistry and Nationalist Inspirations by Christopher L. Richards

“Cosmopolitanism and Women’s Fashion in Ghana: History, Artistry and Nationalist Inspirations” by Christopher L. Richards

My dissertation focused on the history of fashion in Ghana, and I attempted to document every designer who contributed to building and maintaining Ghana’s fashion culture from the 1950s through today. While transforming my dissertation into a book, I realized that African men frequently receive more accolades and global promotion as fashion designers than women. I found this troubling, as the forerunners of Ghanaian fashion were all women. I decided to shift the focus of my book to make a clear statement: that women have been and continue to be the creators and innovators of Ghanaian fashion. I wrote the book to tell these women’s stories, and to show that fashion has been an integral part of Ghanaian culture since before the country’s independence in 1957. I ultimately hope the book can contribute to de-centering the notion of fashion as an explicitly European form of expression.

Speaking of books, you also helped launch the LBGTQ+ Resource Center’s book club with director Kelly Spivey. Talk a little about that.

The LGBTQ+ Book Club has been one of the most delightfully surprising events I’ve helped organize at Brooklyn College! It started with an idea, as a way to engage students in a more casual and relaxed setting, but to allow them to think and discuss issues critical to the LGBTQ+ community. We began in November 2023 and have had meetings every month. At one meeting, I looked around and realized we had over 20 attendees! It’s a great feeling to know that we’re fostering a supportive community for our students, through a shared love of reading, and that they enjoy coming together and discussing LGBTQ+-themed graphic novels. Although the book club is on hiatus for the summer, we’ll be back in the fall, and we already have quite a few exciting books chosen.

As the new director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program, what will your expertise and experience bring to the role, and what most do you want students to learn?

I think I am the first art historian to hold the position of director, so I’m excited to bring my background and knowledge of art and art history to the program. In terms of what I want students to learn, I think what’s most important is that having a knowledge of women’s history and issues surrounding gender is important for all fields of study. Regardless of whether a student is studying psychology or computer science, taking classes in the Women’s and Gender Studies program, and my courses on African art, will help make them more informed, culturally aware, and well-rounded/sensitive global citizens!