African Studies Research Seminar - week 1


Rachel Taylor, ASC, University of Oxford


This paper explores the crucial role played by African seamstresses in crafting visions and experiences of modernity in postcolonial Lubumbashi, DRC that drew on, but challenged, the visions of modernity promoted by missionaries and the colonial state. Although Lubumbashi, and other Copperbelt cities, are frequently discussed in terms of men’s formal labour in mining or related industries, as I demonstrate both the colonial and postcolonial state’s concepts of modernity also rested on women’s skill and craft. Missionaries and company and colonial officials had seen teaching sewing and dressmaking as fundamental to introducing African women to the “right” kind of urban modernity – concerns that ensured that large numbers of women in Lubumbashi had access to sewing skills and equipment. President Mobutu’s authenticité campaigns and laws against European dress also of necessity centred local dressmakers as crucial to creating the right kind of modernity.


Dr Rachel Taylor

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow

Junior Research Fellow, Jesus College


I am a historian of East and Central Africa, with a particular focus on histories of gender, labour, and consumption. My work explores how Africans build meaningful lives and communities in times of great social, political and economic change. Within this broad field, my current research project Sewing the City: Dressmaking and Modernity in Postcolonial Lubumbashi, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, seeks to provide a new history of the modern African city through analysing the work and lives of dressmakers in Lubumbashi.

I came to Oxford in 2018, working on the ERC-funded project Comparing the Copperbelt, headed by Miles Larmer. I completed my BA at Durham, my MA at SOAS (University of London), and my PhD in African history at Northwestern University (USA.)