This thesis critically examines a range of transnational fashion and beauty practices as narrative spaces employed by young London Congolese to embody their individual and collective racial, ethnic and gender identities. It investigates how they re-think and narrate their cultural heritage through forms of body performances and how these are shaped by the multicultural context of London. The ways in which these cultural practices are received by the Congolese group as well as by members of different communities are also assessed. The study documents the production and consumption of body performances as a new archive of primary source material, scrutinizing the cultural and economic contribution that young Congolese make to the “super-diverse” (2007) matrix of the city, and considers in particular their status as a “minority within minority” (Pachi et al., 2010). In so doing, the research adds a new perspective to the existing knowledge on the Congolese diasporic presence in London as well as providing a framework for a comparative study of other diasporic groups.
“Multi-sited ethnography” (Marcus, 1995) is applied as the principal qualitative analytical approach to collect and examine data which emerged organically from the field. The notion of the performance of cultural identities in everyday life and of ritual experiences is combined with this approach as the secondary theoretical underpinning. In addition, a multidisciplinary framework is used specifically to inform the body performances selected as exemplary case studies. Conceptions of race, ethnicity, gender and transnationalism formulated by these multi-sited but localised “diaspora spaces” (Brah, 1996) are therefore analysed through a grounded and theoretical approach.
The findings show that everyday experiences, cultural memories, storytelling and symbolism can be powerfully inscribed upon rituals of the body. Through fashion and beauty practices, young London Congolese actively fabricate their own narratives of migration and “traditional” forms of belonging to the homeland, while voicing alternative messages which move beyond conservative values, beliefs and costumes of older generations of Congolese and Black Africans in the diaspora. The performance of cultural identities figures as multiple, shifting and contradictory in the ways it both encapsulates the notion of “authenticity” and the display of global ways of being developed in multicultural London settings. This study, therefore, argues that fashion and beauty expressions of young London Congolese generate multi-layered meanings, not only resulting in the aesthetic, socio-cultural and symbolic representation of diasporic identity expressions and life histories, but also as valuable political and economic sites of agency, transformation, commodification and subversion.