The Gods Give Looks: An Excerpt from Vodou en Vogue

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Vodou en Vogue: Fashioning Black Divinities in Haiti and the United States by Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha which is available wherever books are sold.

“Nwokocha’s superb work offers a much-needed corrective to previous scholarship that presents Vodou as a religion defined by poverty and precarity. Her skillful observations and thoughtful descriptions of the thoughts, desires, and delights of deities and devotees reveal the rich thought-world of Vodou as it is practiced today.”

Dianne M. Stewart, Emory University

The Gods Give Looks

A silk, sapphire-colored sheet was pinned to the wall behind the altar, decorated with scarves in varying shades of red and blue in honor of Ezili Dantò, the warrior goddess, protectress of children, and guardian of lesbians and gender-fluid people. Black female ceremonial leaders stood out among the crowd, allowing ruffles, excess layers of cloth, and embroidery to display their status in the room and to the gods. The fabric of their dresses was so voluminous that the skirts extended outward from the waist in a grand bell shape, echoing the aristocratic silhouette of bygone colonizers in a ceremony indebted to West and Central African ancestors in fashion, music, ritual, and spirit. To many, a Vodou ceremony is a feverish movement of bodies and the rhythmic beating of the yanvalou drums, but to Manbo Maude, a Vodou priestess in Haiti and the United States, it is also a celebration of ritual fashion. During this ceremony in Jacmel, Haiti, the audience was drawn closer by the lavish dresses, the coral blues and scarlet reds that sashayed through the room as part of the swirling fabric of the female practitioners’ outfits. People sucked their teeth in appreciation and shouted in joy. Bright head wraps covered the women’s hair. Many women wore makeup and ornate gold jewelry, with rings on every finger. The men, with freshly shaved faces, had ironed their crisp shirts and pants only moments before the start of the ceremony. The colors of their outfits complemented the dresses worn by the women dancing in the ceremony, completing the ritualistic tableau Manbo Maude envisioned for her temple.

To many, a Vodou ceremony is a feverish movement of bodies and the rhythmic beating of the yanvalou drums, but to Manbo Maude, a Vodou priestess in Haiti and the United States, it is also a celebration of ritual fashion.

In Haitian Vodou, the gods care about how they look. African Diasporic gods are not symbols: they are thinking, feeling, drinking, and talking entities in the lives and ritual practices of devotees. Spirits, or lwa in Haitian Kreyòl, shape the lives of practitioners through style, aesthetics, and adornment, investing in the physical presentation of their presence. They are, without doubt, vain. Nowhere was this vanity more evident to me than when interacting with Manbo Marie Maude Evans, a Haitian mental health clinician living in the United States who practices Vodou through numerous avenues, including card readings, possession, visions, and dreams, in both Jacmel, Haiti, and Mattapan, Massachusetts. Her title Manbo refers to a female Vodou initiate who has undergone training in ceremonial, spiritual, and ritual work. Through her and the Vodou practitioners who serve the spirits under her guidance, I explore how the spirits provide inspiration for religious dress while intervening in everyday situations in practitioners’ lives.

Vodou en Vogue illuminates how the fashion displayed in Vodou ceremonies allows practitioners such as Manbo Maude to connect with the spirits and assert their religious efficacy. She produces clothing to convey her authenticity and power as a religious figure, simultaneously implying her relative wealth and showcasing the spirits during ceremonies. In other words, Manbo Maude fashions outfits inspired by Vodou spirits to satisfy the material demands of deities while also creating unique spiritual practices that shape the experiences of other practitioners and observers in her temple. Throughout my research in Manbo Maude’s temples, which I conducted from 2015 to 2022, I kept returning to one central question, which was posed to me by Judith Weisenfeld, a scholar of religion: What do the gods want? My answer is reverence through words, actions, and materials, which most often are beautifully adorned.

Eziaku Atuama Nwokocha is assistant professor of religion at the University of Miami.