No question that in their shape-enhancing dresses, made from traditional Ghanaian, Senegalese or Liberian fabrics, many of these women have become internet sensations. When Daniella Eta, 17, made her entrance at her prom in Cincinnati, wearing a dress of Kente cloth, she could not have anticipated the response. The snapshot of Ms. Eta, posted on Instagram on the night of her prom, ricocheted around the web.
“All night, the notifications kept on coming,” she said. “By morning, I realized that over 40 famous Instagram accounts had posted my prom photo.”
Still, such reactions are scarcely a match for those overwhelming the woman who arguably started it all.
A year ago, Kyemah McEntyre, 19, conceived and sketched the floor-length bouffant gown she wore to her prom in East Orange, N.J., in homage to the dashiki, the elaborately patterned tunic widely adopted in this country in the 1960s as an emblem of black pride. Ms. McEntyre’s dress was intended to fly in the face of convention — and conventional notions of beauty.
“I remember growing up and oftentimes comparing myself to women with straighter hair, lighter skin,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why aren’t I beautiful in my natural state?’” Her Instagram post, in which she showed off her prom dress, went viral and was instantly picked up on Facebook, Twitter and in the international news media.
Today Ms. McEntyre, 19, a student at Parsons School of Design in New York, has a capsule line of her own and a client list that has included Tyra Banks and Naturi Naughton, the lead in the Starz drama “Power.”
“I do feel I’ve inspired a lot of women,” Ms. McEntyre said, a small catch in her voice. “That was actually the point of it all.”
In some quarters, the concept of an Afrocentric prom dress can still raise eyebrows. “After discussing how beautiful it was and that I would do an African theme with a teacher, I was told it wasn’t really ‘something you wear to prom,’” Makalaya Zanders posted this month on her Instagram account.
She stuck with her plan nonetheless. “I wanted to make a point, that I am comfortable with my Melanin and roots,” she wrote.
One can hear in her argument echoes of an earlier era. Teta Gorgoni, a partner with her daughter, Maya, in Royal Jelly Harlem, an African-inspired fashion line, recalled: “There was a time in the ’60s when I was coming into my own identity, the time of ‘black is beautiful’ — the head wraps, the natural hair, the iconic role models like Angela Davis. I’m reminded of that.”
Today the trend derives much of its impetus from Twitter and Instagram hashtags like #blackgirlmagic, #melaninpoppin and #melaninonfleek, said Danielle Canada, an editor at Bossip, a web destination covering African-American pop culture and entertainment. “We started to see it last year, but it’s really picked up this year,” she said. “Definitely, this trend has gone national.”
The movement, if it is that, is inspired by and reflected in ballyhooed events like the Afro-punk Festival, held each year in Paris, Brooklyn and Atlanta; in Broadway productions like “Eclipsed,” its star, Lupita Nyong’o, a dark-skinned role model for many young black women, swathed in a mash-up of Liberian prints; and at art fairs around the country showcasing, among other African artists, works by Yinka Shonibare, whose mannequins are draped in giddily patterned Afro-colonial garb.
High-wattage personalities have played a part. Solange Knowles, who at one time used Dutch-African prints as her aesthetic signature, makes no secret of her motivation.
“Fashion is political,” she said. “In my connection to prints, I’ve been making a political statement.”
“So many times in society, black women try and blend in,” she added. But she is determined, at least some of the time, to flag her difference.
“The moment I wear what I wear, you can see me,” she said. “There is no way to avoid seeing me.”
Others seem bent on following her lead and, more recently, that of her more famous sister.
“It doesn’t hurt that Beyoncé is often photographed in African prints,” Ms. Bernard said. In fact, the star and her celebrity ilk have been photographed wearing the high-end, riotously patterned frocks of Stella Jean, a Milan-based label, and African-pattern designs of Valentino, Prada and Junya Watanabe, as well.
Others, less established, are starting to make waves. In addition to its off-the-rack creations, Royal Jelly Harlem sells custom-designed gowns in Ghanese, Senegalese, Liberian and Malian textiles, priced at $475 to $895.
“The demand for African-inspired dresses has been growing for the past two or three years,” said Kimberley Mensah-Aborampa, whose Ghanaian-pattern special occasion and prom gowns sell on Etsy for about $90 each. In Ghana, where Ms. Mensah-Aborampa works part of each year, “these patterns aren’t special,” she said. “But here African prints for prom dresses are the in thing.”
No need to clue in De’Andre Crenshaw, the Cleveland designer who dreamed up the dashiki-inspired prom dress worn by his friend and muse, Ms. Zanders. “When that dress went on the web,” he said, “I received calls from everywhere: Africa, London and even China. This was new for me. It’s been a lot because I’m working on my own.”
At Indelible Couture, his company, business is surging, Mr. Crenshaw said: “I had to go buy a new sewing machine.”