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In Liberia, 'Looking Good Is A Business'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Liberians have been gripped by crisis after crisis. A long and brutal civil war shattered the West African country and now Ebola. But NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been looking into another far lighter side of life in that country - fashion.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Whether they're wearing traditional African or a Brooks Brothers suit, Liberians make an effort to look good dressing up or dressing down. Journalist Siatta Scott-Johnson says it's ingrained.

SIATTA SCOTT-JOHNSON: In Liberia there's a saying that says looking good is a business.

QUIST-ARCTON: Scott-Johnson says the phrase looking good is a business came from a radio ad by DJ a while back. It caught on. Now all the Liberians we speak to from the president's aides to the people walking on the streets talk about...

SISTER DEMAH R. S. BEE: Looking good is a business.

QUIST-ARCTON: That's teacher Sister Demah R. S. Bee. She's wearing a curry-colored, floral Indian-inspired creation. Bee says despite the Ebola outbreak that has again brought postwar Liberia to its knees, people here are stepping out and making an effort, although they may have problems.

BEE: Yes, I look good every day. Anytime I come here on the street, got to look good. It's good dress.

QUIST-ARCTON: Scott-Johnson the journalist puts it this way.

SCOTT-JOHNSON: I mean, we put a lot of money in looking good. We put a lot of moneyin our appearances. Even if we don't eat, the other person say you're not looking at my stomach, you're looking at me. So even if we don't eat, we prefer to look good.

QUIST-ARCTON: Teacher Demah Bee tones that down a little. But she says appearance matters; Ebola or no Ebola.

BEE: It ain't good to be sloppy. When you're not dressed, nobody can recognize. They will say you're suffering too much. And some of us suffering, but we not put it on your face. At least make yourself nice.

QUIST-ARCTON: Student, Dao M. Fahnbulleh, is 23. He aspires to become a fashion designer. The young man is decked out in a local, green batik top with a pair of just-below-the-knees African print bottoms. Different fabrics, deliberate mismatch - that's his style.

DAO M. FAHNBULLEH: I feel so happy. I feel so cool. Anywhere I go, I will tell my friends, this idea. Interact with intelligent people because they look at me like intelligent person. You know, when you are looking good, dress responsible way, people will take you to be responsible person.

QUIST-ARCTON: Scott-Johnson, the journalist, says Liberia's historical and continuing ties to the U.S. could account for some of the fashion habits here including casual Friday.

SCOTT-JOHNSON: Because almost everything we do in Liberia, somehow America gives birth to that because of the settlers that came. They brought their ideas. So I think that's where that idea came from dressing heavy on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and then sliding down on Fridays.

QUIST-ARCTON: But today is Sunday so there's no sliding, no dressing down. Liberians are dressing up for church. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Monrovia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.