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HISTORY OF DRESS IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA






For daily, festive, ceremonial, and ritual events, African clothing, like clothes everywhere else, conveys age, gender, profession, ethnicity, power, and religious devotion. 



Africans use Islamic and indigenous clothing in addition to trendy Western clothing. 



Dressing include completely or partly covering the body with clothing and accessories such as head coverings and jewelry, as well as altering the body with tattoos or piercing. 

For Africans, dressing properly entails correct behavior and exquisite style, which includes suitable clothing, cosmetics, and coiffure, as well as spectacular carriage, graceful movement, meticulous toilette, and spotless clothes. 

Everyday African clothing expresses personal idiosyncrasy as well as socially important categories. 

When Africans wear uniforms or clothes made from the same fabric, their clothing promotes group connection while minimizing individualism. 



African attire is distinct from African garb. 



Actors and masqueraders use costumes to momentarily hide and expose their identities, while in daily life, individuals use clothing to convey and show their identities. 

The historical antecedents and cultural backgrounds of African people in fifty-five nations and over eight hundred language groupings are reflected in their clothing. 

Africa's physical environment spans the Sahara and Kalahari deserts, the Great Rift Valley highlands, West and Central African rain forests, and the dry Sahel area bordering the Sahara. 

What Africans wear is influenced by their physical surroundings, external and internal commerce and migration, explorers, missionaries, and travelers, as well as their own inventiveness. 



Social, religious, and political history, as well as oral, archaeological, commercial, and mercantile records, provide specific information on each ethnic group's clothing. 


The rock art of northern, southern, and eastern Africa depicts early traces of attire, suggesting pieces of clothing that predate interaction with European, Asian, and Middle Eastern peoples. 

Cloth pieces found in Mali's Tellem caves show that handwoven clothing existed before Saharan commerce or coastal connections. 

Wrappers handwoven from handspun cotton threads on handmade looms in the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Mali, and Nigeria are examples of products fashioned using local materials and tools in the twenty-first century. 

In addition, local and foreign materials are combined, as evidenced in the kente wrappers woven in Ghana using imported rayon or silk threads on locally manufactured looms. 

Imported goods from across the globe (British top hats and homburgs, French designer gowns, Italian shoes and purses, and Swiss laces, as well as secondhand clothes from the United States) are manufactured using sophisticated machinery and methods from commercially produced materials. 



Africans also create their own designer clothes using both imported and locally produced fabrics, as well as transforming imported secondhand apparel into locally popular styles. 


Some African designers, like as Xuly Bt of Mali, left Africa to find success in Paris, New York, and other cities. 

Purely indigenous goods are becoming less popular and, as a result, are being worn less often. 

Borrowed things are often utilized imaginatively and contrasted with other goods, resulting in a distinct ethnic style. 



The KalabariIjo people of Nigeria's Niger Delta mix a range of fabrics and other articles of clothing purchased from other parts of the country and outside. 


Their clothing exemplifies the phrase "cultural authentication," which refers to items that have been adopted, symbolically represented, integrated, and changed. 

The KalabariIjo man's ceremonial hat, known as ajibulu, is based on the bicorne hat used by European military and naval commanders in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. 

The Kalabari embellish a hat of this form with ram's beard hair, tiny mirrors, small, sparkly Christmas ball decorations, brilliantly colored feathers, and plastic hair clasps, all of which are glued or sewn onto the base cloth to create a head covering that is distinctively Kalabari. 



African inhabitants of European and Asian heritage may opt not to wear African clothing, preferring instead to wear clothing that was popular in their ancestors' homeland. 



The sari is still worn by Indian women whose family have resided in East and West Africa for many generations. 

Afrikaans people in South Africa dress in European clothing to honor their European ancestors. 

Some non-Africans, in contrast to others who avoid wearing African things, embrace them: The Yoruba dansiki (more popularly known in the United States as "dashiki") was a beautiful and comfortable blouse to wear for Peace Corps volunteers in Nigeria. 

Tourists often purchase and use African beads, caps, fabric, clothes, and fans as mementos when traveling. 



Dressing the Torso


When it comes to dressing the body, the torso is usually the focal point, though headwear and footwear are also important. 


Enclosing, attached, and hand-held items of clothing can all be classified as enclosing, attached, or hand-held. 

Wraparound, preshaped, and suspended enclosing dress are all examples of enclosing dress found in Africa. 

Rectangular pieces of fabric are folded, crushed, or twisted around the body to create wraparound garments. 

Cut and sewn garments, as well as molded or cast items like jewelry, are examples of preshaped items. 

The majority of attached and many suspended enclosing items of clothing, such as earrings and necklaces, are also jewelry. 



Accessories such as a fan, purse, cane, or walking stick are commonly found in handheld items. 


The wrapper is worn by both men and women throughout Africa (also called kanga, futa, lappa, or pagne). 

Because of the high temperatures, both dry and humid, the loose fit of wraparound apparel appears to be particularly appropriate and comfortable to wear as a garment. 

Wrappers can also be made from readily available materials such as skins, bark (or bark cloth), or handwoven cloth made from wool, cotton, silk, and raffia. 



Contact with Europeans and Middle Easterners resulted in the adoption of preshaped garments for men and women in general, with women adopting dresses and gowns and men adopting jackets, shirts, and trousers as clothing styles. 


Women and girls in Africa rarely wore pants or other bifurcated garments until jeans and pants became fashionable in Europe, America, and Japan, influencing young African women in particular to adopt these styles for a variety of occasions. 

However, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the wrapper is probably the most common and popular indigenous garment. 



Cloth can be wrapped around a woman's waist, knees, calves, or feet. 


They cover their breasts and lower body by wrapping the cloth under their armpits. 

Men usually wrap a small piece of cloth around their waist and down to their feet, leaving their chests bare or covered. 

A bare chest is not commonly seen in public for both men and women in the twenty-first century, but it is still an option for dressing informally at home. 




After many African countries gained independence in the 1960s, non-Muslim Africans were influenced by European ideas of modesty after discovering that journalists and outsiders criticized African "nudity," usually referring to barebreasted women. 



In fact, some Nigerian municipalities passed laws prohibiting women from entering the town if they were bare-breasted at the time. 

Wraparound garments come in a variety of styles. 

In Ghana, Asante men wear handwoven kente togas; in Ethiopia, Amharic women don handwoven shawls of sheer, white cotton; in Nigeria, Yoruba women garb themselves in indigo resist-dyed wrappers; in Zaire, the Kuba dress in raffia skirts. 



Other examples include several from southern Africa: Ndebele and Xhosa women wrap commercially made blankets around themselves, and Zulu men wrap skin aprons. 


Both sexes among the Baganda in Uganda traditionally wore bark-cloth wrappers, as did the Masai of Kenya and Somalis from the Horn of Africa; some continue the practice today. 

Masai warriors, depending on their geographical location, wear a wrapper that is either below the knee or very short, sometimes wrapping it around the waist and at other times wrapping it across one shoulder. 

Those warriors wearing short wrappers are said to choose that style to show off their handsome bodies. 



Masai women wear a skirt or cloth wrapped around their waist as well as a blanket or cloth wrapped over their shoulders. 


Somali people wore leather garments of their own making before the 1800s, but imported cotton textiles quickly made inroads and included several options of wrapping the body for both men and women, depending on the occasion and the weather. 

For festive, ritual, or ceremonial occasions, Ghanaian men wear a well-known example of an African wraparound garment similar to the Roman toga. 



They take a large rectangle of cloth, sometimes as large as six yards square, depending on the size of the man, and wrap it full-length around the body with one shoulder uncovered.


When Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, wore it and was photographed in it for ceremonial events both at home and abroad in the 1960s, it became globally visible. 

Preshaped dresses are made by cutting and stitching lengths of fabric to suit the body. 

Shirts, blouses, robes, and trousers, as well as the Hausa man's baba riga, are common types (big gown). 

Many preshaped clothing were inspired by cross-cultural interactions. 



Several women's dresses reflect the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries' colonial influence and commercial connections. 


The long gown (called boubou) worn by Wolof women in Senegal, for example, has Muslim and Middle Eastern roots, while the gowns worn by Herero women in Namibia, Efik women in Nigeria, and Egyptian ladies wearing the “granny” gown have nineteenth-century European influences. 

The form of a man's pants varies greatly. 

Indigenous clothes, in addition to Western trends, may be seen all across the continent. 

Hausa men in Nigeria wear huge drawstring breeches with a "baba riga" over the top. 



Yoruba males wear a three-piece costume consisting of broad or narrow pants, a robe (agbada), and a shirt (dansiki). 


The Yoruba costume is regarded as being casual when the men's ensemble is fashioned from colorful, wax-printed cotton. 

The outfit is deemed formal if it is constructed of damask, lace, eyelet, brocade, or sanyan, a handwoven textile of nubby, local silk created by a different silk worm than the Asian silk worm. 

Males wear preshaped shirts and hip-length or calf-length clothes with pants or wraps across Africa. 

Many of the clothes include finishing and decorative elements that identify them as belonging to one ethnic group or another. 



Fon men's outfits in the Republic of Benin feature a highly embroidered, sleeveless tunic with pleated collar and flared hipline, as well as embroidered pants and an embroidered cap. 


War shirts and hunters' shirts are worn by Mandinka and Akan men in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana. 

Amulets, which are formed of animal horns, claws, teeth, or packages containing pieces of paper with magical or mystical phrases inscribed on them, adorn these clothes. 

Suspended and combined types of enclosing clothing are available. 

Many pieces of jewelry are hung around the neck or wrist, and certain caps are placed on top of the head. 



Capes are a mixture of styles worn by Hausa and Fulani emirs and other nobility. 


They are lightly hung from the shoulders and are preshaped and sewn. 

An African ensemble is completed by or for items held by or for a person. 

Umbrellas, canes, walking sticks, wallets, handbags, fans, switches, handkerchiefs, linguist staffs, and tusks are examples of accessory objects, as are weapons such daggers, swords, and spears. 

These objects are made of a variety of materials. 

A person uses an umbrella to shield themselves from the rain or as a replacement for a cane. 



A monarch's attendants carry big, beautiful, and colorful umbrellas to highlight the ruler's position and importance, since a ruler should not be burdened. 


Fans are made of paper, leather, skin, or feathers, whereas canes and walking sticks are constructed of wood, ivory, or plastic. 

Commercially produced fashionable handbags are available; some are made in the United States, while others are imported. 



When wearing an indigenous outfit, a person often carries a bag made from indigenous materials, such as locally manufactured leather that has been colored, painted, or beaded. 


The tusk of an ivory elephant carried by a powerful person denotes great rank and riches. 

The torso can be dressed with a variety of body modifications and jewelry. 

Because tattoos do not show on dark skin, tattooing is more common among light-skinned people, such as the North African Berbers. 

Permanent scarification and cicatrization, as well as temporary cosmetics (ochre, kaolin, indigo, henna, and chalk), are used to decorate dark-skinned bodies. 

As Africans became more exposed to Western cosmetic and body decoration practices, and interest in looking “modern,” many permanent-marking procedures began to fade away in the twentieth century.


 

Cosmetics familiar to Westerners are widely available in Africa, though they are not always worn or used in large quantities. 


Again, the issue is skin color, as lipstick and blush are not as visible 

on dark complexions as they are on light complexions. 

Similarly, Africans with darker skin do not use henna, a popular cosmetic in North Africa and the Middle East, though it is sometimes used on the palms and bottoms of the feet, which are lighter parts of the body. 

Men and women both use scented products, but African men tend to use stronger scents than most European and American men. 



Perfumes and scents from Europe are available throughout Africa, but the high cost prevents widespread use. 


Instead, indigenous products are available and used, as in the case of Muslim women who stand over incense burners to have the fragrant smoke scent their clothing. 



Africans wear a variety of jewelry. 


Necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets of various types, as well as items that circle the waist, such as "waist beads," are all suitable for the torso. 

Necklaces are made of metals, beads, shells, chains, and medallions and range in size and style from large to small. 

Some anklets and bracelets are small and only encircle the wrist and ankle with metal or beads. 

Others are massive, with coils of copper or chunks of ivory adorning the lower arm, upper arm, or lower leg. 

Gold, silver, brass, copper, ivory, natural stones like jasper, coral, and amber, and many cowrie shells are used as body ornaments (which often decorate garments as well). 

Glass beads can be found all over Africa, both imported and locally made. 

Glass beads have long been exported from Italy, Austria, and Germany to all parts of Africa, and artisans in towns like Bida, Nigeria, make them out of recycled beverage bottles. 



Masai men and women both wear necklaces made of imported, colorful beads that resemble wide collars and hang from the back of the neck. 


Miniature versions of these beaded necklaces, as well as beaded bracelets and anklets, are worn by some Masai children. 

Women and girls in West Africa wear waist beads made from small disk shapes cut from ostrich shells or celluloid. 

In intimate situations, these beads are both decorative and sexually appealing. 

When an individual moves, some make sounds that attract attention. 

Different people's clothing is distinguished by color, texture, or fabric motif. 



Imported natural and synthetic yarns, as well as domestic cotton, wool, silk, and synthetic yarns, are used to create a wide range of textiles. 


Favorite fabrics include plain broadcloth, lace, eyelet, damask, brocade, and velvet. 

Suppliers are generally located in Africa, but import sources include the United Kingdom and such European countries as the Netherlands and Switzerland. 

Asian sources include Japan, China, and India, where manufacturers cater to African preferences for specific textile motifs and colors. 



Fashions in material, design, and color change over time, but preferences for muted and somber colors can often be found in some countries, bright and saturated colors in others, and dazzling whites or pastels in still others. 


A printed textile used for wrappers in Tanzania and Kenya known as kanga, domestically produced in the early 2000s, has a distinct pattern. 

Ordinarily, the colors are bright green, yellow, orange, and red. 

The cloth is printed in repeat motifs that include a motto or saying. 

These written messages communicate political or social points of view. 

Somali men and women have used imported cloth for their wrappers for many years. 



Records from the nineteenth century indicate that one type, an inexpensive white cotton, was called merikani because it was imported from the United States. 


Another imported blue fabric worn during the same period, came from the Indian city of Surat to be used by married women as a head wrap. 

Identical textiles worn for special events by a large number of people are popular in various locations. 

An entire community or special group may honor significant people (usually political) by having their portrait screenprinted on a commercially manufactured textile or Tshirt. 

Other times, members of the group select a special color or pattern of either handwoven or commercial cloth to wear. 



The custom of wearing identical cloth is known as aso ebi (family dress) and aso egbi (association dress) among the Yoruba of Nigeria, where it apparently began. 


Other groups, the Ibo of Nigeria, for example, have adopted the custom and call their identical dress “uniforms.” Techniques to decorate garments include embroidery, beading, and appliqué. 

Various robes worn by men throughout West Africa are heavily embroidered; simpler embroidery is seen on some of the contemporary gowns worn by women, caftans or boubous, especially those being made for the tourist market in the early twenty-first century. 

Beading is found on robes of some royalty; sequins and beads decorate women’s blouses, for example among the Yoruba and Kalabari-Ijo. 


Appliqué is often used for ceremonial attire, masquerade garb, and trappings for horses. 





Hair Styles and Headwear.



Stylish coiffure, headwear, and appropriate cosmetics often complete African ensembles of dress, and in addition provide information about gender, age, political position, or community standing. 


Hairstyles vary across the continent. 

Braiding (sometimes called plaiting or weaving) the hair and twisting are common as well as combing the hair in sections to produce a pattern on the scalp after the sections are braided or bound with thread.



Wigs are worn for many occasions, including everyday wigs made of synthetic or human hair, as well as older wigs made of indigenous fibers for special occasions. 


Adding oil, ochre, or dirt to the hair gave it a tactile and sculptural appearance in the past. 

Textiles, skins, feathers, straw, raffia, and beads are used to make headwear, which is created from both indigenous and imported materials. 



Children and teenagers are less likely than adults to wear headgear. 


Men's headgear comprises caps, hats, and turbans, and has a wider range of styles than women's head wraps (also known as head ties) and other headwear. 

This may be due to the fact that males have access to a broader variety of political and religious roles than women, such as chieftaincies and priesthoods. 

Men's headgear comprises a variety of handwoven and hand-embroidered caps and hats, although men also use a variety of imported hats and caps, particularly after the advent of Europeans. 



Embroidery with gold and silver metallic threads, as well as valuable jewels and metals, are lavish embellishments for the hats of high-status (sometimes royal) men. 


Men in certain regions wear an imported top hat, derby, or fedora as part of their dress outfit, signifying great rank, whether inherited or earned via a local award or attaining a particular age. 

Male attire may also include veils and turbans. 

A Hausa man's wrapped white turban indicates that he has visited Mecca. 

Tuareg men are readily identified by their gleaming, rich indigo-dyed veils. 



Adult ladies, especially the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Ndebele of Southern Africa, wear fabric head ties in a variety of forms and patterns. 


Their head-tie combinations are influenced by fashion changes, as well as inventiveness and unique flare. 

In Western Africa, a very desired fabric for women's head ties comes from an English company, although ladies also choose hand-woven material to match their wrapper set. 

Herero women, who used skins for headgear in the 1800s but switched to fabric in the early 2000s, are an example of trend shift. 



Muslim women in Africa use a variety of hair-covering techniques. 


Some people cut and stitch cloth to make a head covering, while others suspend fabric to make a veil that only shows their eyes. 

Others drape cloth over their heads and tuck it under their chins with ties or pins. 

Some veils, such as the burqa, were originally exclusively worn by Arab women in Africa, but have now spread to other Muslim communities. 

Earrings, hair ornaments, and headbands for men and women are made of the same beads, metals, precious and semiprecious jewels, ivory, stones, fibers, and many natural materials as earrings, hair decorations, and headbands. 

Imported objects, such as buttons, may also be used for decorating. 




Footwear.


Footwear is often sought to complement a person's outfit. 


During colonial times, some Europeans forbade their subordinates from wearing shoes in their homes or at work in colonial offices. 

Leather sandals, boots, and shoes are used in a variety of styles, which may be handcrafted or professionally produced locally or overseas. 

For individuals who wish to protect their feet in a minimum manner and at a low expense, inexpensive rubber and plastic thongs are readily available. 



Men and ladies of high status, on the other hand, wear unique and costly footwear embellished with beads, rare feathers, precious metals, or intricate leather patterns. 


Hausa emirs in northern Nigeria, for example, wear ostrich feathers on the insteps of their footwear to match their regal robe and cloak, while their cavalry wear leather boots. 

In the south of Nigeria, kings wear different shoes. 

The oba of Benin wears coral-beaded slippers as part of his ceremonial attire, while the Alake of Abeokuta's royal outfit includes multicolored slippers with small imported glass beads. 




African clothing may be basic or sophisticated, and can consist of a single piece or an outfit. 



The complete outfit of an ornate gown or robe worn with a head covering, jewelry, and accessories contrasts with single pieces such as a hat, necklace, or waist beads. 


A simple ensemble consists of a wrapper, body paint, and an uncomplicated hairdo, whereas a complex ensemble consists of several richly decorated garments, an intricate coiffure, opulent jewelry, and other items. 

Clusters of beads or layers of cloth or jewelry can give single items or entire ensembles an additive, cumulative character. 

Such clusters and layers are necessary components of dress that provide ambient noise with the rustle of fibers or fabrics and the jingle of jewelry as an individual's body moves. 



Slenderness is becoming more popular as young people travel to the West or watch Western media. 


A bulky body often indicates power and the importance of an individual's position, but slenderness is becoming more popular as young people travel to the West or watch Western media. 

Layering garments and jewelry, as well as using heavy fabric, can create an impression of bulk. 

The elaborate robes of a ruler, such as those worn by the Asantehene of the Asante people in Ghana, are an example. 

He accessorizes his robes with a plethora of gold jewelry and presents himself in an outfit that his subjects would expect. 

A successful and powerful market woman's customers also expect her to wear an imposing wrapper set, blouse, and head wrap. 



In many cases, middle-class and wealthy African men and women have a diverse wardrobe of clothing to choose from, including both Western and indigenous items. 


When traveling, studying abroad, or living or visiting in African cosmopolitan cities, such a wardrobe allows them to dress in current European and American fashions as well as attend ethnic funerals or ceremonial events in their hometown. 

The fact that covering and adorning the body is used to provide both aesthetic and social information about an individual or a group is reflected in the wide range of color and style in African dress, headdress, and footwear. 



Individuals can masterfully manipulate color, texture, shape, and proportion in terms of aesthetics. 


Dress can indicate membership in an ethnic, occupational, or religious group, or it can express a person's personal aesthetic interests. 

Similarly, an individual's clothing conveys social information because different groups have different expectations for appropriate attire based on age, occupation, and group affiliation. 

Understanding the clothing of the people who live on the vast African continent requires an understanding of the many complex factors that influence an African's decision on what to wear at any given time. 

To fully appreciate or accurately depict the clothing of an individual African or a specific African group, one must consult available social and historical records, as well as contemporary scholarly information, African newspapers, magazines, television, and other media sources.


~ Jai Krishna Ponnappan

Find Jai on Twitter | LinkedIn | Instagram








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