Africa, sub-Saharan: history of dress

African dress, like dress everywhere, communicates age, gender, occupation, ethnicity, power, and religious commitment for everyday, celebratory, ceremonial, and ritual occasions. Along with fashionable Western dress, Africans wear Islamic and indigenous apparel. Dress involves totally or partially covering the body by supplementing it with apparel and accessories such as head wraps and jewelry and modifying the body itself with tattoos or piercing. Dressing well for Africans involves proper conduct and elegant style, which includes appropriate apparel, cosmetics, and coiffure along with magnificent carriage, graceful movement, fastidious toilette, and immaculate garments.

African dress worn every day indicates socially significant categories, but may also express personal idiosyncrasy. When Africans wear identical dress, such as uniforms or garments made from the same fabric, their garb emphasizes group affiliation and minimizes individuality. African dress is not the same as African costume. Actors and masqueraders temporarily conceal personal identity through costume, whereas in everyday life people communicate and reveal their personal identity through dress.

African dress is as varied and diverse as the historical antecedents and cultural backgrounds of the African people in fifty-five countries and more than eight hundred linguistic groups. A continent two-and-a-half times as large as the continental United States, the physical environment of Africa ranges from the deserts of the Sahara and the Kalahari, to the mountains of the Great Rift Valley, and the rain forests in West and Central Africa, as well as the arid region of the Sahel that borders the Sahara. What African people wear relates to these factors of physical environment, to external and internal trade and migration, to the influences of explorers, missionaries, and travelers and to their own creativity. Specific information about the dress of each ethnic group comes from social, religious, and political histories, as well as oral, archaeological, trade, and mercantile records. Early evidence of dress is depicted in the rock art of northern, southern, and eastern Africa, indicating items of dress that predate contact with European, Asian, and Middle Eastern peoples. Tellem caves in Mali provide cloth fragments that give evidence of hand woven apparel before Saharan trade or coastal contacts.

In the twenty-first century, dress in Africa includes items fashioned from local resources and tools, such as wrappers hand woven from handspun cotton threads on handmade looms in the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Mali, and Nigeria. In addition, combinations of local resources and imported materials are used, as seen in the kente wrappers woven from imported rayon or silk threads on locally made looms in Ghana. African dress also includes imported items from worldwide sources made by complex machines and techniques (British top hats and homburgs, French designer gowns, Italian shoes and handbags, and Swiss laces along with secondhand clothing from the United States) from commercially produced materials. In addition, Africans produce their own designer garments from both imported and locally made textiles and also transform imported secondhand clothing into locally admired fashions. Some African designers, like the Malian, Xuly Bët, left Africa to become successful in Paris, New York, and elsewhere.

Purely indigenous items are becoming less common and therefore less often worn. Borrowed items are often creatively used and juxtaposed with other items that result in a readily identifiable ethnic style. The Kalabari-Ijo people, from the delta area of the Niger River in Nigeria, combine a variety of textiles and other items of dress that are imported from elsewhere in Nigeria and abroad. Their dress illustrates the term “cultural authentication,” which designates adopted articles that are selected, characterized by symbolic representation, incorporated, and transformed. For example, the Kalabari-Ijo man’s ceremonial hat, called ajibulu, stems from the European military and naval officers’ bicorne hat from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Kalahari decorate a hat of this shape with hair from a ram’s beard along with tiny mirrors, small, shiny Christmas hall ornaments, hrightly colored feathers, and plastic hair clasps, each glued or stitched onto the basic fabric, resulting in a head covering that is uniquely Kalabari.

African residents who come from European and Asian ancestry may choose not to wear African items of dress; instead, they maintain forms of dress fashionable in the countries of their ancestors. Indian women whose families have lived in East and West Africa for several generations continue to wear the sari as commonly worn on the Indian subcontinent. In South Africa, Afrikaaners wear European dress that continues their European heritage. In contrast to those who refrain from wearing African items, some non-Africans embrace them: Peace Corps volunteers from the United States in Nigeria found the Yoruba dansiki (more commonly known in the United States as “dashiki”) a handsome and comfortable shirt to wear. Tourists, too, often buy and wear African beads, hats, cloth, garments, and fans while travelling and take them home as souvenirs.

Dressing the Torso

The torso is usually the focus when dressing the body, although headwear and footwear are also significant. Items of dress generally may be classified as enclosing, attached, or hand held. Enclosing dress can be subdivided into wraparound, preshaped, and suspended categories; all examples are found in Africa. Wraparound garments are formed from rectangular pieces of fabric that are folded, crushed, or twisted around the body. Preshaped items include cut and sewn garments along with other items, such as jewelry, that are molded or cast. Most attached and many suspended enclosing items of dress are also jewelry, such as earrings and necklaces. Handheld items usually consist of accessories such as a fan, purse, cane, or walking stick. Throughout Africa, both men and women wear variations of the wrapper (also called kanga, futa, lappa, or pagne). As a garment, the loose fit of wraparound apparel seems particularly appropriate and comfortable to wear because of prevalent high temperatures, both dry and humid. Wrappers are also easily made from available materials such as skins, bark (or bark cloth), or wool, cotton, silk, and raffia for handwoven cloth. Pre-shaped garments for men and women in general came from contact with Europeans and Middle Easterners, as women adopted dresses and gowns and men adopted jackets, shirts, and trousers as clothing styles. African women and girls rarely wore pants or other bifurcated garments until jeans and pants became fashionable for women in Europe, America, and Japan, thus beginning an influence on young African women especially to adopt these styles for many occasions.

The wrapper, however, is probably the most frequent and popular indigenous garment in sub-Saharan Africa. Women may wrap cloth from their waist to their knees, calves, or feet. Sometimes they wrap the cloth under the armpits to cover their breasts and lower body. Men ordinarily wrap a small length of cloth from their waist to their feet, with the chest either bare or covered. For both men and women in the twenty-first century, a bare chest is not frequently seen in public, but remains an option for dressing informally at home. Non-Muslim Africans were influenced by European ideas of modesty after many countries became independent in the 1960s, because they discovered that journalists and outsiders commented negatively on African “nudity,” usually referring to bare-breasted women. In fact, some Nigerian municipalities passed laws at that time specifically forbidding women to enter the town if they were bare-breasted.

Examples of wraparound garments abound. 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. This style became internationally visible in the 1960s when the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, wore it and was photographed in it for ceremonial occasions, both at home and abroad.

Preshaped dress involves cutting and sewing lengths of cloth to make a garment fit the body. Common styles are shirts, blouses, robes, and pants, or the Hausa man’s baba riga (big gown). Cross-cultural contacts influenced the design of many preshaped garments. The colonial impact and trade contacts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are seen in several women’s gowns. For example, the long gown (called boubou) made popular by Wolof women in Senegal indicates probable Muslim and Middle Eastern origins, whereas the gowns of Herero women in Namibia, Efik women in Nigeria, and the “granny” gown of women in Egypt show nineteenth-century European contact.

Men’s trouser shapes vary considerably. Along with Western fashions found across the continent, indigenous fashions also abound. In Nigeria, Hausa men wear enormously large drawstring breeches with a “baba riga” over the top. Yoruba men wear both wide or narrow trousers, often as a three-piece outfit along with a robe (agbada) and shirt (dansiki). When the men’s ensemble is tailored from colorful, wax-printed cotton, the Yoruba outfit is interpreted as being informal. If made from damask, lace, eyelet, brocade, or the handwoven textile of nubby, native silk that the Yoruba call sanyan (produced by a different silk worm than the Asian one), the ensemble is considered formal.

Throughout Africa, males wear preshaped shirts and hip-length or calf-length garments with trousers or wrappers. Finishing and decorating details distinguish many of the garments as being associated with one ethnic group or another. In the Republic of Benin, Fon men’s ensembles include a heavily embroidered, sleeveless tunic pleated at the neckline and flared at the hipline that they combine with embroidered trousers and an embroidered cap. In Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, Mandinka and Akan men wear garments known as war shirts and hunters’ shirts. Amulets decorate these garments and are made of animal horns, claws, teeth, or packets that contain slips of paper with magical or mystical words written on them.

Enclosing garments include suspended and combination forms. Some hats are suspended by being perched on top of the head and many items of jewelry are suspended around the neck or wrist. Capes (often worn by Hausa and Fulani emirs and other royalty) are combination forms. Preshaped and stitched, they are also loosely suspended from the shoulders.

Items held by or for a person complete an African ensemble. As accessory items, these include umbrellas, canes, walking sticks, purses, handbags, fans, switches, handkerchiefs, linguist staffs, and tusks, as well as weapons such as daggers, swords, and spears. Many materials are used for these items. An individual carries an umbrella for protection from rain or as a substitute for a cane. Attendants for a ruler carry large, decorative, and colorful umbrellas to emphasize the ruler’s position and significance, for a ruler should not be so encumbered. Canes and walking sticks are made of wood, ivory, or plastic; fans, of paper, leather, hide, or feathers. Fashionable handbags are commercially manufactured; some are produced domestically while others are imported. When wearing an indigenous ensemble, an individual often carries a bag crafted from indigenous materials, such as domestically produced leather that is also dyed, painted, or decorated with beads. An ivory elephant’s tusk held by an important individual indicates high status and wealth.

African wrapper. The wrapped garment is probably the most frequently worn by Africans of both sexes, as its comfortable, loose fit is the best suited to the humid environment.

African wrapper. The wrapped garment is probably the most frequently worn by Africans of both sexes, as its comfortable, loose fit is the best suited to the humid environment.

Many types of body modifications and jewelry also dress the torso. Tattooing occurs among light-skinned people, like the North African Berbers, because tattoos do not show on dark skin. Instead, permanent markings in the form of scarification and cicatrization or temporary cosmetics (ochre, kaolin, indigo, henna, and chalk) decorate dark-skinned bodies. Many permanent-marking procedures began to die out in the twentieth century as Africans became exposed to Western cosmetic and body decoration practices, and interest grew in looking “modern.” Cosmetics familiar to Westerners are easily available throughout Africa, although not always worn or used plentifully. Again, the issue relates to varieties of skin color, for lipstick and blush are not as visible on dark complexions as on light-colored ones. Similarly, henna— a common cosmetic in North Africa and the Middle East—is not used by Africans with darker skin, although it is sometimes used on the palms and bottom of the feet, which are lighter parts of the body. Both men and women wear scented products, but frequently, African men wear stronger scents than found among most European and American men. European perfumes and scents can be purchased throughout Africa, but prohibitive prices preclude wide usage. Instead, indigenous products are available and used, as in the case of Muslim women who stand over incense burners to scent their clothing with the fragrant smoke.

Africans display many kinds of jewelry. Items for the torso include necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets of many types, along with items that circle the waist, such as “waist beads.” Necklaces vary in size and style, from large to small, fashioned from metals, beads, shells, chains, and medallions. Some bracelets and anklets are modest in size, circling only the wrist and ankle with metal or beads. Others are massive, used to adorn the lower arm, upper arm, or lower leg with coils of copper or chunks of ivory. Materials used for body ornaments include gold, silver, brass, copper, ivory, natural stones like jasper, coral, and amber, and many cowrie shells (which often decorate garments as well). Both imported and locally produced glass beads exist throughout Africa. Italy, Austria, and Germany historically exported glass beads to all areas of Africa, and artisans in towns (Bida, Nigeria, for example) produce glass beads from recycled beverage bottles. Both Masai men and women wear necklaces of imported, colorful beads that that look like wide collars and rest on the back of the neck. Some Masai children wear miniature examples of these beaded necklaces as well as beaded bracelets and anklets. Small disk shapes cut from ostrich shells or celluloid are used for waist beads worn by women and girls in West Africa. These beads are decorative and also sexually attractive in intimate situations. Some make sounds that attract attention when the individual moves.

Color, texture, or fabric motif distinguishes the dress of different peoples. All types of textiles exist from imported natural and synthetic yarns along with domestic ones of cotton, wool, silk, and synthetics. 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 screen-printed on a commercially manufactured textile or T-shirt. 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, fashionable ones for every day, made from synthetic or human hair, as well as older types, made from indigenous fibers, for special ceremonies. Older customs also included adding oil, ochre, or mud to give textural and sculptural effects to the hair. Head-wear is made from indigenous as well as imported materials including textiles, skins, feathers, straw, raffia, and beads. Children and youth wear headgear less often than adults do. Men’s headwear includes caps, hats, and turbans and in some areas exhibits greater variety in type than the head wraps (often called head ties) and other headwear of women. This may be related to a wider range of available positions in political and religious systems for men than women, such as chieftaincies and priesthoods. Men’s headwear includes many types of caps and hats from handwoven and hand-embroidered fabrics but, especially since the arrival of Europeans, men wear many styles of imported hats and caps. Opulent decorations for hats of high-status (often royal) men include embroidery with metallic threads of gold and silver or precious gems or metals. In some areas, men select an imported top hat, derby, or fedora as part of their dress ensemble, again indicating high status, whether born into the position or achieved by being granted a local honor or reaching a certain age. Veils and turbans may also be part of male dress. The wrapped white turban of a Hausa man shows that he has been to Mecca. The shiny, deep indigo-dyed veils worn by Tuareg males make them easily identifiable.

Kalabari chief. Beads, coral accessories, and elaborately ornamented headgear, such as the ajibulu crown shown here, are often worn by sub-Saharian Africans of elevated social or political status.

Kalabari chief. Beads, coral accessories, and elaborately ornamented headgear, such as the ajibulu crown shown here, are often worn by sub-Saharian Africans of elevated social or political status.

Adult females, particularly the Yoruba of Nigeria and Ndebele of Southern Africa, most often wear cloth head ties wrapped in numerous shapes and styles. Fashion changes as well as creativity and individual flair influence their head-tie arrangements. A highly desirable fabric for women’s head ties in western Africa comes from a manufacturer in England, but women also select hand-woven cloth to match their wrapper set. An example of fashion change occurred among Herero women, who used skins for headwear in the 1800s, but use cloth in the early 2000s. Muslim women throughout Africa employ several methods to cover their hair. Some cut and sew cloth to preshape a head covering or suspend fabric to create a veil that reveals only their eyes. Others loosely wrap fabric over their heads and tie or pin it under their chins. Some veiling garments, such as the burqa, were once worn only by Arab women living in Africa but have spread to other Muslim populations. Jewelry also decorates the hair and head for men and women, including earrings, hair ornaments, and headbands using the same beads, metals, precious and semiprecious gems, ivory, stones, fibers, and many natural materials to fashion them. Imported items like buttons also provide decoration.

Footwear

Footwear is often desired to complete a person’s dress ensemble. During colonial periods, some Europeans did not allow shoes to be worn by those subservient to them, whether in the house or at work in colonial offices. Many styles of leather sandals, boots, and shoes are worn; these may be handmade or commercially manufactured, locally or abroad. Inexpensive rubber and plastic thongs are widely available for people who want to protect their feet in a minimal fashion and for minimal cost. In contrast, men and women of special rank wear distinctive and expensive footwear decorated with beads, rare feathers, precious metals, or carefully worked designs in leather. For example, Hausa emirs in northern Nigeria display ostrich feathers on the insteps of their footwear to complement their royal gown and cape, and the horsemen in their royal entourage wear leather boots. In the south of Nigeria, rulers choose other footwear. The oba of Benin puts on slippers covered with coral beads as part of his ceremonial dress, and the royal ensemble of the Alake of Abeokuta includes colorful slippers covered with tiny imported glass beads.

Conclusion

African dress may consist of a single item or an ensemble and range from simple to complex. Single items such as a hat, necklace, or waist beads contrast with the total ensemble of an elaborate gown or robe worn with a head covering, jewelry, and accessories. A wrapper, body paint, and uncomplicated hairdo exemplify a simple ensemble whereas a complex one combines several richly decorated garments, an intricate coiffure, opulent jewelry, and other items. Either single items or total ensembles may have an additive, cumulative character created by clusters of beads or layers of cloth or jewelry. As an individual’s body moves, such clusters and layers are necessary components of dress that provides ambient noise with the rustle of fibers or fabrics and jingle of jewelry. A bulky body often indicates power and the importance of the individual’s position, but slenderness is gaining popularity as young people travel to the West or see Western media. Impressiveness through bulk can be achieved by layering garments and jewelry or using heavy fabric. Examples are the elaborate robes of a ruler, such as the Asantehene of the Asante people in Ghana. On top of his robes, he adds impressive amounts of gold jewelry and presents himself in an ensemble expected by his subjects. Similarly, the customers of a successful and powerful market woman expect her to wear an imposing wrapper set, blouse, and head wrap. In many cases, middle-class and wealthy African men and women enjoy a wardrobe of many types of dress, selecting from a variety of Western pieces of apparel or from indigenous items. Such a wardrobe allows selection of an outfit to attend an ethnic funeral or ceremonial event in their hometown as well as dress in current fashions from Europe and America when traveling, studying abroad, or living or visiting in African cosmopolitan cities.

The wide range of color and style in African dress, headdress, and footwear reflects the reality that covering and adorning the body is used to provide both aesthetic and social information about an individual or a group. Aesthetically, individuals can manipulate color, texture, shape, and proportion with great skill. An individual’s dress may express an individual’s personal aesthetic interest or it may indicate membership in an ethnic, occupational, or religious group. Similarly, an individual’s dress conveys social information because specific expectations exist within groups for appropriate outfits for age, occupation, and group affiliation. Understanding the dress of the people who live on the large African continent means realizing that many complex factors contribute to choices that an African makes about what to wear at a particular time. To appreciate fully or depict accurately the dress of an individual African or of a specific African group of people, one needs to consult available social and historical records and contemporary scholarly information as well as African newspapers, magazines, television, and other media sources.

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