African clothing commonly refers to the traditional clothing worn by the people of Africa.
Different tribes throughout the continent pride themselves on their national dress which they use for ceremonies and special occasions. There are many varied styles of dress and the type of cloth plays an integral role in fashioning the garment. The fabric often reflects the society in general as well as the status of individuals or groups within that community.
In some instances traditional robes have been replaced or influenced by foreign cultures, like colonial impact or western popular dress code.
evolution of dress in Africa is very difficult to trace due to the lack of written word
and actual historical evidence. Much is pieced together from various sources
like traditional robes being handed down to present day tribal members, word of
mouth (oral history), theater (masquerades) and from art and artifacts which
show sculptural representations of dress.
Clothing was not generally needed for warmth or protection in most areas of the African continent due to the warm and hospitable climate and many tribes did not wear much at all. The men wore just a loin cloth or apron and the women wore wraps around their waist or breasts, often adorning the rest of their bodies with scarification and paint ochres.
Adornment of clothing came by way of fashioning jewelry and head gear from seashells, bones, ostrich
egg shell pieces and feathers.
The earliest evidence of textile manufacture appeared at Igbo-Ukwu and consisted of excavated fragments of unpatterned, bast-fibre cloth dating from the 9th Century. (Bast is the plant fibre made from the phloem, the inner bark). Discovery of the Tellem caves in Mali exposed 11th and 12th Century funerary sites which revealed fragments of cotton and wool fabric dyed with indigo.
And then around the 15th Century, trade occurred in Africa with shipping routes being opened up between Europe, Africa and the East. Exotic items arrived on the continent and began to be coveted by the local inhabitants for decoration of their local cloth. Beads, shells and buttons began to appear on garments, either as embellishment or making up the entire garment like beaded aprons, capes, headbands and shoes.
Various weaving techniques were developed in different areas, some more progressive than others. Fibres used were cotton, raffia, silk and wool. Woven and decorated textiles used for African clothing became a reflection of the tribe’s status, its socioeconomic standing, its culture, its environment and its climate.
Traditional and contemporary woven and/or printed fabric, wrapped or draped around the body forms the nucleus of tribal clothing. Adornment of the body with headdresses, bags, belts, collars, girdles and capes made from beads, feathers, leather, gold and silver, sea shells, ostrich egg shell, ivory, buttons, fur, skins, bone, animal tails and hair, raffia, wood, grass, bells and pressed metal all contribute to a rich and embellished costume used for tribal purposes.
with the wearing of headbands, necklaces, bracelets, wristlets, armbands and
anklets and oiled, perfumed skin and dressed hair, adult women and men could be
splendidly worn down with the weight and volume of their dress.
The skin of an animal was often chosen for
symbolic significance and showed tribal allegiance or personal totems.
Sometimes it needed to be kept intact to bring good health and good luck to the wearer.
Colours and patterns, created in printed and dyed cloth, woven fabric strips or beaded attire distinguish one ethnic group from another. Tribes pride themselves on the quality of their hand-made cloth using techniques that have been handed down, generation by generation, for centuries.
These clothes can be used as wraps and capes or sewn into garments for both males and females.
Kitenge cloth has a long history in East and Western Africa but nowadays has expanded to many other countries on the continent. It is an informal and inexpensive printed fabric that features a distinctive border design and sometimes has political slogans printed on it.
Here, Liberian women wear kitenge dresses depicting the Liberian flag and political leaders for National Commemoration Day.
Ashanti weaving has two levels, cotton cloth for general use and cloths partly or wholly made of silk for courtly application as seen opposite.
This is widely known as ‘Kente’ cloth. Sadly, Ashanti weaving is falling past its prime as the demand for high standards and complicated pattern designs has declined.
Today, African garments take their roots in traditional dress and are worn by millions of people for both ceremonial occasions and for everyday wear. This makes for a vibrant and colourful scene wherever you go in Africa.
African dress may consist of a single item or a fully composed outfit and range from simple to complex.
Ensembles are very often made from Ankara or Dutch Wax fabric.
They can be elaborate outfits with hats and scarves or they can be simple wrappers which are worn around the waist with a Westernised shirt, frequently acquired from the secondhand clothes business that has swamped the continent in recent years.
Throughout Africa, both men and women wear variations of the wrapper (also called kanga, futa, lappa, capalana or pagne).
Both of these shirts can be both formal or informal depending upon the application of cloth, the style of the garment and the embellishment of it.
A Dashiki is a loose fitting pull-over shirt, long or short sleeved with an ornate embroidered V-shaped collar that is uni-sex and comes in many lengths, colours and forms.
A very modern take on a sixties fashion statement and embracing African heritage in an elegant and distinguished way.
Nelson Mandela made the Madiba shirt his signature dress and whilst this shirt also has its roots in Indonesian wax resist fabric, it has since been adopted as an African garment, celebrating the style and elegance of the ex-South African president.
* Contemporary African clothing and designers can be viewed on this page