African clothing commonly refers to the african clothing styles worn by the people of Africa. African print skirts, african clothing styles, kanzu, mordern african clothing and ghana dresses styles.

The evolution of african clothing is difficult to trace due to the lack of written word and actual historical evidence. Much is pieced together from various sources like african traditional robes being handed down to present day tribal members, word of mouth (oral history), theater (masquerades) and from african art and artifacts which showafrican sculptural representations of dress.

HISTORY OF AFRICAN CLOTHING STYLES

African 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 african print skirts and breasts, often adorning the rest of their bodies with scarification and paint ochres.      

Bark cloth, furs, skins and hides were mainly used for these first forms of african clothing.

Males simply wrapped the bark cloth over a belt and passed between the legs while women draped the cloth over the belt to hide the front of their bodies.

barkcloth

Barkcloth

Stone age man onward made bark cloth by peeling bark from trees and then pounding it with a rock until thin and malleable. Small pieces would be sewn together with hide or raffia to make larger pieces to cover the body. 

barkcloth wrappers

Ugandan women, barkcloth wrappers, early 20thC, Mombasa

painted barkcloth

painted barkcloth, Mbuti pygmy loincloth

Sometimes it was decorated with patterns giving rise to the tradition of decoration that exists in almost every African country.

Adornment of african 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.

angolan mother and child

Mother and child, Angola, 1936-37, Percy Powell Cotton,

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.

MODERN AFRICAN CLOTHING

Today, African clothing styles take their roots in african 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 clothing may consist of a single item or a fully composed outfit and range from simple to complex.

Kaftans

mali ladies

Malian ladies wearing ‘boubous’

Kaftans worn by women today in Africa were originally men’s attire. In modern times both men and women wear kaftans that can either be just a simple one garment robe plus hat or a 3 piece ensemble completed with a hat and a scarf to make a very impressive outfit.                                                                                                                                                                    

Kanzu is a long (usually white) kaftan with long sleeves worn by Swahili men.   

Kaftans are popular with both sexes in Central and Western Africa where they are called boubou’s for men and m’boubous for women. A woman’s m’boubou consists of a large gown overflowing on top of a wrapper and adorned with an elaborate headscarf.

agbada

Traditional Agbada, Yoruba, Nigeria

An Agbada is the Nigerian Yoruban version of a boubou. This is a long, loose-fitting, often embroidered gown having wide sleeves and a hole in the centre for the head to slide through and is worn especially by Yoruba males. It was worn over a long sleeved tunic (buba) and long tie-up trousers (sokoto) and accompanied by a hat (chechia) that matches the attire.

modern agbada

Agbada, Nigeria

These days, modern African men have embraced the look but swopped the fabric for something lighter and it is worn over a short sleeved buba. The actual agbada comes in shorter lengths and widths, and the pants are tighter fitting, producing a very neat and stylish effect.  

Aso Oke means top or ‘prestige’ cloth and there are three main types: Alaari, Sanyan and Etu.  

asa oke embroidered

4 piece lady’s suit, aso oke, embroidered, SW Nigeria, late 1970s.

Alaari are the red ones; Sanyan are usually brown or light brown and Etu is the dark blue aso oke dress.

Originally, the pieces were either deep indigo, natural beige silk or an imported magenta silk weave.

Today, the threads of cotton, polyester, rayon, silk, lurex, and acrylic are all merged on narrow strip looms into long, thin shimmering pieces of fabric.

They are sewn together to create the full cloth and even more artistic expression can take place in the sewing and the embellishment, mainly embroidery on the bodice and sleeve ends.

African print skirts


African print skirts are very often made from Ankara or Dutch Wax fabric.

They can be elaborate african clothing styles 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, lappacapalana or pagne).

Ankara is a vibrant material with rich, colorful patterns.

These designs are a form of expression pronouncing everything from marital status to popular culture, political and religious beliefs.     In recent years this hardy, lightweight fabric has become very trendy and even made its way to luxury designer brands. Its application has gone beyond being just a wrap to being used as a base for hats, handbags, shoes and all manners of clothing, as well as décor items for the home. 

However, despite being known as the quintessential ‘African fabric’ ankara was originally manufactured by the Dutch for the Indonesian textile market and then later diverted to West Africa. 

dutch wax fabrics

Colourful Dutch Wax (Ankara) fabrics

Today, Ghana and Tanzania produce locally made Dutch Wax fabric but at the top of the pile is Vlisco who manufacture this product in Holland. China is also a current producer.

Dashiki and Madiba shirts

Both ofthese 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.

dashiki

men’s dashiki shirt

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.