Clothing of African Cultures
The evolution of African clothing is difficult to trace because of the lack of historical evidence. Although artifacts from Egyptian culture date back to before 3000 B.C.E. , no similar evidence is available for the majority of the African continent until the mid-twentieth century. Sources from Arab culture refer to the people of northern Africa by the eighth century C.E. , but much of early African clothing history has been pieced together from art, oral histories, and traditions that are continued by present-day tribal members. When Europeans began trading and later developed colonies in Africa starting in the thirteenth century C.E. , more information about how Africans dressed was recorded and continues to this day. The spotty information available, combined with the huge number of different cultures living in Africa, however, provides only a very general history of the clothing trends on the continent.
Clothing was not a necessity for warmth or protection throughout much of the African continent because of the consistently warm weather. Many people, especially men, did not wear any clothing at all and instead decorated their bodies with paint or scars. When Africans did wear clothing, evidence suggests that animal skins and bark cloth were the first materials used. It is unknown when these readily available materials were first utilized, but they were used to make simple aprons to cover the genitals or large robes to drape around the body.
Later many cultures developed weaving techniques to produce beautiful cloth. Raffia, the fiber of a palm plant, and cotton were common materials used to weave fabric. At first cloth was woven by hand, and later looms (weaving devices) were created to make more complicated fabrics. Men and women worked together to produce fabric for clothing, with men weaving the fabric and women decorating it in many cultures. Perhaps the most well known fabrics were
Folded batik cloth. Some Africans used their fabric to create elaborate wrapped clothing styles, while others cut and sewed their fabrics into shirts, dresses, and trousers. Reproduced by permission of © .
the intricately woven cotton or silk Kente cloth of Ghana; the mud cloth of Mali, with its distinctive brown and beige patterns; and the tufted Kuba cloth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other types of cloth were also woven by other groups; each culture using its distinctive cloth to create clothing. Some used their fabric to create elaborate wrapped clothing styles, similar to the toga worn by ancient Romans. Others cut and sewed their fabric into skirts, shirts, dresses, and loose trousers. Different versions of loose-fitting robes are worn in many different regions of Africa. In Nigeria and Senegal a robe called a boubou for men and a m’boubou for women is popular. Other similar robes include the agbada and riga in Nigeria, the gandoura or leppi in Cameroon, and the dansiki in West Africa. Styles in northern Africa reflect the strong influence Muslims have had on the cultures, especially the Berbers of Morocco and other Saharan desert countries.
The clothing styles already discussed are considered traditional African dress, but there is a great deal we don’t know about them and other forms of African dress. We know nothing about the origins of these styles, for example, nor do we know the precise ways that they changed over time. It is almost certain, however, that African clothing styles, like the styles of all other long-enduring cultures, have evolved over time. In ancient times, when different African groups would meet and trade with each other, exotic items, such as shell beads in inland communities, would become prized status symbols and be incorporated into different tribal clothing styles. One prime example of how trade changed African clothing is the popularity of the tiny glass beads brought to Africa from Europe in the fifteenth century. Africans coveted the beads and soon created elaborate beaded skirts, capes, headdresses, and even shoes. The colors and patterns of the beadwork distinguished tribes from one another, and the styles of beaded clothing differentiated people by sex, age, and social status. These beaded items are now identified as traditional among many different groups in Africa. Further contact with Europeans introduced other Western items, namely Western clothing styles. Although these items were first combined with older African styles, by the twenty-first century it was not uncommon to see people in Africa wearing jeans, T-shirts, and tennis shoes, or other Western style outfits.
Blauer, Ettagale. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.
Giddings, V. L. “African American Dress in the 1960s.” In African American Dress and Adornment: A Cultural Perspective, edited by B. M. Starke, L. O. Holloman, and B. K. Nordquist. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 1990.
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Vanity Rules: A History of American Fashion and Beauty. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2000.
Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.
African Americans’ Dress During the Civil Rights Movement
Aso Oke Cloth