Clothing in Africa
Clothing in Africa as elsewhere, has long served more than one purpose.
In addition to satisfying human needs for covering and adornment,
textiles and clothing provide media for artistic expression for
weavers, dyers, tailors, and clothing designers.
For centuries, textiles and garments have been produced both domestically
— for household and village community members — and commercially,
for bartering or sale. Although the earliest cloth was made primarily
of local natural fibers, today's African textiles and clothing incorporate
a wide variety of materials and styles.
The precise origins of cloth production in Africa is lost in time,
but archaeological findings indicate some of the earliest sites.
Drawings of looms can be seen in the tombs of ancient Egypt, dating
back to at least 2000 B.C.E. Archaeologists have found linen remnants
in ancient Egypt, as well as fifth-century cotton cloth remnants
in Meroe, in northern Sudan. In West Africa, woven fiber pieces
dating back to the ninth century C.E. have been found in Nigeria,
and woven cotton cloth dating to the eleventh century has been recovered
in Mali. Evidence of loom use in Mauritania dates back to the eleventh
Traditions of Cloth Production and Design Bark cloth, or cloth
made from tree bark, predates the development of woven textiles
in most parts of Africa. Today it is rarely used for day-to-day
clothing, but some societies use it for ceremonial costumes. The
Ganda of Uganda, for example, make fabric from the inner bark of
fig trees, which is worn during ceremonial dances and other occasions
when ancestors are being honored. Early clothing in Africa was also
made from treated animal hides, furs, and feathers.
Many African societies weave cloth from locally grown cotton.
In North Africa and the Sahel, women also spin and weave camel and
sheep wool. Other sources of fiber include the raffia palm in Central
and West Africa, jute and flax in West Africa and Madagascar, and
silk in Nigeria, Madagascar, and East Africa. All these fibers can
be dyed using vegetable and mineral dyes.
The two main kind of textile looms in Africa are the double-heddle
loom, used for narrow strips of cloth, and the single-heddle loom,
used for wider pieces. The narrow strips are typically sewn together,
then cut into patterns for clothing. The double-heddle loom is generally
used only by male weavers, who use it to weave in colored threads
and create richly textured fabrics. In addition, weavers in North
Africa and in Ethiopia also use ground looms, while looms similar
to those used in Southeast Asia are found in Madagascar. Although
Africa's weavers produce a wide variety of patterned, colored fabric,
they also weave plain cloth. This cloth can either be used "as is"
for daily wear around the home, or it can be decorated. Common fabric-decorating
techniques include appliqué designs, sewn on in contrasting fabrics;
embroidery with brightly colored threads; and dyeing.
Two of the most popular dyeing techniques in Africa are tie and
dye, and resist dye. In tie and dye, designs are first tied or stitched
into the cloth, using cotton or raffia threads. In resist dye, dyers
draw on the cloth using an impermeable substance, such as candle
wax or paste made from cassava, a tuber. They then dip the fabrics
into solutions typically made from vegetable dyes, which color all
but the covered areas. Indigo plants are used for deep blue dyes,
while reddish brown dyes are extracted from cola nuts, the camwood
tree, and the redwood tree. Greens, yellows, and blacks are prepared
from other sources.
Most designs and motifs used to decorate fabric have names. Many
designs are associated with particular plants, animals, events,
or proverbs, and are often used in other crafts, such as house painting,
carving, and pottery. Others incorporate Arabic script, Roman letters
and numerals, or line drawings of contemporary objects, such as
bicycles and cars. "Traditional" cloth production, in other words,
is not only highly varied from place to place but is also influenced
by societal and technological change.
In many African societies, men and women are responsible for different
stages of cloth production. The gender division of labor, however,
varies widely by region, and in many places has changed over time.
For example, in Mali, women used to dye bogolanfini mud-cloth, but
today young unemployed men in urban areas have taken up this craft.
They typically produce lower-quality cloth, which is sold to tourists
or exported. Indigo dyeing is women's work among the Yoruba and
the Soninke of West Africa, but among the Hausa, fabric dying is
traditionally a men's craft.
Commercial textile and clothing production has a long history
in some parts of Africa. In Tunisia, weavers and dyers as early
as the tenth century C.E. organized guilds in order to protect their
business. By the fifteenth century, the dyeing pits of Kano in northern
Nigeria were renowned as far north as the Mediterranean coast. They
are still in operation today. In Kano as in many other precolonial
centers of commercial textile production, the city's political elite
were among the weavers' and dyers' most important clientele. Royal
patronage fostered the development of special luxury cloths. The
court of King Njoya of Baumun in present-day Cameroon, for example,
produced especially fine examples of raffia-stitched tie and dye.
The Asante court in Kumasi (in present-day) Ghana) supervised the
production of silk kente cloth (described below).
Clothing Traditions Across the Continent In North Africa, nomadic
pastoralists in mountainous regions weave animal wool into thick
cloth for tents, blankets, rugs, and cushions. The mouchtiya is
a capelike shawl worn by married women, and like other clothing
materials is woven on vertical looms. Across North Africa, both
Arab and Berber influences are apparent in textile designs and clothing
In the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea, Amharic and Tigrean
women wear kemis, cotton dresses with fitted bodices, long sleeves,
and full skirts. The shamma, a light shawl, is thrown over the head
and shoulders. A border of woven or embroidered geometric designs
highlights the otherwise white cloth. The designs include variations
of the cross motif, which is central to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Men also wear the shamma, as well as shirts and baggy knee-length
pants made of the same white cloth. In colder weather, people of
this region have traditionally wrapped themselves in a heavy woven
blanket (kutta) or cape (bornos). When it rains they don a wollo,
a cape made from finely woven grass. Farther east in the Horn of
Africa, the pleated skirts and tight embroidered trousers and veils
worn by Islamic Somali, Harari Oromo, and Argobba women reflect
influences from the Indian subcontinent, cultivated over centuries
of trade across the Indian Ocean.
Pastoral societies in the lowlands of the Horn of Africa, such
as the Boran, make some of their own clothing out of goatskin. The
women wear leather or cotton skirts trimmed with beads, metal rings,
cowrie shells, and ostrich eggshell beads, and sometimes painted
with cow blood. The cotton woven here is multicolored and striped,
not unlike the kikoi cloth found along the Swahili coast of East
In the Sahara and Sahelian regions of West Africa, Tuareg men
wrap their heads in a distinctive blue veil. The indigo-dyed wrap
is put on during the initiation ceremonies marking the end of boyhood,
and thereafter is rarely removed. The indigo from the veil and accompanying
robes rubs off onto the skin, hence the Tuareg's nickname, the "blue
men." The Tuareg have traditionally purchased their indigo cloth
from Hausa traders in markets along the Sahara's southern edge.
Elsewhere in West Africa, men in many societies weave cotton cloth
in long narrow strips, which are then stitched into large pieces.
Among the Asante, the men wrap the long piece of cloth around the
waist and then loop it over the shoulder, toga-style. Baggy pants
that are tight around the lower leg are popular, as are elaborately
embroidered, full-length robes. Women across West Africa commonly
tie a long wrap around the waist, accompanied by a wide sash, a
matching blouse, and a head wrap.
The Yoruba of Nigeria prepare an indigo-dyed cotton called adire
eleso. The artists sew finely detailed patterns onto the cloth using
raffia or cotton thread, then take the cloth to a dyer, known as
an aloro, who, it is said, works under the protection of the Yoruba
spirit Iya Mapo. Similar techniques are also used farther west,
among the Wolof, the Soninke, and the Mandinka, and as far south
as the Kasai region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Yoruba women cloth makers, known as aladire, use resist dye methods
to make adire eleso. They use cassava paste to paint or stencil
repeated abstractions of animals and plants onto the cloth. After
dyeing the cloth indigo blue, they beat it with a wooden stick until
it attains a bright glossy sheen. Bambara women in Mali also use
the resist technique to produce a speckled blue fabric, while Soninke
women coat cloth in paste and then run a comb through it, to create
a wavelike design after dyeing.
The colors and designs of the adobe architecture found in Tombouctou
and other older cities in Mali are reflected in the Bambara's famous
ochre-colored bokolanfini, or mud-cloth fabrics. Women first dye
the cloth yellow with a vegetable extract, then carefully paint
the cloth with specially prepared mud. After the mud is washed off,
the designs appear in yellow against a dark brown background. In
the final step, dyers apply bleach to the yellow parts to change
them back to the original color. In Ghana, cloths sewn from narrow
cotton strips are either kept white or dyed reddish brown with a
dye obtained from the bark of the kuntunkuni tree. The artist then
divides the cloth into blocks, and uses stamps made out of calabash
shells to decorate the fabric with designs, many of which are associated
with proverbs. The finished cloth is worn toga-style by Akan and
Perhaps the most famous fabric produced in Ghana is kente, which
was traditionally made by tailors of the Asante court, using European
silk acquired first through trans-Saharan trade and later coastal
trade. Richly colored and textured fabric, kente was once worn only
by Asante royalty, but it has now become an international symbol
for Africa. It is worn throughout the African diaspora as an acknowledgment
of one's roots on the continent. Outside of Ghana, it is still difficult
to find large pieces of high-quality hand-woven kente. But cheap,
mass-produced copies of kente designs — often printed rather than
woven — are now sold worldwide.
One of the most distinctive textiles produced in Central Africa
is raffia cloth. Men weave fibers from the leaves of raffia palm
trees into squares that vary in size according to length of the
fibers. Tie and dyeing, weaving, cut-pile embroidery, and appliqué
are all used to decorate the fabric with geometric designs. The
squares are sewn edge to edge into larger pieces, which can be used
for dance skirts and for burial cloths. Raffia cloth production
has largely died out in more heavily populated areas along the coast,
but today the Kuba of the Kasai region continue to weave and decorate
raffia cloth for use during funerals.
African societies have long incorporated imported materials, textiles,
and styles into their own clothing traditions. For centuries, trans-Saharan
trade caravans carried cloth back and forth between the city-states
of the West African savanna and North Africa. After Europeans began
plying Atlantic trade routes around the continent, they too participated
in the textile trade. Certain kinds of cloth, in fact, served as
currency in West Africa, to be exchanged for slaves or gold. In
East Africa, foreign textiles arrived on ships that worked the monsoon
trade routes between the Gulf of Arabia, India, and East Asia.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, Portuguese traders frequented
the southern African port of Lourenço Marque (now Maputo, the capital
of Mozambique), bringing glass beads to exchange for ivory and gold.
The Ndebele people used the beads to decorate leather skirts and
cloaks, as well as to make thick hoop necklaces, bracelets, and
In the late nineteenth century, a new cloth became popular on
Zanzibar, an island city-state with a long history of transoceanic
trade. During the 1870s, enterprising Swahili women began to sew
brightly colored imported handkerchiefs known as lesos into larger
pieces of fabric, which were called kangas. Six lesos were cheaper
than one piece of imported fabric of the same size. The textile
industries in Manchester and Holland soon caught on to this new
market and began manufacturing similarly sized single cotton pieces
that were intended to be sold in pairs. The kangas were worn mainly
by women eager to establish their emancipated identity after the
abolition of slavery on Zanzibar. They wrapped one kanga around
the waist, another around the upper body, and a third around the
head and thrown over the shoulder, covering the body in the Muslim
fashion. The most popular kangas had proverbs and other sayings
printed at the bottom. Kangas are now widely worn in East Africa;
most are either produced by domestic industries in Kenya or Tanzania,
or imported directly from South or East Asia. Just as at the turn
of the century, customers are always in search of new designs and
new printed proverbs.
In West Africa, nineteenth-century European traders found large
markets for factory-produced wax-printed cloth. The designs of this
cloth imitated hand-dyed batik textiles, which the Dutch East India
Company began importing from Java in the seventeenth century. West
African women wore "dutch wax" wraps (or pagnes, in Francophone
countries) much like women in East Africa wore kangas.
Today, most independent West African countries' domestic textile
industries manufacture cloth decorated with "dutch wax" prints as
well as other designs. These factories commonly produce special
runs on request, to commemorate holidays or events. Genuine dutch
wax cloths are still imported from Europe and are both prestigious
and costly. Despite their foreign origin they are widely recognized
as "African" fabrics. A large proportion of both the urban and international
trades in dutch wax cloths is controlled by women traders based
in West African cities such as Lomé, Lagos, and Abidjan. The most
successful of these traders are known as "Mama Benzis," a reference
to their Mercedes Benz cars and other symbols of wealth.
British and Dutch merchants were not the only Europeans who encouraged
Africans to adopt new clothing styles during the colonial era. Christian
missionaries expected converts to wear modest European-style clothing.
During World War I and World War II, pamphlets used during recruitment
campaigns in the colonies featured pictures of soldiers smartly
dressed in khaki shorts and shirts. Most colonial-era schools (like
many today) required students to wear uniforms, similar to the blouse
and skirt (for girls) or shorts (for boys) ensembles worn by European
Given the association of Western-style dress with the colonial
powers, it is hardly surprising that many African anticolonial movements
of the 1940s and 1950s made elements of traditional clothing symbolic
of their campaign toward independence. Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta wore
a beaded ogut tigo hat and a beaded leather belt, while Ghana's
Kwame Nkrumah encouraged educated nationalists to wear the fugu,
a waist-length tunic worn by the common man. At independence, many
new republics designed a national dress, intended to unite the diverse
peoples within their borders. In the former Democratic Republic
of the Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko's authenticité campaign urged Zairieans
to return to "authentic" African clothing styles.
Contemporary African governments and political leaders still exercise
important influences over popular clothing styles. Kangas and kitenges
have become wearable billboards, with special-edition designs promoting
national health campaigns such as family planning, or celebrating
presidential birthdays and national holidays. After Thomas Sankara
came to power in Burkina Faso in 1983, he declared locally woven
cotton the national fabric and required civil servants to wear it.
In southern Africa, men's "Kaunda suits" are named after Kenneth
Kaunda, the former president of Zambia. In South Africa, Gatsha
Buthelezi, head of the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party, encourages
supporters to wear the skins and headdresses of Zulu warriors at
public events. South African President Nelson Mandela's taste in
brightly-colored shirts has made them newly fashionable.
Economic conditions and changing technologies are also influencing
African clothing styles. Currency devaluations carried out under
structural adjustment economic reform programs have made imported
materials and clothing more expensive, but markets for used clothing
("fripperie" in Francophone countries) remain consistently strong.
A significant proportion of the used Western clothing sold in Africa
was originally donated to charities in the United States and Europe.
Whether new or secondhand, Western clothing is considered fashionable
in contemporary Africa. So too are "new traditional" clothes, which
mix traditional fabrics and styles with synthetic materials and
Western designs. For example, Yoruba weavers of the traditional
aso oke fabric now incorporate lurex and rayon threads into their
fabric. In Mali, tailors use bogolanfini mud-cloth to make European-cut
blazers, vests, and caps. Often tailors' customers, especially women,
commission outfits using locally bought cloth, but based on imported
patterns or designs copied from fashion magazines.
Growing appreciation for handmade African fabrics, both as pieces
of art and as materials appropriate for "high-fashion" clothing,
bodes well for the survival of traditional skills. Contemporary
artists such as Nike Davis, Senabu Oloyede, and Kekekomo Oladepo
of Nigeria use indigo-dyed adire cloth in tapestries that explore
modern themes. In Mali, Pama Sinatoa in Djenné and Ismael Diabaté,
and the Groupe Bogolan Kasobane and the Atelier Jamana in Bamako
have won renown for their bogolanfini clothes, while Chris Seydou
used bogolanfini-inspired textiles in his contemporary clothing
styles. In Nairobi, Kenya, the African Heritage Gallery commissions
clothing and jewelry that draws on traditional styles from all over
Contributed By: Muhonjia Khaminwa