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 century.
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 styles.
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 Africa.
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 Ewe men.
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 anklets.
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
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 the continent.
Contributed By: Muhonjia Khaminwa