The more modern, western style of clothing was introduced to Africa by the European colonists, in 1973. Before this historic moment, African clothing was quite simple! Many regions did not wear any clothes! Still, other regions preferred and still prefer practical, sometimes very colorful, and natural clothing. As you will see soon, African clothing can differ quite a bit.
Let’s kick it off with Yoruba. The traditional garment for women of Yoruba is called aso oke. When people refer to aso oke, they usually think of the Yoruba women. It consists of four parts:
- buba– blouse,
- iro– wrap skirt,
- gele– head tie,
- iborun or ipele which is a shoulder sash.
There is also an option of wearing a hat that is made out of woven African fabric. There are 3 types of aso oke, and they all depend on the material they are made out of:
- Sanyan: woven from anaphe wild silk and cotton
- Alaari: woven with synthetically or locally grown cotton with shinning threads. You can recognize them by their optional perforated patterns.
- Etu: usually a dark indigo color with white stripes.
Next we have a boubou or bubu. This garment is one of the simpler styles in African clothing, but with its magnificent colors, the very present of a boubou can be glorious. This is a robe, with a flowing cut, and wide sleeves.
There is also a female version of a boubou, and is called kaftan. Kaftan is loose-fitting pullover wear. It usually has a V-shape or a round collar. Kaftan is also tailored and has embroidered neck and sleeve lines.
If you are an African male, you can choose to wear a dashiki. This is always a good and colorful option. It’s like a wonderful shirt, covering the top half of the body. Dashiki is great, ‘cause there are two versions of it- there is the formal one, a fully tailored suit, and there is a simple, informal one, just draped over the top part of the body. So it can be worn on many occasions, from casual to formal. Not only is the dashiki full of vibrant colors, but it has also a beautiful embroidered neck. So, as we can see, African clothing can also be modern, and tailored.
A Ghanaian smock is a plaid shirt. It’s very similar to the dashiki, but is typically worn by men in Ghana. It’s also called fugu or batakari. Once upon a time, the smock was worn by kings in the three northern regions, but is now popular in Ghana. The smock is made out of Strip Cloths- hand loomed strips. These strips are made from dyed and undyed cotton loom, which is later sewn together, giving the smock the plaid look. Traditionally, it’s worn with a kufi cap- brimless, short, and rounded cap.
Kente cloth is made out of interwoven cloth strips of silk and cotton. It is native to Akan people of South Ghana. To Akan people, kente is a royal and sacred cloth, worn only in special and extremely important events. It was the cloth of kings. The Akan people chose the kente cloth as a symbol of their name, colors and patterns.
Kente cloth and the Ghanaian smock are the national dress of Ghana.
Women head ties (or scarfs) have a few names in African clothing- they’re called doek by Afrikaans, duku in Ghana and Zimbabwe, tukwi in Botswana, and gele in Nigeria. The head ties are ornaments or fashion statements, or are being used for their functionality in different settings. They can be used for religious days, or to protect the hair during sleep, or special occasions like weddings, and church activities. According to some assumptions, the head scarfs were imposed by conventions or laws, to control the sensuality and exorcism that ‘confused’ white men.
The most beautiful and extravagant head ties are in Ghana, gele. They are often large and elaborate. Gele is worn on special occasions, and is made out of firmer material than the usual cloth. When they’re worn, they usually cover entire hair, as well as women’s ears, often in big shapes, sizes and variations. The only shown part of the head is the face, and earrings hanging on the lower part of the earlobes.
Africa is the birth place of humanity, so it was also the first one to produce and wear jewelry. All of their jewelry was made from natural material- wood, ivory, stone, bone, sea shells, hair, teeth… African jewelry is stunning and unique. It was used as a symbol of the social status, but it was also worn just for the aesthetic appeal, by both genders.
With time, African clothing merged with the European attire. There are no more dashikis, kaftans, boubou, or aso oke, now the Africans are modernized, so their wardrobe has pencil dresses, prints, trousers, jumpsuits and many more types of clothing. To keep it similar to the original and traditional attire, Africans incorporate the African wax print or Ankara print and try to wear the traditional clothes as well as the modern ones.
African wax print is omnipresent and very common in African clothing. They’re being massively produced from colorful cotton with batik printing- a pattern of dots, lines, and stamps, with multiple colors. There are many wax prints, and each of them carries a message. The wax prints often wear names of personalities, cities, sayings, events or even buildings. This type of print has influenced and inspired many in the fashion.
Even though the times have changed rapidly and unexpectedly, African clothing is trying its best to stay true to the heart of the african culture, and even in these modern times, has succeeded to put a bit of history in everyday wear. More and more young people turn to their origin, and are starting to wear dashikis and kaftans or boubous, trying to incorporate African wax patterns in to modern attire, which is truly amazing!