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

Ghana Kente Fashion
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© Wolfgang Kaehler/CORBIS.

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 ori

gins 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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

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.

Loose-fitting robes are worn in many different regions of Africa, especially in West Africa. These robes reach to the ankles

AFRICAN AMERICANS' DRESS DURING THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

The slave trade spread Africans far from their homeland, mostly into the colonies that would become the United States of America. After slaves were freed in the United States in 1863, blacks continued to dress in styles similar to others living in the United States, but during the 1950s and 1960s many black people in the United States began to protest the prejudice and injustice they experienced in much of American society, especially in the southern states. They held protest marches and other demonstrations in order to force changes in laws that unfairly favored white citizens over black citizens. This civil rights movement did change many of those laws and brought about many other changes in the lives of African Americans. Among these changes was an increased pride in black identity, which was expressed in many ways, one of which was an appreciation of African heritage. By the mid-1960s a new style of dress and hairstyle, which emphasized African clothing and African physical characteristics, had become popular among American blacks.

In the decades before the civil rights movement, white European standards of beauty had dominated the fashion world, and white European hair and facial characteristics were considered "normal" and desirable. African Americans had often tried to imitate those characteristics, by straightening their tightly curled hair and minimizing their African features. However, as American blacks began to speak out and demand their rights, they also began to look differently at their own bodies. "Black is Beautiful" became a popular slogan, and many blacks began to appreciate their African looks. Instead of using hair straighteners, which were often painful and damaging to the hair, many black people let their curly hair go naturally into large round afros or "naturals." African features such as flat noses and thick lips began to be viewed as beauty advantages rather than defects. Many black Americans changed their names to African names. In 1965 an African American woman named Flori Roberts started a company to make cosmetics designed especially for black skin, and in 1969 Essence magazine was founded as a fashion journal for professional black women.

Along with this increased appreciation of African features went a growth in the popularity of traditional African clothing styles and fabrics. Both African American men and women began to wear loose, flowing shirts and robes called dashikis and caftans made of brightly colored African fabrics. Many wore turbans or brimless caps of the same bright materials. These traditional fabrics, woven and dyed in Africa, became prized symbols of the heritage of American blacks. The interest in African fashion soon spread into the mainstream, as French designer Yves St. Laurent (1936—), who was born in northern Africa, introduced fashion lines of African and Moroccan clothing.

and are either open at the sides or stitched closed along the edges. In West Nigeria a loose-fitting robe is called an agbada. An agbada has sleeves that hang loosely over the shoulders and an opening at the front. A similar garment, called a gandoura or leppi, is worn in Cameroon, and the Hausa of Nigeria call their loose-fitting robes riga. The same garment is called a dansiki in West Africa.

Most often made of cotton, agbada and other robes are typically highly patterned. These patterns may be woven into, dyed,

painted, or appliqued onto the robe. Men wear the agbada alone with trousers or as a type of coat over a shirt. As Africans have had increased contact with other cultures, traditional methods of producing cloth have declined, and many modern agbada are made from imported cloth and worn with Western pants.

A related garment, called the dashiki, became quite popular in the West during the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which saw African Americans protesting to secure their rights. Wearing a dashiki was a way of making a political statement about the value of African heritage.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Blauer, Ettagale. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.

Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Nigerians Traditional Dress Men

A Nigerian man wearing a green agbada. This loose-fitting robe was often highly patterned.

Reproduced by permission of © Dave Bartruff/CORBIS.

A Nigerian man wearing a green agbada. This loose-fitting robe was often highly patterned.

Reproduced by permission of © Dave Bartruff/CORBIS.

Animal Skins

^Animal hides have been a traditional clothing material used by many cultures in Africa, likely since the dawn of human history. Animal hide clothing was made most often from the skins of domesticated animals. Both farming and nomadic societies prized livestock, and they cared for their animals carefully. Their cattle, goats, sheep, and camels were sources of food and clothing, as well as great symbols of wealth. Other groups hunted wild animals for their meat and hides.

To prepare an animal skin, Africans would scrape off all the fur or hair, beat the cleaned skin to soften it, and tan it, a process that softened the hide and turned it into leather. Finally, they would

coat it with red ocher, a type of iron-rich clay pigment, and oil. Leather clothing could be as simple as a small apron or as elaborate as a large cloak made of several hides sewn together. Some garments were left unadorned, while others were decorated with shells, beads, or metal ornaments. Leather was also used to make useful items such as shields and slings to carry babies.

As more and more Africans abandon their traditional lifestyles, animal skin clothing is worn less and less frequently. In many places Africans have adopted store-bought clothing made in Western styles. However, animal skins continue to be worn by the oldest members of some rural tribes in Kenya. Likewise, the peoples living in the remotest regions of the continent, such as the San, or Bushmen, of South Africa, who are the oldest surviving culture on the continent, continue to wear animal skins.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Blauer, Ettagale. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.

Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

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  • nebyat
    Do Nigerian wear animal skins as traditional clothes?
    5 months ago

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