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African Clothing For Dummies (Part 1)

If I was paid a dollar whenever I heard someone asking me or one of my African friends one of the things below:

  • If I am from Africa without asking later from which part, because the answer is supposedly sufficient
  • If I speak African
  • If things in Africa are done one way or another, assuming that all Africans behave, dress, eat, and so on, the same way

well I’d be rich. Seriously. Although we have a lot in common, African cultures are VERY diversified from one another. We’re similar in many points, but also different in many others too.

It goes the same way when it comes to African clothing. People tend to think African people dress the same way, yet it’s all the opposite. Africa knows a lot of climates that its peoples got used to, from which they adjusted their way to dress and indirectly their traditions. Hence, why you’ll see different attires, whether you go to Dakar, in Senegal, Mbabane, in eSwatini or Kigali, in Rwanda.

The reason of being of this article is to introduce you to the large universe of the African clothing, but also to explicitly expose some of the most common traditional African clothing, from the West African faso dan fani to the most modern dashiki, widespread in the African descent community.

The different African clothing styles

Faso dan fani

This awesome outfit was born in a landlocked country located in West Africa called Burkina Faso, one of the “Cotton Fours” (Africa’s four biggest cotton producers), along with two of its neighbors, Mali and Benin, and the Central African state of Chad. The cotton weaving tradition goes back a long time in the past, appearing as Islam came into the region when the necessity to hide one’s nudity birthed to weaving as the common way to make clothes. Traditionally reserved for men, weaving has in some cases been the work of women, who would traditionally do the job of spinning.

It’s only from the second half of the last century (1951-2000) and during the reign of the well-known Panafrican hero Thomas Sankara–peace be upon him–in the 80s that weaving will also be generalized to women, seen as a leap to the country’s women’s emancipation. Another factor that pushed the invention of the outfit was to encourage the consumption and production of Burkinabe products. This historic turning point will mark the birth of the faso dan fani, a group of words in the Dioula language meaning in order “the homeland’s woven loincloth”, which will later become a very appreciated African attire, especially from Burkinabe men.

Sankara, a fervent believer to his culture’s richness, went all the way to imposing the outfit, or any other outfit realized in traditional fabric, to his public servants. Thereby, the faso dan fani didn’t only help Burkinabe producers, but also created jobs and emancipated women. It’s progressively through international events promoting African clothing such as the Salon de l’artisanat de Ouagadougou (SIAO) that this African attire will develop a certain popularity, going as far as appearing in fashion shows.

Kente

As of kente, it’s basically interwoven cloth strips made of silk and cotton native to the Akan ethnic group, present in Ghana but also in Ivory Coast, two neighboring states to the faso dan fani’s birthplace just previously presented. Made in the territories of the Ashanti kingdom, one of the most popular and studied African kingdoms, the resemblance in the manufacturing method and the materials used between the kente and the faso dan fani may reveal us the interaction the people of Burkina Faso and Ghana may have had, and the knowledge they may have shared between each other. I personally find this quite interesting, and you will see in an upcoming article why as we will talk about the relevance of the African attires in the region where they are worn.

Anyway, back to the point. The origin of the name kente has, on one hand, been suggested to take its roots from the Asante word kenten, which means basket, but on the other hand, the Ewe people suggest it comes from the sound kete (ke and te, meaning open and press in their language), the two alternating rhythmic actions make when the loom is woven. Royal and sacred, this cloth is only worn in special and extremely important events and/or by the kings. As time passed by, the use of kente became more widespread, but the importance of this African attire hasn’t faded away and is held in high esteem with Akans.

Kitenge

If there is an African attire I’ve seen in the majority of African events I got to attend, along with the boubou, and that represents with ease the continent, it’s unequivocally the kitenge. Worn in the western, eastern and central parts of Africa, the kitenge can be generalized as THE African attire by excellence. Its cheap price, the huge variety of colors and patterns it can take, its versatility makes this piece of fabric possible to be used as a headscarf, a baby sling or tied around the chest or the waist, hence, why it’s a very popular African clothing for women.

The technique from which the printing on the cloth takes its origins comes from Indonesia, originally under the name batik, with a design with as much brightness and details on one side of the fabric as on its opposite side. Fun fact: many of these designs have a meaning, sharing a political or religious message and women also like to wear it because it often serves as a non-verbal form of expression. Those messages can turn out to be funny and at the same time shady, as in the picture below showing a piece of kitenge with this inscription in Swahili, which basically means

Conclusion

Briefly, we have presented three African attires, two from the western part of the continent, and the third one from pretty much all Africa, except the northern and southern parts. Their history, their characteristics, as well as some fun facts about them, were presented.

Something I’ve been surprised about during my research on the different African attires is, on the one hand, the amount of information I’ve learned about the history behind some attires. On the other hand, many things became clear thanks to the connections I’ve made with this topic and my life as a child, and lastly, the political role those attires have played in many African countries, which were ruled by parties with a political view orientated towards the decolonization of their culture, but also to reinforce their power.

In an upcoming article, more African attires will be similarly presented and the relevance of each of them in the region where they are mostly worn will be discussed. Please feel free to leave a comment below on what you would have liked to see in this article what you would like to see in a next article, I will be pleased to read you. Have a good one!

Steve Rutikara

8 Comments

  1. Hi,
    This was a great read about three different African clothing styles. There is a fifty and something states in Africa, which mean that you have still a lot to cover. Great job so far! I love history, any kind of it, and this was a lesson. Thank you. All the best.

    • Hi Ivan. Thank you for your comment, I’m very glad you enjoyed reading my article. Indeed, Africa is a very diverse and unique continent, rich in history and culture! Hope to see you again in a near future, as I’ll post more interesting content! 🙂

  2. Hi Steve, thanks for explaining about the different cultures and clothing attires in different parts of Africa.

    I’m of Nigerian heritage and I also learnt some things in your article. I’m most familiar with Ankara attire, but it’s also nice to see what others that are available.

    I love the uniqueness and vibrant colours of the different styles.

    Thanks again for sharing this.

    • Hi Stephanie, you’re most welcome!

      As of me, I’m very pleased to explain them to my readers, because I feel like it’s something that lacks in our African communities, the knowledge of our culture, how rich it is. Wherever we come from, I believe there is a lot to learn, because as I cited in my article, Africa is diverse in cultures, and deserved to be known as such! There is so much more content to share, I hope you will be among the first to enjoy it.

      Cheers

  3. What a wonderful post you have. reading through it is like walking me through African culture and gaining some knowledge about the people and their clothings. I have seen it but have not known what their clothing is called. Thank you for the information.

  4. Très excellent
    Étant moi-même africaine, il y a beaucoup des choses dont j’ai découverte à travers cet article. Mes connaissances se limitaient uniquement aux Kitenges et certains vêtements traditionnels rattachés à des régions spécifiques de l’Afrique de l’Est. Très pertinent comme texte, par contre, il manque des sources!!

    • Merci pour ton commentaire pertinent Uda. Je suis ravi d’avoir élargi tes connaissances en matière d’habillement africain. Quant au manque de sources, je tâcherai à en ajouter.

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