History of Clothing In Africa

African clothing commonly refers to the traditional clothing worn by the people of Africa. 

Different tribes throughout the continent pride themselves on traditional African clothing which they use for ceremonies and special occasions. 

There are many varied styles of traditional African clothing and the type of cloth plays an integral role in fashioning the African clothing. The African clothing often reflects the society in general as well as the status of individuals or groups within that community.

In some instances traditional African clothes have been replaced or influenced by foreign cultures, like colonial impact or western popular dress code.

The evolution of African clothing is very difficult to trace due to the lack of written word and actual historical evidence. Much is pieced together from various sources like traditional robes being handed down to present day tribal members, word of mouth (oral history), theater (masquerades) and from art and artifacts which show sculptural representations of traditional African clothing.

Traditional African clothing was not generally needed for warmth or protection in most areas of the African continent due to the warm and hospitable climate and many tribes did not wear much at all. In relation to traditional African clothing, the men wore just a loin cloth or apron and the women wore wraps around their waist or breasts, often adorning the rest of their bodies with scarification and paint ochres.

Bark cloth, furs, skins and hides were mainly used for these first forms of traditional African clothing.

Males simply wrapped the bark cloth over a belt and passed between the legs while women draped the cloth over the belt to hide the front of their bodies.

Raffia was used for traditional African clothing to sew together separate pieces of bark cloth as well as being used for grass skirts. 

Stone age man onward made bark cloth by peeling bark from trees and then pounding it with a rock until thin and malleable. Small pieces would be sewn together with hide or raffia to make larger pieces of traditional African clothing to cover the body. 

Sometimes traditional African clothing was decorated with patterns giving rise to the tradition of decoration that exists in almost every African country.

Adornment of traditional African clothing came by way of fashioning jewelry and head gear from seashells, bones, ostrich egg shell pieces and feathers.

The earliest evidence of textile manufacture for traditional African clothing appeared at Igbo-Ukwu and consisted of excavated fragments of unpatterned, bast-fibre cloth dating from the 9th Century.  (Bast is the plant fibre made from the phloem, the inner bark). Discovery of the Tellem caves in Mali exposed 11th and 12th Century funerary sites which revealed fragments of cotton and wool fabric dyed with indigo which has been used for traditional African clothing.

And then around the 15th Century, trade occurred in Africa with shipping routes being opened up between Europe, Africa and the East. Exotic items which were later used for traditional African clothing arrived on the continent and began to be coveted by the local inhabitants for decoration of their local cloth. Beads, shells and buttons began to appear on garments of traditional African clothing, either as embellishment or making up the entire garment like beaded aprons, capes, headbands and shoes.

Various weaving techniques were developed in different areas of traditional tribal African clothing, some more progressive than others. Fibres used were cotton, raffia, silk and wool. Woven and decorated textiles used for tribal African clothing became a reflection of the tribe’s status, its socioeconomic standing, its culture, its environment and its climate.

Tribal Clothing

Traditional and contemporary woven and/or printed fabric, wrapped or draped around the body forms the nucleus of tribal African clothing. Adornment of the body with headdresses, bags, belts, collars, girdles and capes made from beads, feathers, leather, gold and silver, sea shells, ostrich egg shell, ivory, buttons, fur, skins, bone, animal tails and hair, raffia, wood, grass, bells and pressed metal all contribute to a rich and embellished traditional African costume used for tribal purposes.

Combined with the wearing of headbands, necklaces, bracelets, wristlets, armbands and anklets and oiled, perfumed skin and dressed hair, adult women and men could be splendidly worn down with the weight and volume of their dress.

The skin of an animal was often chosen for symbolic significance and showed tribal allegiance or personal totems in regards to the tribal African clothing.

Sometimes it needed to be kept intact to bring good health and good luck to the wearer of the tribal African clothing. 

When wearing the tribal African clothing, tribes pride themselves on the quality of their hand-made cloth using techniques that have been handed down, generation by generation, for centuries.

These tribal African clothes can be used as wraps and capes or sewn into garments for both males and females.

Kitenge cloth has a long history in East and Western Africa but nowadays has expanded to many other countries on the continent to create tribal African clothing. It is an informal and inexpensive printed fabric that features a distinctive border design and sometimes has political slogans printed on it in regards to the tribal African clothing.

Here, Liberian women wear kitenge traditional tribal African dresses depicting the Liberian flag and political leaders for National Commemoration Day.

1 comment

  • nice


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