Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Cover Image

Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion



Joanne B. Eicher and Doran H. Ross (eds)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Introduction: The Study of African Dress

Joanne B. Eicher and Doran H. Ross

Encyclopedia entry

DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/EDch1002a
Pages: 3–9


Perceptions of dress in Africa are subject to more stereotypes than perhaps the rest of the world; in fact, African dress traditions are as sophisticated and complex as those found anywhere else. Human origins are now conclusively traced to the current countries of Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia. Marine shell beads in Africa date back at least 200,000 years; reliance on the local natural environment for materials clearly diminished as most African groups begin contact with their neighbors, incorporating imported items into dress. Peoples in areas where clothing was minimal began under the tenets of Islam, Christianity, and various colonial administrations, to cover their bodies to conform to these foreign belief systems. Nowadays dress traditions honoring the past continue alongside (sometimes in preference to) contemporary styles. Both urban and rural populations are aware of a globalized world and know about current fashions in other African countries and elsewhere. Similarly, some of Africa’s richly varied textiles, such as kente from Ghana, have crossed the Atlantic, particularly to the United States. African fashion designers, whether incorporating indigenous resources or creating contemporary fashions, have attracted attention beyond the continent. The benchmark 1972 traveling exhibition and publication African Textiles and Decorative Arts was curated and authored by art historian Roy Sieber, and originated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Numerous exhibitions and publications have followed, that only begin to reveal the artistic quality and meaning found in African dress.

For readers familiar with Africa, this volume reinforces and expands knowledge about how Africans dress in the twenty-first century as well as in the near and distant past. For readers not informed or indeed misinformed about Africa, surprises may follow. Unfortunately, perceptions of dress in Africa are subject to more stereotypes than perhaps for the rest of the world. This has been fostered by images in popular literature and film, even in the early twenty-first century, in which African dress frequently has been depicted as primitive, exotic, salacious, and even savage, when, in fact, African traditions of dress are as sophisticated, complex, and visually compelling as those anywhere in the world.

Some basic facts about Africa have obvious implications for dress and its variety. The continent covers 20 percent of the earth’s land surface, second after Asia’s 30 percent. Africa spreads about five thousand miles (about eight thousand kilometers) in length from the Mediterranean coastline in the north to the Cape of Good Hope in the south, and about forty-six hundred miles (roughly seven thousand four hundred kilometers) in width from the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic on the west to the Horn of Africa projecting into the Indian Ocean on the east. Although Africa straddles the equator and 80 percent of its surface resides within the tropics, it nevertheless includes a variety of landscapes and climates. Geographic regions span from high mountains such as Kilimanjaro, deep rain forests such as the Ituri, nearly barren deserts such as the Sahara, and numerous sunny beaches. Nevertheless, more of the continent is warm or hot rather than cool or cold. The Sahara Desert, the largest in the world and about the size of the contiguous United States, is an increasingly dominant geographical feature of the continent.

Human origins are now conclusively traced to Africa in the current countries of Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Although evidence of dress from those early finds is nonexistent, obviously these early humans began at some point to dress themselves. From that point on, the human body increasingly became an armature for a variety of resources. Marine shell beads in Africa date back at least two hundred thousand years, and a forty-thousand-year-old ostrich eggshell bead workshop has been excavated in Kenya. Also emerging early in the history of African dress was the practice of covering the human body with local materials readily at hand, easily constructed, and that allowed the body to keep cool or warm and dry. Still, geographic factors alone do not account for how individuals dress either on a daily basis or for special occasions such as funerals or masquerade performances. Cultural traditions and knowledge of current fashions often take precedence over climate or geography as discussed in “Climatic Zones and Cultural Regions.” What becomes obvious, however, is that the reliance on the local natural environment for materials is diminished as most African groups begin contact with their neighbors and as imported items are incorporated as part of dress.

Samburu warrior (moran) applying face paint and wearing ivory earspools and a beaded bracelet in the form of a watch. 1973. Photograph by Herbert M. Cole.

Africans in more than fifteen hundred ethnic and language groups have dressed from one extreme of wearing no attire of the sort that covers the body or indicates modesty from a Western point of view to being garbed in voluminous layered garments with splendid, often sumptuous, accessories. Regardless, individuals within their own culture were considered to be fully dressed. Peoples in areas where clothing was historically minimal, except for beads, chalk, body paint, leaves, and/or scarification, began, under the tenets of Islam, Christianity, and various colonial administrations, to cover their bodies more fully to conform to these foreign belief systems. This is a topic discussed in virtually every article on individual countries. Increasing familiarity with many types of media across the world since the twentieth century has accelerated change. Dress traditions that honor the past, however, continue in the twenty-first century side by side with (and, on select occasions, in preference to) contemporary dress and fashions that indicate involvement in and commitment to being “modern.” This is another leitmotiv running through the volume.

Young Nanakanse female with facial scarification. Sirigu, northern Ghana, 1972. Photograph by Herbert M. Cole.

The broad definition of dress used for all volumes of the encyclopedia focuses on both supplementing and modifying the body. A beginning point is the “natural” human body and materials from the natural environment. Supplements in Africa include easily obtained materials such as leaves, palm fronds, hides, powder, or chalk and a wide variety of clothing types, particularly cloth used as wrappers and full-length robes. Jewelry from stone, bone, shell, ivory, seeds, coral, and amber is used extensively. In addition, copper, brass, iron, silver, gold, and even aluminum and glass have been worked through a wide variety of techniques into an array of spectacular forms. Both the clad and unclad body can be modified with complicated hairdos—braided, plaited, or sculpted with mud and decorated with various kinds of readily available shells, feathers, bones, and beads. Headwear of many styles from caps, derbies, crowns, helmets, turbans, veils, and other head ties sometimes protects the head, but more often indicates a specific status. Footwear ranges from minimal sandals to thigh-high boots. Other accessories of dress are particularly rich in Africa and include fans, fly whisks, pipes, bags, and canes. Ceremonial staffs, scepters, and especially weapons also receive considerable artistic attention. Royal umbrellas carried by an attendant date back at least one thousand years in West Africa. Sometimes overlooked as a category of dress, body modifications are equally important in dressing the body in Africa as elsewhere. Africans engage in many conscious renewable acts that relate to appearance, sometimes subtly and other times dramatically: combing, cutting, and styling hair; applying oil, chalk, powders, scent, cosmetics, and paint to skin. More permanent alterations to the body include scarification, cicatrization, piercing, or tattooing.

Most people think of dress as clothing made from textiles. African textiles include a rich array of types and techniques. The development of looms and weaving was followed by dyeing and embellishing thread and cloth in various ways. In earlier times, bark cloth was produced in several countries, and, where weaving occurred, locally grown hand-spun and hand-dyed cotton initially was the primary resource. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, imported aniline dyes and machine-spun and commercially dyed thread became increasingly available. In addition, machine-made fabrics were imported for local hand-processing procedures such as the resist-dyed textiles of the Yoruba of Nigeria or the hand-stamped fabrics of the Asante of Ghana. While the textiles of Africa include such familiar materials as cotton, wool, flax, and silk, several essays in the volume address less familiar resources such as bark and raffia. Cloth in Africa is handwoven on a wide variety of looms from the simple to the complex, and also machine woven in modern factories across the continent as outlined in many entries. Less familiar technologies include the cut and pulled thread cloths of the Kalabari in Nigeria and the ikat textiles of Madagascar.

Traditional Dress

Discussions of dress in Africa often employ the word tradition to describe indigenous dress as arising from a set of practices repeated over time, often a very long time. Sometimes the word custom serves the same purpose. In both cases, but to the greatest degree with tradition, the implication is that the behaviors under consideration are monolithic and unchanging. The traditional and the customary are frequently juxtaposed with the modern when discussing African culture, which, in the past, has been emphatically defined as being traditional. But tradition may be among the most problematic words still used by Africanists, scholars of dress, and the general public. Tradition implies that something is bounded, confined, and limited, but these assumptions must be questioned. First of all, every tradition must begin at some point; that, in itself, requires a change from a preceding practice. In other words, traditions are built upon change. Second, all traditions are subject to change, so a bigger question is how much change is necessary to modify a tradition in order to become a new tradition? A third consideration is the fact that many traditions can be short-lived. Some exist only under the leadership of a given individual—perhaps a senior family member, religious leader, or head of state. When that individual is replaced or dies, the situation may be ripe for new traditions. Furthermore, for better or worse, the inauguration of a new tradition carries an expectation of longevity in contrast to the inauguration of a new fashion that carries an expectation of brevity. And finally, the unfortunate fact of most writing about Africa that contrasts the traditional with the modern is that tradition is often perceived to include everything that preceded substantial European or Arab contact.

These important issues arise when considering dress, because the European conception of African tradition is antithetical to the West’s conception of what constitutes fashion in the modern world. The distinction, however, is, in part, evidentiary. Just because no evidence exits for certain changes in traditional African dress does not mean that they did not take place. And indeed, changes in tradition differ from changes in fashion only in terms of pace of change. The latter, of course, includes deliberately planned obsolescence, almost embracing a “use by” date for particular fashions, much for Africa as for the rest of the world.

Woman wearing handwoven cloth with multiple images of Amilcar Cabral, leader of the nationalist movement for the independence of Guinea-Bissau. Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, 1987. Photograph by Doran H. Ross.

Anthropologist Simon Ottenberg wrote a seminal essay titled “Ibo Receptivity to Change” in which he addresses the active consumption of new ideas, institutions, and material culture, including dress of the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria. His essay was influential in formulating the final chapter of The Arts of Ghana, in which Herbert M. Cole and Doran H. Ross argued that for over four hundred years the Akan peoples aggressively pursued the new and unusual and rapidly incorporated both into their clothing, jewelry, and accessories. These include everything (in rough chronological order) from silk threads, locks and keys, firearms, Victorian jewelry design, European-style crowns, heraldic lions, rayon and Lurex threads, T-shirts, sneakers, and an enormous array of other influences spread throughout this history, almost as quickly as the Akan were exposed to them.

The Akan situation is probably different from most of the rest of Africa only by degree. The gold trade exposed them to a wide variety and quantity of new materials, designs, and object types, which provided a wider range of creative fashion opportunities generally not available to the same extent in other regions of the continent, with perhaps the exception of coastal North Africa. Akan trade contacts with Europeans in the south and Muslim states in the north were the first globalizing influences on their local textile design and clothing styles. In the nineteenth century, European print media began to provide an array of images that could serve as inspiration for changes in fashion, including tailored clothing. The electronic media of film, television, computers, and camera phones in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has further accelerated opportunities to manipulate and transform what an African might wear, always creating new traditions in the process, some of which may survive for several generations, and some of which will disappear before 2020.

Beyond articulating the various types of indigenous dress, at least three important interrelated themes surface throughout the articles. Perhaps most fundamental and pervasive are the ongoing effects of colonialism on dress, a phenomenon dating back at least three thousand years in parts of Africa before the formal European takeovers in the late 1800s. Equally important is the distinction between rural and urban dress. A third theme relates to issues of globalization, contemporary fashion, and the increasingly influential role of African fashion designers on the world scene.

Effects of Colonialism

The history of colonization of African peoples has been long and meandering with more time depth than usually acknowledged, beginning with Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman occupations in North Africa. In the late nineteenth century, however, the artificial boundaries imposed by Belgians, British, French, Portuguese, and Spanish created a configuration of countries with little concern for the locations of ethnic groups. Furthermore, colonial structures introduced and imposed their own practices on indigenous peoples in regard to dress, food, religion, and other cultural behaviors. The effect of this infiltration most often resulted in either the request or requirement that indigenous people wear more garments than their usual practice. Members of some religious groups had strong beliefs that bodies should not be naked, and Christian missionaries and Muslim clerics demanded that conversion and commitment include dressing in a new, religiously responsible way.

Colonization proceeded differently depending on the colonizers. Among those governed by the French, one result was an admiration for French culture, which often included the desire to wear French clothing, even haute couture, whether men’s suits or women’s dresses. This continued after independence, when new leaders like Habib Bourguiba, who, after being elected president of Tunisia in 1957, thought that Tunisian citizens should dress like the French to show that by wearing “modern” clothes, their country was also modern. Another result of colonization was the enforcement of dress codes on indigenous peoples by colonial administrators, which was sometimes followed without protest and other times with condescension. Although the British were effective in encouraging Western dress in offices and the military during colonial regimes, after independence in countries such as Nigeria, nationalists like Mbonu Ojike, returning from an education in the United States, urged other educated Nigerians to return to indigenous forms of dress. His exhortation and support by others influenced many artists and politicians to make changes, beginning with independence in 1960. In a contrasting example in Namibia, colonization during the 1800s brought about a shift for Herero women from leather garments to cloth dresses in Victorian styles that over time became more voluminous. Significantly, these styles have continued to be worn into the twenty-first century and are thought of as traditional. Herero men, meanwhile, adopted European-style military uniforms as their dress for some ceremonial occasions, wearing other Western garments for everyday activities.

Wedding party. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 1999. Photograph by Doran H. Ross.

Rural and Urban Differences

Many authors comment on the rural and urban differences found throughout the continent over time, as well as in the early twenty-first century. Closely connected to colonization is the contrast of dress between rural and urban residents, because urban populations generally have had more access to broad sweeps of change than those living in what are largely agrarian contexts. For example, in rural West Africa, the wrapper or pagne appears ubiquitous in remote places, but is also often a choice by both men and women for relaxing at home in urban areas. In general, city residents have more choices and often favor Western garments for government and commercial office work, in both former French and British colonies. Western and Muslim styles are found side by side in many North African cities such as Tunis and Cairo, with the tunic known as caftan and the robes known as boubou and baba riga found in West Africa as well as North Africa. Men appear to wear more Western clothing than women in most contexts, but frequently, the white wedding dress, indicating familiarity with Western wedding practices, is chosen for the wedding ceremony. Sometimes Western dress is worn by the bride for part of the ceremony while indigenous dress is worn for another part. As economic circumstances have changed in several African countries, some textiles formerly abandoned by urban residents began to reappear as fashionable choices, such as bark cloth garments in Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda and handwoven strip textiles in western Nigeria known as aso-oke. Some of these are quite faithful to the original, while others are imaginative, contemporary adaptations.

Globalization, Contemporary Dress, and Fashion

Since the nineteenth century, people living across the African continent have increasingly become consumers of various media, beginning with local and international newspapers and magazines, and continuing with radio, cinema, television, cell phones, and the Internet as each has developed. Both urban and rural populations are aware of a globalized world and know about current fashions in other African countries and on other continents. Similarly, some indigenous textiles such as kente from Ghana and mudcloth (bogolanfini) from Mali have crossed the Atlantic, particularly to the United States. Strips of kente cloth draped over the shoulders of graduation gowns or mudcloth fashioned into coats, vests, and dresses have become symbols of the ancestral past for African Americans. Wax-print textiles with motifs specifically designed for African markets also have been exported to the United Kingdom and the United States and are popularly used for apparel and home furnishings. U.S. Peace Corps workers in West Africa during the 1960s co-opted a Yoruba indigenous top garment known as the dansiki, taking it back to the United States as a leisure shirt, renaming it the dashiki. Some Africans living abroad select a traditional item from their own backgrounds to wear for special occasions, such as a professor leading the faculty at graduation who proudly allows his hand-embroidered robe to be visible under his academic gown.

African fashion designers, whether incorporating indigenous resources or creating contemporary fashions, have attracted attention beyond the continent as promoted in publications such as The Art of African Fashion (1998) and the 1997–1998 Revue Noire special fashion issue. The 2005 traveling exhibition and catalog Mode in Afrika promoted African fashions in Germany and beyond, and the book Africa Is in Style featured designers in the 2005 International Festival of African Fashion in Niamey, Niger. Contemporary fashion designers discussed in this volume include Oumou Sy of Senegal, Ozwald Boateng of Ghana, and Folashade Thomas-Fahm (“Shade”) of Nigeria.

Embedded within the three broad themes discussed above, there are a number of subthemes addressed in this volume. Several of the country-specific essays develop significant ideas that apply to many states. The Tanzanian entry addresses the impact of protected game parks and the adoption of national and international animal conservation acts on local clothing practices. The discussion of Togo considers how one country’s national colors permeate its political and athletic dress, a reality for virtually every nation in Africa. Some of the more nuanced behaviors involving conventional attire consider the gliding walk and flowing robes of Wolof women as a form of public seduction in Senegal and Gambia, a potential model analysis for other cultures.

The kinetic aspects of dress in performance are still understudied, but several essays have examined the role that motion plays in choices of clothing, jewelry, and other accessories, such as the creative dance attire of the BaAka peoples (so-called pygmies) in the Central African Republic and dress and dance in North Africa, especially costumes worn in belly dance performances. The conceptually oriented cross-cultural essay on masquerades scrutinizes African masked theater and dance. The article on footwear considers both constraints on movement and the sonic potential of movement.

African National Congress (ANC) Youth League campaigner Nkeko Mphake in Mpileng Village, Moutse, South Africa, 2006. She wears a “Vote ANC” black T-shirt and a wrapper printed with the image of Nelson Mandela. Photograph by Chris Kirchhoff.

Resources for the study of African dress are both ancient and recent. Prehistoric records, such as rock art and archaeological findings, document numerous and widely varied examples of dress and testify to a time depth of thousands of years as surveyed here in “Archaeological Evidence.” More recent findings derived from firsthand observations, interviews, oral histories, and historical documents are the basis of most of the country essays. Photographs began to be used for analysis in the mid-twentieth century as singled out in “Photographic and Other Visual Sources.” And extant examples of African dress from as early as the seventeenth century, first collected as curiosities and then as natural history specimens, have also provided additional evidence.

Serious interest by the Western world in African dress and masquerade traditions began with the early-twentieth-century appreciation of African masks by European artists such as Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and others. Unfortunately, this indirect valorization of African art through European eyes was as much an impediment to appreciation as it was an encouragement. Among other problems, Europeans focused on the carved mask and rooted it in notions of the “primitive,” ignoring the rest of the costume. Beyond the arena of European artistic exploitation, in the first half of the twentieth century, African dress typically received attention only from missionaries as evidence of the “exotic” and “pagan” practices of nonbelievers or as more “scientific” specimens of the social and cultural practices of Africa in the emerging discipline of anthropology.

Not until the 1950s and 1960s were African textiles and other items of dress appreciated as meaningful and vital aesthetic expressions in their own right. The benchmark 1972 traveling exhibition and publication African Textiles and Decorative Arts—curated and authored by art historian Roy Sieber and originated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—included numerous textiles, hats, and jewelry. Since then, such items as northern Cameroon beaded pubic aprons, Mbuti painted bark-cloth loin wrappers, Mangbetu ivory hairpins, and Akan gold finger rings have become much-sought-after collectors’ items to the extent that copies are created for tourists or even artificially aged for sale on the international art market. These four examples could be multiplied one hundred fold.

Professor Rowland Abiodun’s hand-embroidered robe is visible under his academic gown during a graduation ceremony at Amherst College, United States, 2007. Some Africans living abroad select a traditional item of their own to wear for special occasions. Charlie Quigg/Amherst College Public Affairs.

Academic interest has kept pace with the marketplace. As essays within this volume demonstrate, numerous exhibitions and publications have followed that only begin to reveal the artistic quality and significant meaning found in African dress. A few key resources may be useful to readers, such as the two bibliographies on African dress published in 1969 and 1985 that contain many references not ordinarily thought to refer to dress. The quarterly periodical African Arts, established in 1967 at the University of California, Los Angeles, has consistently covered topics of dress and masquerade. The listserv HAfrArts began in 1996 and frequently provides a useful forum for discussions on dress. The Arts Council of the African Studies Association was established in 1982 and has assumed sponsorship of a triennial symposium that was begun in 1968 at Hampton Institute. In addition, the collected bibliographies of this volume may be the most comprehensive yet compiled.

Most studies on dress must admit to something of an elite bias, because both the scholarly community and the marketplace tend to focus attention on visually compelling attire (past and present) only available to those with the means to afford it. Many populations across the planet still suffer from severe poverty, and their clothing choices are often restricted to used garments either handed down within an extended family or acquired from the secondary clothing markets supplied by numerous foreign sources. But as the “Migrant Workers Production and Fashion” essay makes clear, there are still numerous creative opportunities to be found within the choice of alteration and embellishment of used clothing. Competing with the secondary clothing market are the inexpensive new products of the extraordinarily cheap labor of China that are now ironically supplanting the few African textile and garment industries that once employed the urban poor. Future studies will hopefully address the ramifications of unemployment, poverty, and dress in a globalizing world.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Cole M., and Doran H. Ross. The Arts of Ghana. Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural History, 1977.

Find in Library Eicher J. B. African Dress: A Select and Annotated Bibliography. East Lansing: African Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1979.

Find in Library Gardi Bernhard. Boubou, c’est chic: Gewänder aus Mali und anderen Ländern Westafrikas. Basel, Switzerland: C. Merian, 2000.

Find in Library Geoffroy-Scneiter Bérénice. Africa Is in Style. New York: Assouline, 2006.

Find in Library Geurts Kathryn. Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Find in Library Luttmann Ilsemargret. Mode in Afrika. Hamburg, Germany: Museum fur Volkerkunde, 2005.

Find in Library Ottenberg Simon. “Ibo Receptivity to Change.” In Continuity and Change in African Cultures, edited by Wlliam R. Bascom and Melville J. Herskovits, 130–140. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Find in Library Picton John. The Art of African Textiles: Technology, Tradition, and Lurex. London: Barbican Art Gallery; Lund Humphries Publishers, 1995.

Find in Library Picton J., and J. Mack. African Textiles: Looms, Weaving, and Design. London: British Museum Publications, 1989.

Find in Library Pokornowski I. M., J. B. Eicher, M. F. Harris, and O. C. Thieme. African Dress II: A Select and Annotated Bibliography. Lansing: African Studies Center, Michigan State University, 1985.

Find in Library Rabine Leslie. The Global Circulation of African Fashion. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2002.

Find in Library Revue Noire. Special Mode: African Fashion, no. 27 (1998).

Find in Library Ross H., ed. Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998.

Find in Library Rovine V. Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.

Find in Library Sieber Roy. African Textiles and Decorative Arts. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1972.

Find in Library Spring Christopher, and Julie Hudson. North African Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1995.

Find in Library van Els. The Art of African Fashion. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1998.

See also volume 10 Global Perspectives: Beads: Prehistory to Early Twenty First Century; Secondhand Clothing.