As the world’s second-largest continent, it is difficult to define what people in every different African country in a single blog post. Their traditional dress is dictated to as much by the climate in which they live, as it is by the culture and an individual’s socioeconomic standing.
Many of the different parts of the continent play home to a different nationality of people, with their own distinct traditional dress. And while modern times have seen a move away from the traditional dress for many of these people, there is still important in learning more about it and how it informs the culture of the people who wore it. What follows is an exploration of the history of clothing in Africa, and some noteworthy examples of the traditional dress worn in such countries as Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Madagascar.
Clothing in Africa
The people of Africa would have started wearing clothing around 180 000 years ago, most likely due to an Ice Age that gripped the world at that point and developed a need in the people to cover themselves for warmth. These first clothes were made out of animal skins, and took the form of leather coverings and furs, as well as jewellery adornments made from seashells, ostrich shell pieces and feathers.
It is likely that the first kind of cloth on the continent was made from pounded bark fibres. People would peel bark from the trees and pound it with a rock until it was thin and bendable. This produced small pieces of cloth that could be sewn together to produce a bigger cloth to cover the body. This was a widely used practice, and different regions made use of different trees for the bark, with people in Uganda using the bark from fig trees for example. Eventually, they began to dye the bark fibre cloth to produce patterns on it, giving birth to the renowned tradition of vibrant colours and patterns in traditional clothing in almost every part of Africa.
Eventually, by 2000 BC, people have become to weave cloth instead of pounding down the bark fibres. Some wove linen, whereas others wove specific kinds of tall grass. Changes in rulers, access to foreigners and international trade all influenced a number of African countries’ cultures, and by association, their clothes. No matter where on the continent you travelled, however, one thing remained the same: traditional African clothing almost always comes in a variety of styles and vibrant colours and prints. With a history broadly explored, we can now look at a more specific example of different types of traditional clothing in different African countries.
Unlike the other people of the Mediterranean, who traditionally wore one or two big pieces of cloth wrapped around themselves in a number of ways, the Egyptians traditional clothes were nearly always white linen tunics that were sewn to fit them. Barefoot or wearing straw or leather sandals, both men and women wore eyeshadow and lined their eyes with black kohl. The black kohl served to protect their eyes from the glare of the sun. Another important aspect of their dress was gold jewellery, and those with access to it and who could afford it, never went a day without it.
The traditional dress of the Maasai varies both by the age of the person wearing it and by their location. Young men, for example, wear black for several months after their circumcision. In the Maasai tribe, red is a favoured colour. Prior to 1960, the members of the Maasai tribe wore calf hides and sheepskins. Thereafter, these animal skin clothes were traded with commercial cotton known as Shúka, which are traditionally worn wrapped around the body. Wooden bracelets are worn by both the men and the women. Wooden weaving and beaded jewellery are an important part of ornamentation for the women in the Maasai tribe, with variations in the colours of the beads holding different meanings: for examples, white signifies peace, blue signifies water, and red signifies bravery/warrior/blood. This beadwork has held a prominent place in the culture of the Maasai, as a means through which they can articulate their identities and position in society.
The traditional dress of Zimbabwe is colourful and consists of wraparound dresses and headdresses for women. Men don a breastplate made from animal skin. As an added detail, women’s dresses are decked up with beads, and they themselves wear largely sized ornaments – an integral part of their traditional wear which demonstrates the age the status of the woman in her community. Married women wear a blanket, called a Nguba, over their shoulders and a lot of thick beaded hoops of twisted grass called Isigolwani. They also wear copper or brass rings around their arms, necks and legs, called Idzilla. The animal skin breastplate for men is known as the Iporiyana. They also wear animal skin headbands, ankle bands and a Karos around their shoulders. The animal skin is important in Zimbabwean traditional dress as each Ndebele group associated with a different animal, allowing individuals to outwardly convey their allegiance to their own group.
In Mozambique, the way people dress reflects the confluence of different cultures that are found there, as well as the different economic standing of its individuals. In the cities, men wear Western-style suits for work, while women retain the brightly coloured fabrics of traditional wear, albeit in more Western-style designed dresses. In the rural areas of the country, women retain the wearing of traditions, which consists of long strips of fabric wrapped around the body and over one shoulder. The young people in Mozambique almost exclusively wear western clothing styles, although despite this some popular pieces of American and European have not been adopted, including blue jeans and short skirts. Clothing in Mozambique doubles as a market of ethnic identity, with the Muslims in the North wearing traditional long white robes and head coverings, for example.
Traditional wear on this island off the eastern coast of Africa involves wearing the Lamba, which directly translated, means cloth or clothing. This normally consists of two matching pieces of fabric in the women’s case, and just one for the men. In yesteryear, the Lamba was all that was worn, but nowadays it has been coupled with Western clothing. Nearly all women in Madagascar will wear a Lamba in the event of a death or another occasion for prayers to the ancestors. This includes during visits to the hospital or doctor, where it is believed that good fortune with the ancestors will have a direct impact upon their lives. The Lamba is an important piece of traditional wear due to its capability of fulfilling a myriad of functions throughout day-to-day island life.