Modern Traditional

African Clothing

Modern Traditional's guide to African clothing.
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Africa is a huge continent, where at least a thousand languages are spoken, and there are many more than a thousand tribes, each with their own special culture.  So, when someone says, "African clothing", it could cover a range of garments from loincloths to complex balloon dresses.

What people wear is usually dependent on their faith, culture, and the weather in their areas, or some combination of those.  Generally though, Africans tend to favor durable, natural fibers, and clothing that is both useful and beautifully made.

There has been alot of crossover in style influences between Africa and Asia.  You are just as likely to see people wearing caftans in both regions.  Silk is also popular in Africa for those who can afford it.  Egyptian cotton is recognized as among the best, and is sought after in Asia and around the world.

A few key terms:

symbols that were originally used for textiles, but are now used in various other art forms, that represent a range of concepts.  These are printed onto fabric, using carved gourds.  See for more information.
aso oke a traditional African fabric, sometimes made from woven strips that are carefully sewn together, somewhat like a quilt, before being cut to make the garment.  The traditional Yoruba women's aso oke, consists of four parts: the buba (a blouse like shirt), a wrap skirt, the head tie, and a shawl or shoulder sash.  Aso oke come in many styles though, and some these days choose not to cut it up for garments at all, and instead, wear it as a drape, somewhat like the sari.
African Batik Sample
a resist dyed fabric.  The effect is generally achieved by painting patterns on the fabric with beeswax, and then dying them.
blauzi a traditional white blouse.
a dress made of one or more panels stitched together.  It may or may not have attached sleeves.  Normally this means a dress that is wide enough not to need sleeves, just slits or holes for the arms. Read this shopping guide to help you to choose a good caftan that suits your needs.
a traditional men's shirt.  It's usually long, to the upper thigh, and has some sort of embroidered or printed design around the neck and perhaps bordering the arms or base.  Usually worn with pants, jeans, or sokoto for men, and with salwar/charwal style pants, a skati, or wrapper skirt for women.
fila a men's cap.
a headwrap. See this page for a headwrap how to.
kanga a shawl, usually made to represent a cultural ideal or proverb, worn as a shawl or kept as an heirloom by many Swahili speaking people.
kanzu, gauni two styles of traditional women's dresses.
a drape made from sewing woven strips of cloth together, each strip's pattern symbolizing some aspect of African culture, generally worn by men.
kikoy a sturdy woven garment worn across eastern and central Africa.  Like the sarong in Asia, it's an all purpose garment that can be used for a skirt for men or women, a blanket, or even a small boat sail. Many men prefer this over pants because they don't believe that a man's parts should be split.
kofia a hat or head covering for men.
kuba raffia strips woven of raffia, by the Kuba people.
skati skirt.
sokoto traditional men's trousers.
a long, figure obscuring, but beautiful in itself, dress generally worn in Morocco, and other north African countries.  It is generally made with "panels", the most decorative of which, would be in the middle and front.
tie-dye a technique of resist dying, using knots in the fabric.
Aso oke or some other uncut length of fabric that is wrapped and pleated around the body.  It is somewhat like the Indian saree, but the purpose of it is often to beat the heat, as the first round usually goes under the breasts rather than around the waist.  It's around the back, under the breasts, around the back, over the breasts, and then around again and either tied or pinned and tucked, or tossed over the shoulder.  Men can of course skip the under and over part ;)  Wrappers may be worn as full dresses or skirts, or wrapped in a way to work as pants. See this page on how to tie on a wrapper.

Learn African Braiding and Dreadlocks!Informative Links:

Clothing as a cultural expression: African Fashion [PDF File] - a paper on various African clothing styles and their meanings. Learning Center - Online courses in braiding and making various African crafts and accessories.  Also at are two great illustrated patterns for African Headwraps.

Roots and Rooted - An extremely informative site about African animist faith and culture.

Buying African Clothing

You can find a variety of African clothing and accessories in stores.  However, if you want something truly unique, I recommend buying locally, from an African or Afrocentric tailor or seamstress, or making your own.  This is because as far as most of what is sold in stores, most of the fabrics on the market weren't even woven or printed in Africa, and the prices are astronomically high, but the actual maker gets very little of it.  If you cannot sew, search the internet for small shops and custom services owned or operated by designers, seamstresses and tailors of many ancestries who love African clothing.  At least then you will get something real that wasn't made cheaply in a sweatshop.

There is African clothing at almost all the markets in the world.  If you want a particular item, ask the merchant, because often, some things are not displayed because they aren't popular in a particular area.

If you want to print your own adinkra, you will need supplies.  Traditionally, the printing blocks are made from gourds, but I have heard of some people using leftover styrofoam (so that this awful scourge on the environment at least does some good before it is thrown away).  You can also use various objects.

If you print fabrics, using the adinkra method and symbols, and would like me to advertise it here, write me, and send photos.

Professional African Hairstylist Certificate

© 2006 Nicole Lasher