African FashionAfrican History

The history of AfriCAN fashion

The cradle of humanity is in the hands of Mother Africa. A unique mosaic of ecosystems that make up a diverse cultural landscape. Africa is a complex social and historical whole, where fashion is as deep and lively as the continent itself. There are many stories in which the traditions of a particular locality are compromised and intertwined with shapes and fabrics imported from other places. Fashion has always been a global language; the medium by which the diversity of Africa chooses to speak to the world.

Contrary to popular belief, some of the largest empires in the world originate from Africa. It is therefore not surprising that the colorful fashion world coincides with such a rich history. The development of African clothing is difficult to follow due to the lack of historical evidence. Every textile expresses the individuality of a place uniquely, taking us on a journey through the fascinating history of the motherland through the clothing of our ancestors.

Bogolanfini: Sticks, stones, roots, and bones

By 800 BC, the Ghanaian Empire had begun to prosper due to the development of extensive trade routes in North Africa and the discovery of gold throughout the region. As a result, many small groups have become communities in southern Africa. The kingdom of Mali became large and powerful after the fall of the Ghanaian people in the 11th century BC. By 1200 CE, Mali was the largest empire in West Africa; It deeply influenced the region’s culture by spreading languages, laws, and customs. The people of Mali wore hand-printed cloths called Bogolanfini or mud cloth. Each fabric had an arrangement of symbols that revealed something secret about its meaning. The language of the fabric has been transmitted from mother to daughter, with specific reasons. The men were responsible for weaving narrow strips of a smooth fabric that were joined together into a larger rectangular fabric.

Bogo = “earth” or “mud”

Lan = “with”

Fini = “cloth”

Bark Cloth: The Spirit of the Trees

Meanwhile, in southern Uganda, Barkcloth was cultivated by the Baganda people of Uganda in the 15th century. Barkcloth was one of the first fabrics created by humankind using an ancient technique before the invention of weaving. Serving as a versatile fabric, the fabric was used to make embroidery, skirts, curtains, draperies, and even bedding. The bark tissue is removed from a locally grown Mutabe tree without damaging the tree. The long history of barkcloth production among the indigenous population of Uganda is an excellent prehistoric example of the use of renewable resources in our environment. But the art of making bark tissue is slowly fading for modern beliefs. In 2005, UNESCO declared the production of barkcloth a masterpiece of the intangible cultural heritage of man.

Adire Cloth: The original Tie & Dye

Adire Textile is a dyed fabric with resistance that comes from the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. Academic opinion claims that the origin of Adire is unknown, but is believed to have started to appear as early as the 12th century. Adire translates into Yoruba by tie and dye; The technique was first applied to an indigo-dyed cloth decorated with resist-patterns. The symbols presented on the canvas have created and standardized aspects of popular culture, drawn from history, legends, myths, proverbs, folklore, and a great observation of their environment. Special weaving techniques mark the particular ethical/regional traditions of the Adire fabric. Motivations of Adire are taught by mothers to daughters from colorful families from generation to generation.

During the 20th century, local tastes began to prefer the Kampala technique. This multi-colored, wax-resistant fabric ultimately marked Adire’s decline in popularity. Recently, however, there has been a revival of Adire art from Nigerian designers like Maki-Oh and Doru Olowo.

Grand Boubou

Boubou, also known as the African kaftan, was worn by people from the Takur and Ghana empires in the 8th century, and the Mali and Songhai empires in the 13th century. The kaftan is usually worn with an appropriate headband called Gele. The kaftan can be made of wool, cashmere, silk or cotton, and can be worn with a skirt. Boubou follows the archaic model of contemporary male fashion in the Middle East. Clothing has become widespread throughout the West African region with the migration of semi-nomadic groups. The boubou consists of three pieces:

      1. Long-sleeved shirt

      2. A pair of tie-up trousers that narrow at the ankle and,

      3. An open-stitched overflowing wide sleeveless gown worn over the first two.

Adinkra and Kente cloth: Royal wear from Ghana

The Ashanti Empire was a pre-colonial African state born in the 17th century. The Ashanti are mainly known for two types of fabrics: Printed Adinkra and woven Kente. The visual materials printed on the fabrics represent various political messages that convey colors, symbols, and how the fashion is worn.

Adinkra meant goodbye and was originally used in funeral ceremonies. The black patterns are printed on black or reddish fabric with specific colors used for mourning:

1.Brown= Kuntukuni

      2. Red= Kobene

      3. Black=Brisi

The fabric is made originally from cassava tubers and is now made from pumpkin rind. The Adinkra cloth has initially been used exclusively by the king or Asantehen. The cloth everyone wears today always adapts to economic conditions and fashion.

Kente fabric was used during ceremonies in the mid-19th century. Kente consists of narrow strips of hand-woven material, woven together, to form a rectangle. The fabric, which is mainly woven by men, is dyed in duplicate with a woven pattern on the fabric. Kente fabric was a means of identifying the origin and status of a person. The colored patterns are named and convey messages to those who can read them:



      1. gold = wealth

      2. Yellow = vitality 

      3. Green = renewal

      4. Blue = spiritual purity

In the past, the royal family could only use Kente in gold. To date, however, no Ashanti will wear royal attire in the presence of Asantehen. The king should always have with him the best collection of Kente and Adinkra in the world. The tradition of Asante and Ewe creates forms of Kente impossible to reproduce.

Ankara: The Controversial Textile

Ankara, also known as “real Dutch wax,” comes from a European replica of batik from the Far East in the early 19th century. Batik is ​​a printed fabric with a pattern on both sides of the cloth. Formerly marketed in the Dutch East Indies under the name of “Java prints,” the material of Ankara has an intercultural origin which has its historical roots in Indonesia today. It is theorized that West African men recruited by the Dutch army bought batik cloth home. European companies such as Vlisco, HKM, and ABC Wax have started to design according to African tastes and requirements, including colorful fabrics and tribal patterns/patterns. Currently, imitation wax fabrics are locally produced and imported from Asia, all of which is a ubiquitous example of African fashion. However, the question of the authenticity of the African fabric in Ankara is the subject of many debates. What do you think?

The Communicating Textile

Kitenge was a casual, inexpensive fabric with distinctive trim and political slogans on printed cotton. The fabric creates continuous prints along distinct edges that separate one adjacent room from another. There is a wide selection of religious and political designs that depict mood, feelings, and cultural traditions. Kitenge is from Kiswahili Kintengela and can be worn as a sari.

Kanga

The famous East African garment is a traditional garment worn mainly by women in Tanzania. Kanga is a brightly colored waxed fabric that first appeared in the middle of the 19th century. The rectangular fabric consists of pure cotton with a border printed around it in a bold design and bright colors. Kanga is generally used as a pair or “doti.”

The Dapper Sapeurs X Pan-Africanism

During the 1920s, Sapeurs was a group of elite men from haute couture who organized themselves into clubs to demonstrate their loyalty to the style. The Sapeurs or Sapes hoped to fully embody the elegant and elegant style that a three-piece wardrobe, silk stockings, fedoras, and canes might suggest. The streets of the Congolese provided a literal gateway for these gentlemen. The Sapeurs are members of “Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes,” that is to say, a French society of tastemakers and elegant people. However, after the Congo’s independence, many Sapeurs flew to Paris, where they were present in the café societies and stayed as local celebrities.

Pan-Africanism “You got to fight if you want to be free.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, the modern pan-Africanism movement began as a global intellectual campaign to encourage and strengthen the bonds of solidarity between people of color. The defense of political unions among all indigenous Africans inspired pan-African supporters of the 20th century like, Kame Nkrumah, who called for the rejection of western clothing in favor of national clothing. However, members of the young African elite have mixed and matched traditional items with tailor-made clothing, each with it owns local touch. Amid the civil rights movement in the 1960s, a positive culture of African youth developed, which sought to initiate a dialogue on international fashion, musical trends, and the socio-political problems associated with the time. Civil rights, centered on the integration and respectability of blacks, opened the way to political expression through fashion.

The Dashiki ­ “Say it loud, I’m black, and I’m Proud.”

In 1967 Jason Benning coined the modern term Dashiki. The name comes from a combination of the Yoruba word “Danski” and the Hausa phrase “dan aki,” which translates to a shirt. Benning began mass production of a dashiki-style T-shirt in Harlem, USA. The USA, under the brand “New Breed Clothing, Ltd.” Benning, along with Milton Clarke, Howard Davis, and William Smith, created the Black Power movement’s Afrocentric aesthetic. The shirt then rebelled against fashion and provided a symbol of blacks’ assertion, a sign of a return to African roots and an insistence on full rights in American society. The legacy of slavery, as well as the struggle for social equality, targets the policy of dressing the body to symbolize racial awareness. Dashikis are still used today to protest against society’s gross disrespect for black lives. Dashiki continues to serve as clothing that embraces African heritage as it seeks to promote black pride. 

My Black is Beautiful

The civil rights movement has led to the emergence of color models. African Americans have reaffirmed their diaspora status through fashion and beauty. In 1967, Algerian designer, Yves Saint Laurent, officially placed Africa on the international fashion map with his “African Collection,” which ultimately led to a reinterpretation of safari costumes, tunics, kaftans, djellabahs, and turbans influencing each successive generation of designers. Laurent also played a crucial role in bringing African and black models to international catwalks in the 60s and 70s, like Iman.

Queen Iman was initially presented as a woman of an illiterate tribe to whom cattle pastures have been discovered in the Sahara. Since the 1960s, Western designers have continued to choose from African aesthetics.

Buy Black Now  

Only a few African designers have shared the star of global fashion with their Western counterparts. But a new generation of designers in Africa and the diaspora has begun to rise in the ranks of the fashion industry. Many new and talented African designers have appeared on the fashion scene, including Christie Brown, Virgin Abloh, Kisua, Stella Jean, June Ambrose, Maxwell Osborne, Fe Noel, and Duro Olowu; design for celebrities and political figures like Her Majesty Michelle Obama. Olowu is probably one of the best performing African freelance designers to date, but we need more success stories. The past decade has seen global interest in the cultural, economic, and technological development of Africa. Africans are helping to redefine the luxury industry. Africa cannot compete with fashionistas from other continents; its impeccable art and taste for beauty are naturally left to the fashion world. As the world shrinks and resources dwindle, consumers are looking outside the old fashioned capitals for new sources of African authenticity and goods touched by human hands.


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Abisola Zainab
the authorAbisola Zainab
Zainab, Zee for short, is a fashion enthusiast. She is a budding individual with the aim to inspire others by providing engaging contents to entertain and inform her readers relating to their belief and lifestyle. A lovely sister and aspiring Engineer. Connect with her on her socials

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