The cradle of humanity lies within the hands of Mother Africa. A unique mosaic of ecosystems that make up a diverse cultural landscape. Africa is a complex social and historical entity, where the fashion is just as deep and colorful as the continent itself. There are many histories in which traditions of a given locality have become engaged and intertwined with form and fabric introduced from elsewhere. Fashion has always been a global language; a medium by which Africa’s diversity chooses to speak to the world.

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Contrary to popular belief, some of the world’s greatest empires originated in Africa. Therefore, it should be no surprise that a colorful world of fashion coincides with such a rich history. The evolution of African clothing is difficult to trace because of the lack of historical evidence. Every textile expresses the individuality of a place in a way that is completely unique; taking us on a journey through the fascinating history of the Motherland through the clothing of our ancestors.

Bogolanfini: Sticks, stones, roots, and bones

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By 800 C.E., the Ghanaian empire began to flourish due to the development of extensive trade routes in Northern Africa and the discovery of gold throughout the region. Many smaller groups developed into communities in Southern Africa as a result. The Malian empire became large and powerful after the fall of the Ghanaian people in 11 C.E. By 1200 C.E. Mali was the largest empire in West Africa and profoundly influenced the region’s culture through the spread of its language, laws, and customs. The Mali wore hand-printed cloths called Bogolanfini or mud cloth. Each cloth had arrangements of symbols revealing something secret about its intended meaning. The language of the cloth was passed down from mother to daughter along with specific motifs. Men were responsible for weaving the narrow strips of plain fabric that were pieced together into a larger rectangular cloth.

Bogo= “earth” or “mud”
Lan= “with”
Fini= “cloth”

Bark Cloth: The Spirit of the Trees

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Meanwhile, in Southern Uganda, Barkcloth was being crafted by the Baganda people of Uganda during the 15th century. Barkcloth was one of the first fabrics made by mankind; using an ancient technique that predates the invention of weaving. Serving as a versatile fabric, the cloth was used to produce loincloths, skirts, draperies, wall hangings, and even bedding. Barkcloth is harvested from the locally grown Mutaba tree without bringing harm to the tree. The long history of the production of Barkcloth among Uganda’s indigenous population provides a great pre-historic example of how to utilize our environment’s renewable resources. Nevertheless, the art of bark cloth making is slowly disappearing to modern convinces. In 2005, UNESCO declared bark cloth making to be a masterpiece of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

Adire Cloth: The original Tie & Dye

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Adire textile is a resist-dyed cloth originating from the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria. Scholarly opinions hold that the origin of Adire is unknown, but is believed to have been in production as early as the 12th century. Adire translates as tie and dye in the Yoruba language; the technique was first applied to indigo-dyed cloth decorated with resist-patterns. The symbols represented on the cloth created and standardized aspects of the people’s culture, drawn from history, legends, myths, proverbs, folklores, and deep observation of their environment. The particular ethical/regional traditions of the Adire cloth were characterized by special weaving techniques. Motifs of Adire are taught by mothers to daughters within dyeing families from generation to generation.
During the 20th century, local tastes began to prefer the Kampala technique; a multi-colored wax-resist cloth, which eventually signaled the decline of the Adire’s popularity. However, there has been a recent revival of the Adire art by Nigerian designers such as Maki-Oh and Doru Olowo.

The Grand Boubou

The Boubou also known as the African kaftan was worn by people of the Takur and Ghanaian Empires during the 8th century and by the Mali and Songhai Empires during the 13th century. The kaftan is usually worn with a matching headwrap called a Gele. The kaftan can be made of wool, cashmere, silk, or cotton and may be worn with a sash. The Boubou follows an archaic template to the contemporary male clothing of the middle east. The clothing became widespread throughout the West African region with the migration of semi-nomadic groups. The Boubou consists of three pieces:

1Long-sleeved shirt

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

3 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 that emerged in the 17th century. The Ashanti are especially known for two types of cloth: printed Adinkra and woven Kente. The visual presentations printed on the fabrics represent various political messages communicated by colors, symbols, and how the fashion is worn.

Adinkra means farewell and was originally worn during funeral ceremonies. Black designs were stamped onto black or russet colored fabric with particular colors used for mourning:

1Brown= Kuntukuni

2Red= Kobene

3 Black=Brisi

The cloth, originally made from Cassava tubers, is now made out of Calabash rinds. The Adinkra fabric served initially as the exclusive property of the King or Asantehene. The cloth now worn by all is still constantly adapting to economic conditions and fashions.

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The Kente cloth was worn on ceremonial and festive occasions during the mid-19th century. Kente is composed of narrow strips of hand weaved material sewn together to form a rectangle. The cloth, predominantly woven by men, is double-sided with the design wove into the cloth. Kente cloth was a way to identify a person’s origin and status. The colorful motifs are named and communicate messages to those who are able to read them:

1Gold= wealth

2Yellow= vitality

3 Green= renewal

4Blue= spiritual purity

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In Ancient times the royal family could only utilize gold colored Kente. However, to this day no Ashanti will wear the royal cloth in the Asantehene’s presence. The King is always expected to have the best collection of Kente and Adinkra in the world, from which to choose. The Asante and Ewe traditions create forms of Kente that are impossible to replicate.

Ankara: The Controversial Textile

Ankara also known as “Real Dutch Wax” originates from the European replication of batiks from the far east during the early 19th century. Batiks are a printed fabric with designs on both sides of the cloth. Initially, marketed to the Dutch-East Indies as “Java prints,” the Ankara fabric has a crossbred cultural background that finds its historical roots in present-day Indonesia. It has been theorized that West African men conscripted to the Dutch army bought batik fabrics home. The European Companies such as Vlisco, HKM, and ABC Wax began to tailor designs according to African tastes and demands that included colorful cloths and tribal patterns/ motifs. Currently, imitation wax fabrics are made locally and also imported from Asia, both ubiquitously exemplify African fashion. However, a question of Ankara fabrics African authenticity is a subject of much debate. What do you think?

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The Kitenge was an informal and inexpensive fabric with a distinctive border and political slogans on wax printed cotton. The cloth forms continuous prints lengthwise with no distinct borderlines separating one adjacent piece from another. There are a large variety of religious and political designs that depict moods, feelings, and cultural traditions of native people. The Kitenge originates from Kiswahili Kintengel and can be worn as a sari.

The East African famed garment is a traditional garment worn mainly by women in Tanzania. The Kanga is a brightly-colored wax-printed cloth that first appeared in the mid-19th century. The rectangular fabric consists of pure cotton with a border all around printed in bold designs and bright colors. The kanga is usually worn as a pair or “doti.”

The Dapper Sapeurs X Pan-Africanism

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During the 1920’s Sapeurs were an elite group of dapper men dedicated to high fashion who organized into clubs to demonstrate style allegiances. The Sapeurs or Sapes hoped to fully embody the suave elegant style that a wardrobe of three-piece suits, silk socks, fedoras, and canes might suggest. The Congolese streets provided a literal fashion runway for these gentlemen. Sapeurs are members of the “Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes,” which means the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People in French. However, after Congo’s independence, many Sapeurs flocked to Paris where they became present in café society and reside as local celebs.

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

During the early 20th-century, the modern Pan-Africanism movement began as a global intellectual campaign that aimed to encourage and strengthen bonds of solidarity between people of color. The advocacy of political unions amongst all indigenous inhabitants of Africa inspired 20th-century Pan-African advocates like, Kame Nkrumah; who urged the rejection of western apparel in favor of National dress. Yet, members of the young African elite mixed and matched traditional items with clothing made by tailors, each who had his own local flare. Amidst the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s developed an optimistic African youth culture that sought to engage in dialogue on international fashion, music trends and socio-political issues associated with that time. The Civil Rights Era, with its focus on integration and black respectability, paved the way for political expression via the vehicle of fashion.

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

In 1967, Jason Benning coined the modern term Dashiki. The term originates from the combination of the Yoruba word “danski,” and the Hausa phrase “dan aki,” both of which translate to shirt. Benning began to mass-produce the dashiki style shirt out of Harlem, USA under the trademark “New Breed Clothing, Ltd.” Benning along with Milton Clarke, Howard Davis, and William Smith created an afro-centric aesthetic of the Black Power Movement. The shirt rebelled against the fashion at that time and provided a symbol of affirmation for blacks, signaling a return to Africa’s roots and an insistence of full rights in American society. The legacy of slavery paired with the fight for social equality was channeled into the politics of dressing the body to symbolize racial consciousness. Dashikis are still worn today in protest of society’s blatant disrespect of black lives. The dashiki still serves as a garment that embraces African heritage while seeking to promote black pride.

My Black is Beautiful

The Civil Rights Movement spearheaded the rise of models of color. African Americans reasserted their diasporic status through fashion and beauty. During 1967, the Algerian designer Yves Saint Laurent officially put Africa on the international fashion map with his “Africa collection,” which ultimately led to the reinterpretation of safari suits, tunics, kaftans, djellabahs, and turbans influencing each successive generation of designers. Laurent was also instrumental in introducing African and black models to the international catwalks in the 1960–70s, like Iman.

Queen Iman was originally presented as an illiterate tribeswoman who had been discovered herding cattle in the Sahara. Since the 1960s Western designers have continued to cherry-pick from Africa’s aesthetics.

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Buy Black Now

Only a precious few African designers have shared in the global fashion limelight alongside their western counterparts. Nevertheless, a new generation of designers in Africa and the diaspora have started to rise through the ranks of the fashion industry. Many new and talented African designers have emerged onto the fashion scene such as Christie Brown, Virgin Abloh, Kisua, Stella Jean, June Ambrose, Maxwell Osborne, Fe Noel and Duro Olowu ; having styled for celebrities and political figures such as Her Majesty, Michelle Obama. Olowu is arguably one of the most successful independent African designers to date, but we need more success stories. Within the last decade, there has been a way of global interest in Africa’s cultural, economic, and technological ascension. Africans are helping to redefine the luxury industry. Africa cannot compete with high-volume fashion from other continents, but its immaculate craftsmanship and appetite for beauty naturally lend itself to the world of fashion. As the world shrinks and resources dwindle consumers are looking beyond old fashion capitals for new sources of African authenticity and goods touched by human hands.


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This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Bògòlanfini, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (view authors).

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