African clothing and fashion is a diverse subject that is able to provide a look in the various African cultures. The diversity in traditional clothing in Africa differs throughout each country in the continent of Africa. African clothing varies from brightly colored textiles, to abstractly embroidered robes, to colourful beaded bracelets and necklaces. There is large dissimilarity in African fashion which is between rural and urban societies, this is because the urban societies are more exposed to trade and trends of the Western world, while in the rural areas it takes more time for these new Western trends to get there.
Due to the lack of written words and actual historical evidence, the evolution of clothing in Africa is very difficult to trace. The much gathered are through various sources like traditional robes being handed down to present day tribal members, oral history, theatre and from art and lastly artefacts which show sculptural representations of dress.
As a result of the warm and hospitable climate in most areas of the African continent, clothing was not generally needed for warmth or protection, due to this many tribes did not wear much. The clothing for men was just a loin cloth or apron while the women wore wraps around their waists or breasts, meanwhile beautifying the rest of their bodies with scarification and paint ochres. The men usually wrapped the bark cloth over a belt and passed between the legs while women wrapped the cloth over the belt to hide the front of their bodies. They sew separate pieces of bark cloth together with raffia as well as being used for grass skirts. These first forms of clothing were obtained from bark cloth, furs, animal skins and hides.
As time went on, the bark cloth was made by peeling bark from trees and pounded with a rock until it was thin and malleable, the primitive man sewed together small pieces with hides or raffia in order to make larger pieces to cover the body. Through the use of seashells, bones, ostrich egg shell pieces and feathers, they created adornment of clothing by way of fashioning jewellery and head gear.
Later on, many cultures developed weaving techniques to produce beautiful cloth which were commonly gotten from raffia, the fibre of a palm plant and cotton to weave the fabric. The men and women worked hand in hand to produce fabric for clothing, having the men weave the fabric and women decorated it in many cultures. Some people in Africa used their fabric to make very detailed beautifully wrapped clothing styles while others cut and sewed their fabrics into shirts, dresses and trousers. Examples of these intricately woven cotton or silk cloth include: “Kente cloth” of Ghana; the “Mud cloth” of Mali, with its distinctive brown and beige patterns; and the “Tufts Kuba cloth” of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There were also other types of cloth which were woven by other groups, with culture using its distinctive cloth to create clothing, some used their fabric to create clothing styles similar to the Toga worn by ancient Romans. Others cut and sewed their fabric into loose trousers which had different versions of loose-fitting robes worn in various regions of Africa.
The Western part of Africa in Nigeria and Senegal, robes called a boubou for men and a “M’boubou” for women are popular. There is also the “Gandoura” or “Leppi” in Cameroon, “Agbada” and “Riga” in Nigeria, and the “Dansiki” in West Africa. In northern Africa the styles greatly reflect the strong influence Muslims have had on the cultures especially the Berbers of Morocco and other Sahara desert countries.
Dating from the 9th Century, the first evidence of textile manufacture appeared at Igbo-Ukwu which consisted of excavated fragments of unpatterned, bast-fibre cloth; a plant fibre made from the phloem, the inner bark. The 11th and 12th Century, the discovery of the Tellem caves in Mali brought the revealing of fragments of cotton and wool fabric dyed with indigo. Around the 15th Century, trade began to occur between Africa and Europe. This led to the exposure of local inhabitants to exotic items which arrived on the continent. They began to make cloth with beads, shells and buttons either as embellishment or making up the entire garment like beaded aprons, capes, headbands and shoes. The styles of the beaded attire differentiated people be sex, age and social status, so also the colours and patterns of the beadwork which distinguished tribes from one another. They identified these beaded items as traditional among many different groups in Africa.
As they continued to have further contact with the Europeans, other Western items were introduced namely Western clothing styles. However these items were first combined with older African styles and by the 21st Century it was not unusual to see Africans wearing jeans, T-shirts and tennis shoes or other Western style outfits.
In addition, we have modern African garments which take their roots in traditional dress and are worn by millions of people either ceremonially and for everyday wear. These African clothing include Kaftans, aso oke, ankara (dutch wax) and dansiki and madiba shirts.
In conclusion, we should know that African clothing and fashion went through several transformations in the early modern times, reflecting the changing social, political, religious and economic forces of which they were a part and an expression, although major shifts in patterns of production and consumption and the emergence of more varied fabrics and textiles had taken place in the late Middle Ages.