However, contrary to infamous beliefs, some of the world’s greatest empires originated from Africa, and it’s not a surprise that Africa’s colorful world of fashion coincides with that fact. Due to lack of historical evidence, it is rather difficult to backdate the evolution of African clothing. In Africa, every textile is representative of the individuality of a place in a way of its uniqueness. Let’s have a sneak peek of the interesting history of the Motherland through the clothing of our ancestors.
Bogolanfini: Sticks, Stones, Roots, And Bones
In 800 C.E., the Ghanaian empire started flourishing due to the development of extensive trade routes in North Africa and the discovery of gold across the region. In that light, many smaller groups grew to become communities in Southern Africa. However, the Mali empire became large and powerful following the fall of the Ghanaian people in 11 C.E. by 1200 C.E. At that time, Mali was the largest empire in West Africa and strongly influenced the culture of the region through its language, laws, and customs. The Mali wore handprinted cloths called Bogolanfini or mud cloth. Each cloth had an arrangement of symbols, revealing something secret about its intended meaning. The language of the cloth trickles down from mother to daughter along with specific motifs.
Bogo means “earth” or “mud”
Lan means “with”
Fini means “cloth”
Bark Cloth: The Spirit Of The Trees
In 15th century, barkcloth was being crafted by the Baganda people of Southern Uganda in Uganda. Barkcloth was one of the first fabrics made by mankind; using an ancient technique that predates the invention of weaving. Being a versatile fabric, the cloth was used to produce loincloth, skirts, draperies, wall hangings, and beddings. Barkcloth is primarily harvested from the locally grown Mutaba tree without bringing harm to the tree. In Uganda, the long history of producing barkcloth provides a great pre-historic way of utilizing our environment’s renewable resources.
In 2005, UNESCO declared barkcloth production to be a masterpiece of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Adire Cloth: The Original Tie & Dye
Adire textile is a resist-dyed cloth from the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria. Although scholars opine that the origin of Adire is unknown, but its production history can be traced back to the 12th century. Adire translates as tie and dye in Yoruba language; the technique was initially applied to indigo-dyed cloth decorated with resist-patterns. The particular ethical/regional norms of the Adire cloth were characterized by special weaving techniques. Motifs of Adire are taught by mothers to daughters within the dyeing families from generation to generation.
By 20th century, local tastes began to have preference towards the Kampala technique; a multi-colored wax-resist cloth, and which consequently brought a decline to Adire’s popularity. However, there has been a revival of the Adire art by Nigerian designers, like Duro Olowu and Maki-Oh.
The Grand Boubou
The Boubou, popularly called the African kaftan, was worn by the people of Takur and Ghana Empires during the 8th century and the Mali and Songhai Empires in 13th century. The kaftan is usually worn with a matching head wrap, called Gele. The kaftan can be made of wool, cashmere, silk, or cotton. The clothing gained prominence across the West African region with the migration of the semi-nomadic groups.
The Boubou consists of three pieces:
1. Long-sleeve shirt
2. A pair of tie-up trousers that narrows at the ankle
3. Open-stitched overflowing wide sleeveless gown worn over the 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 renowned for two types of cloth: printed Adinkra and woven Kente. The visual presentations on the fabrics depict various political messages communicated by symbols, colors, and how it is being worn.
This means farewell, and it is worn during funeral ceremonies. Black designs were imprinted onto black or russet colored fabric with particular colors used for mourning:
1. Brown: Kuntukuni
2. Red: Kobene
3. Black: Brisi
Adinkra was originally made from cassava tubers, but now made out of calabash rinds. The cloth that formerly serves as the exclusive property of the King or Asantehene, is now worn by all with different fashion styles.
This cloth was worn on ceremonial or festive occasions during the mid-19th century. Kente is composed of narrow strips of hand weaved material sewn together to form a rectangle. Kente cloth was a way to identify a person’s origin and status back then. The colorful motifs are named and communicate messages:
1. Gold: wealth
2. Yellow: vitality
3. Green: renewal
4. Blue: spiritual purity
In ancient times, the royal family could only make use of the gold colored Kente, with the King expected to have the best collection of Kente and Adinkra in the world.
Ankara: The Controversial Textile
Ankara, also known as the “Real Dutch Wax”, originates from the European replication of batiks from Far East at the early 19th century. Batiks are a printed fabric with designs at both sides of the cloth. It has been theorized that West African men conscripted to the Dutch army bought batik fabrics home. European companies like Vlisco, HKM, and ABC Wax began to tailor their designs to satiate African tastes and demands that included colorful cloths and motifs. Nonetheless, the question of Ankara fabrics’ African authenticity is debatable.
In 1967, Jason Benning coined the term Dashiki. The term originates from the combination of Yoruba language word “danski” and the Hausa language phrase “dan aki”, both translating to shirt. Benning began the mass production of the Dashiki style shirt from Harlem, United States under the trademark, New Breeding Clothing Limited. Benning with his team created an afro-centric aesthetic of Black Power Movement. The Dashiki serves as a fabric that embraces African heritage in the quest of promoting black pride.