Welcome back to another week of the anthropology in fashion series, where we learn about the traditional dresses from one region in the world every week. This week we’ll learn about clothing distinct to Central Africa.
Central Africa, also known as Middle Africa, has diverse terrain and climatic conditions. The sub-region is bordered by the Great Rift Valley and the Horn of Africa to the east, the Sahara desert to the north, Southern Africa, naturally to the south, and West Africa to the west, as the countries immediately lie on both sides of the equator. Though different organizations have their own list of Central African countries, it generally comprises Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the island nation Sao Tome & Principe. In this post, only the countries in mainland Africa will be discussed.
An Overview of Clothing in Central Africa
In the previous few posts in this series, I mention that precise information on African clothing from antiquity is limited as many African languages didn’t have a written script in the past and thus, there was a lack of documentation. However, historians and anthropologists have pieced together some details based on oral literature, art and archaeological findings. From previous posts, we learnt that initially, inhabitants around the continent, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, resourcefully used animal hides to make clothes in the absence of fibres such as cotton. Clothes weren’t primarily used to keep themselves warm but as an indicator of their social and marital status. That would explain why the early Africans wore leather, despite it being ill-suited to the generally warm climate.
When researching early clothing, specifically in Central Africa, there wasn’t much mentioned about the use of animal hides as clothing. Instead, the earliest form of textiles was made of plant fibres. Making clothes with plant fibres was discovered soon after people in Africa developed and mastered making leather with animal skin. However, it is reasonable that plant-based clothing was one of the first types of clothing in this region.
Clothing in Central Africa primarily depends on the climate. Being so close to the equator, the region tends to remain humid and exceptionally warm all year round, so the inhabitants are required to wear clothes made of lighter materials. Evidently, clothing made of plant fibres is more lightweight compared to leather.
There were exceptions to this because there are diverse landforms in the region. Nearly half of Central Africa is covered by a flat plateau at an average of 500 m elevation from sea level. Thus, naturally, clothing in these places would have had slightly more insulation than that found in the lowlands.
In Central Africa, the textile that has been used for many centuries is the raffia cloth. Raffia cloth is made with the fronds of the raffia palm. Historically, raffia fibres were woven by hand but, later special looms were made to make the cloth with various textures, to make the process simpler and more efficient.
The fabric was woven by the men and the women made colourful and intricate designs on the cloth. The most famous and most developed form of raffia cloth was made by the Kuba people who were part of the once-prosperous Central African Kuba Kingdom (17th – 19th century). Raffia cloth today, is popularly known as Kuba cloth, and the material is still made to create bags, baskets and clothes.
With the arrival of the European merchants and colonizers and trade with other African regions, materials such as cotton found their way to Central Africa. Today, cotton is the main material used to make both traditional, contemporary and everyday attires.
The region’s central location and shared history of trade and European colonization with other African regions would also explain why the articles of clothing bear so many similarities with each other.
Now, let’s look at some dresses from some of these countries in detail.
Cameroon is a multi-ethnic country with around 250 ethnic groups inhabiting its lands. Each group has their own cultural heritage, customs, values, cuisine and even clothing. Traditional clothing for each of these groups is determined by their way of life, their faith and most importantly, the climate in their place of origin.
For instance, northern Cameroon has dry terrain, a hot climate and the population there is predominantly of the Islamic faith. Therefore, traditional clothing in this area consists of a lightweight loose-fitted robe and headcover, for both men and women. This outfit is not only modest but airy to allow the flow of air to keep the wearer cool.
Southern Cameroon, on the other hand, is full of forests, experiences a lot of rainfall and has a dominant Bantu-speaking Christian population. Here, traditional clothes often contain a lot of layers to keep the wearer just warm enough. The clothes are vibrant, decorative and have a lot of traditional motifs on them.
Despite these variations, Cameroon does have a traditional textile that has almost become a symbol of national identity.
The toghu is a very special fabric from northwestern Cameroon. It was originally a fabric only reserved for royalty, but today anyone can wear it. The fabric is tailored into traditional garments that are donned on special occasions such as weddings, cultural festivals and investiture ceremonies within chiefdoms. These types of garments are discussed shortly after.
Toghu is made of a durable black velvet fabric with traditional patterns embroidered in orange, gold, red, green, white and yellow thread. The patterns are usually made at the neckline, sleeves and borders.
Some of the most common patterns consist of the sun, moon, crab and gong. All of these symbols hold cultural significance. For example, the bamileke gong is an instrument that resembles a pair of heavy bells. It is an important instrument in Cameroon and it also happens to be the symbol of love, respect and peace. The crab is a symbol of rebirth, as crabs shed their shells and grow them back to grow.
The reason why toghu stands out in Cameroonian society as the most popular textile is that during the economic crisis that the country faced between 1980 and 2000, many people had to resort to making toghu to sustain their livelihoods. Cameroonians began manufacturing and developing the fabric to beautify it further. Eventually, the new and improved product was in high demand, leading to its popularity.
Some of the traditional garments popular in Cameroon are discussed below:
Pagne is a French word that translates to loincloth. It refers to a piece of rectangular cotton fabric that measures 150 cm by 250 cm. It is a traditional piece of clothing that is visible in everyday attire. Though people in rural areas use it more extensively, city dwellers also make a place for it in their more contemporary and western-style outfits.
Pagnes are used by both men and women. However, they seem to be handier to women. In addition to being used as garments such as wrapping skirts and body wraps, they are also used as headwraps, blankets and baby carriers. Pagnes may be worn directly as wrapping garments or be tailored into blouses, dresses, shirts, trousers and more.
Pagnes can be as luxurious as being made of silk with extensive embroidery or as simple as being made of thin cotton. They usually come in various bright colours and patterns. The patterns differ from place to place.
Pagnes can be found in Chad, Gabon, the Republic of Congo and in the Democratic Republic of Congo and West Africa. It is in fact the West and Central African equivalent of the East African Kangas.
A kabba is a shapeless ankle-length loose fitted dress that women in Cameroon wear. The garment may have long wide sleeves or it may have half sleeves. It is perfect for warm weather as it always allows space to move freely and encourages air circulation, keeping the body cool. The dress is worn at home and for casual gatherings. It is usually made of African cotton wax print fabric which in other African regions may be known as kitenge or chitenge.
The Boubou, also known as the African kaftan, is a four-piece outfit for men; comprising a flowy robe, matching loose fitted trousers that tighten at the ankle, a long sleeve shirt and a hat, all made of cotton. First, the trousers and shirt are worn as inner garments over which the robe is worn. Finally, the hat completes the outfit.
The robe is the highlight of the attire. It usually has long wide open-stitched sleeves and the robe extends to the knees or further down to the ankles. The robe may come in bright colours with intricate embroidery at the borders and neckline.
It is an outfit that is particularly popular in northern Cameroon, worn on special occasions such as weddings, Eid, funerals, Friday prayers at the mosque.
Boubou is a popular garment around Western and Central Africa, where it may be known as Agbada, grand boubou or gandoura. Though in other places the outfit may only have three pieces of clothing instead of four.
Evolution of Clothing in Cameroon
Before colonization, the tribes inhabiting this region wore clothing made of animal skin, raffia and barkcloth. They’d design earlier versions of many of the clothes that are found today, such as dashiki, kabba, agbada robes and wrapping cloths.
Then, with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 19th century, many of the locals began converting to Christians. However, with this conversion, they had to forgo their traditional clothes and adopt western attire, as a way to differentiate themselves from non-Christians and as a sign of commitment to their new faith. Over time, people of other faiths and communities also adopted the new style as the missionaries introduced more clothes for everyone, mainly to prevent contagious infections. In the present day, western-style clothes have become common attire, at least in urban settings.
Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo
Traditional clothes in both the DRC and the Republic of Congo tend to be identified by their bold colours and captivating motifs. Both Congolese men and women extensively use pagne as their traditional clothing. Pagne is worn for both formal and casual occasions and, as mentioned earlier. If the fabric is used as a wrapping cloth, then several pieces of pagne are used. Alternatively, pagnes are tailored into western-style clothes, as mentioned earlier.
The most interesting part about Congolese clothing isn’t the clothing itself but the way that it is worn. Congolese people dress in the Liputa style. It simply refers to wearing nice and colourful clothes. The more colourful, the better.
Among men, in particular, there is a very unique Congolese culture of dressing up in the most exquisite way possible, donning colourful suits, ties, bowties, a crisp shirt, fancy shoes, fedoras while holding a cane in their hand and placing a smoking pipe in their mouth. The goal is to look classy, wealthy and confident. These people are known as Les Sapeurs or sapeuses if female.
Les sapeurs are people who are part of La Sape, which is an acronym for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (society of ambiance makers and elegant people). A group of people who practice the culture of sapeurism. The word la sape is derived from the French slang se saper, which means to dress up elegantly.
Sapeurism originates at the beginning of the 20th century, during French and Belgian colonialism in both nations. The Congolese men enslaved by the European masters were given second-hand clothes brought from Europe, as payment instead of actual money.
These men then began adopting their way of dressing, their body language, and elegance and added their own flair to this new style. This way of dressing was used to fight the regard for inferiority that the colonists had towards them. Since then, dressing up, grooming and behaving like a gentleman has been seen as a way to gain respect.
The garments that the sapeurs wear are expensive and most cannot even afford them, but they purchase them anyway as this culture of dressing up is important to them. Today, sapeurism is an art only the Congolese have mastered.
The Final Takeaway
In this post, we explored some of the different types of clothing found in a few of the Central African nations. Clothing in Central Africa is heavily influenced by the climate, landforms, religion, tribal traditions, cultural heritage and shared history. The latter reveals why clothing in this sub-region shares so many similarities to neighbouring regions on the continent.
Link to last week’s post, in case you missed it: Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Southern Africa
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Ngwoh, V. K., 2020. Options for a National Culture Symbol of Cameroon: Can the Bamenda Grassfields Traditional Dress Fit?. EAS Journal of Humanities and Cultural Studies, 2(1), pp. 13-26.