men wearing the ghanian kente cloth

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Western Africa

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 traditional clothing distinct to West Africa.

West Africa refers to the region on the African continent that lies below the Sahara desert and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the Guinea Coast in the south and Lake Chad to the east. It comprises 16 countries; Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote D’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. generally

An Overview of Cultural Clothing in West Africa

Like in the other sub-regions in Africa, clothing in West Africa is also inspired by its climate, geography, its socio-political history, various ethnic groups and their cultures, colonialism, cultural exchange and trade with other places.

Historically, the early inhabitants of Africa began wearing clothes around 180,000 years ago. They made use of whatever resources and materials they found in nature and made basic clothing such as loincloths, wrappers, belts, etc. out of animal hides, bones and fur. Given the generally warm climate on the continent, the motivation to dress up was more to communicate their age, social and marital status than to protect themselves from the weather.

The process of making clothes with animal skin developed and over time they became master leather makers. Soon after, it was discovered that plant fibres could be used to make clothes and textiles. Raffia cloth made from weaving raffia palm fibres, for instance, was used around Central and West Africa.

Click here to read about Raffia cloth in Central Africa.

With time, dyeing techniques were developed. Natural dyes obtained from tree barks, leaves, flowers, rocks and clay were used to add colours and patterns to woven fabric.

Influence of Trade on Fashion

multicoloured beads with patterns
Image Credit: Wolfyshopd

The different regions of Africa have a history of trading with each other since prehistoric times. Trading routes connecting Africa, Europe and Asia, however, opened up during the 15th century and this had an immense impact on fashion back in the day. The local inhabitants were introduced to foreign items that impressed them greatly. Beads, for example, was one such item. They were not only used to decorate clothes but also used to make entire pieces of clothing, such as beaded headbands, aprons, cloaks, etc. Materials such as cotton, silk and wool were also introduced and these along with raffia became the main materials to make clothes with.

African Wax Print Cloth

In the 19th century, trade also introduced the continent, and West Africa in particular, to a type of clothing that is still used daily. This is the African wax print cloth. The cloth is known by many names, including Ankara cloth, kitenge, chitenge and wax hollondais.

African wax print cloth is a large piece of cotton cloth featuring bright colours and traditional African designs. The African wax print cloth uses a mechanized dyeing technique that is derived from the  Indonesian batik method.

The colours and designs differ from culture to culture. The use of the cloth remains the same around the continent. It is primarily used as a wrapping cloth, a headwrap and a baby carrier. It may also be used as a bed sheet or towel. Nowadays, it is even used to tailor them into dresses, shirts, trousers, skirts and more.

pink dress made of ankara fabric
A dress made of African wax print fabric. Image Credit: Veaea

The Dutch learned about the batik dyeing technique in Indonesia, where they had been trading since the 16th century. They took some samples back to their homeland and attempted to replicate them to produce them in mass and at a lower cost. When they brought back these lower quality fabrics to Indonesia, they saw that they couldn’t compete with authentic Indonesian batik. However, the imitations wouldn’t go to waste as the Dutch merchants knew that there was a demand for printed cotton fabrics in West Africa. They introduced the cloth to their trading post in present-day Ghana in the mid-19th century and the cloth thrived there. From there, it even spread to other parts of the African continent.

Today, African wax print cloth has become the symbol of African fashion and it is used by both men and women daily.

Colonial Period

The 19th century also saw the West African nations being colonized by European powers. Colonization in particular had the most impact on clothing.

The locals were discouraged to wear their cultural clothing between the late 19th century and 20th century. Their clothes were replaced almost entirely by western-style clothes, which are now part of daily attire. Traditional clothes are used daily by the rural communities. Otherwise, people in urban areas now mostly reserve wearing them for cultural occasions such as weddings, funerals and coming of age ceremonies. However, people are slowly beginning to embrace their traditional clothes and trying to wear them more often outside cultural occasions.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the common pieces of clothing, understood some of the factors that influence West African clothing and explored how clothing evolved in West Africa over the years, let’s look at some distinct textiles and clothing from a few of the West African countries.

Mali 

In early times, people in Mali did not wear a lot of clothes because of the dry and hot climate. They would dress up only for ceremonies and important meetings in loincloths or tunics. With the spread of Islam between the 10th and 14th centuries, followers began wearing more clothes to obey the Islamic standards of modesty.

Boubou

There are several ethnic groups in Mali and each has its own traditional attire. However, there are common outfits donned by men and women in Mali.

A boubou is a three or four-piece outfit that consists of a long-sleeved shirt that reaches the knees, a loose-fitted pair of trousers that are tied at the waist with drawstrings and are tightened at the ankles; a cap and the outer ankle-length robe which is the highlight of the outfit. The robe has a V-shaped neckline decorated with embroidery, the sleeves are wide and open-stitched. The boubou is also worn in other West African countries such as Senegal, Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea and Mauritania. It is worn in some Central African countries as well. The boubou is traditionally worn by men but, now there are women’s boubous available as well.

Traditional boubou is made with distinctly Malian fabrics. One is the bazin and the other is called Bogolan.

Bazin is a highly colourful and lustrous fabric that is known for its shine. Good quality bazin clothes are reserved for very special occasions.

three women wearing boubou
Women wearing boubou made with bazin fabric. Image Credit: World Malian

Bogolan

The bogolan or mud cloth is perhaps the best-known fabric originating from Mali. Bogolan in the Bambara language translates to ‘comes from the earth’. Bogolan refers to both the textile itself and the dyeing technique. It is believed to have been created around the 12th century, in the lands where the West African country, Mali, is located today.

The mud cloth is a thick fabric made of cotton and dyed using a traditional technique. The cloth is dyed using earth tones and features tribal motifs with cultural significance. Historically, the bogolan was only reserved for hunters, warriors and healers to wear.

bogolan fabric with geometric patterns
Bogolan. Image Credit: Heleen van Duin via Flickr

The exact origins of this dyeing technique are unknown. Some say that the Dogon people invented the technique, while others believe in a local legend. According to this legend, a woman who was once sitting by the river had stained her loincloth with mud. Failing to remove the stain, she realized that the mud had permanently dyed the cloth. This supposedly led to the discovery of the dyeing method.

Making Bogolan

man painting on mud cloth
Painting on mud cloth. Image Credit: Laja

The process of making mud cloth is long and tedious. To make it, traditionally women spin white cotton which the men then weave into small squares and dye them. Thick handwoven cotton fabric has to first soak in a liquid made by brewing leaves and tree bark. The cloth is dried under the sun before patterns are painted using a fermented mud paste known as bogo. It takes around a year to ferment the bogo before it is ready for use. The fermentation ensures the permanence of the dye. Bogo creates earthen tones and dark hues. To achieve lighter colours, the dye is bleached using a special soap containing chlorine. Finally, the squares are sewed into a long piece of fabric.

Examples of Bogolan Motifs and their Meanings

Motifs on the fabric indicate if the wearer has gone through their coming of age rituals; their social and marital status and occupation. The patterns overall are geometric in nature and their colours contrast the background colour.

The image below shows some of the most common motifs found on Bogolan fabrics and explains what they symbolize:

patterns on mud cloth and their meanings
Image Credit: Zenzele Consignment

Bogolan fabric today has been popularized not only throughout Africa but the world thanks to the works of Malian fashion designer Chris Seydou.

Women’s Traditional Clothing

Women, on the other hand, wear skirts, blouses, long dresses, tunics and wrap skirts.  Their outfits are completed by wearing matching turbans on their heads. Women’s clothes are also made of bezin and bogolan or they’re made with pagne. Pagne is a cloth similar to the African wax print cloth.

Click here to read about pagnes in detail.

Ghana

Ghana has a rich history when it comes to clothing. For centuries, people in Ghana have been known to use looms to weave raffia fibres. It was also one of the first places to weave materials such as cotton, silk and wool as Ghana was an important trading empire, especially from medieval times till the colonial era.

In Ghana today, the kente cloth and the smock are considered to be the national costumes of the country. We will be discussing them in detail below.

Kente

Kente cloth originates from southern Ghana, more specifically from the Ashanti region. It refers to a long piece of cloth usually made of silk, cotton or both and is popular for its medley of loud and bright colours.

Kente was originally made around 400 years ago, by the Akan people who inhabited the lands in southern Ghana. Exactly how the art of making kente was discovered is unknown. However, there is a popular legend narrating its possible origins.

According to the legend, two men learned the art of weaving after observing the way a spider wove its web. They were amazed by the intricacies and patterns made by the spider. The spider, named Anansi, willingly showed the men how to weave in return for some favours.

Note: Anansi is a popular character in Ghanaian folklore. He is often portrayed as a trickster who always tries to outsmart others. His tales serve as moral stories for children.

anansi the weaving spider
Image Credit: Pinterest

Once the men learned the art, they returned to their village. Word of their skill spread and a piece of cloth was presented to the first ruler of the Asante Kingdom, Asantehene Osei Tutu. He named it kente, meaning basket because the checked pattern of weaving resembled a basket. At the time, kente was only reserved for the king and priests, which they’d only wear on special occasions. With developments in weaving and looms via trade, more kente cloth could be produced and, therefore, the general public was also eventually allowed to wear the cloth. Although it is accessible to all now, it is still a symbol of wealth, status and elegance.

Kente Patterns, Colours and Significance

Each pattern made on the kente has a name. Interestingly, these names are traditionally given by the men who weave the patterns. The weavers coin the name in their dreams or when they’re in deep thought. This is why kentes are often linked to the spiritual world. Alternatively, community elders or tribal chiefs coin a name derived from pop culture, in honour of a celebrity, an ongoing event and so on.

women wearing colourful kente cloths
Image Credit: mferndawwg92

Kentes are also known for their colours. However, the colours aren’t random. Each colour on a traditional kente is culturally significant. For instance, yellow represents sanctity, gold means wealth and royalty, red symbolizes blood and spirituality; blue is a symbol of the sky, love, peace, prosperity and unity; green represents nature and good health; purple represents healing and femininity, and white is the colour of purity, healing, the clay used for rituals and ceremonies. These are just some of the most popular colours to be found on a kente.

Wearing the Kente

men in colourful kente cloth
Men’s way of wearing kente. Image Credit: Pinterest

In Ghana, both men and women wear the kente. However, each has its own way of draping the cloth. Men usually only wear one piece of cloth. They swing one corner of the fabric over one of their shoulders then wrap the rest of the fabric around their body like a Roman toga. Some wear a shirt underneath, while others choose to keep their chests bare. Women have many ways to wear kente and they usually use two or even three pieces of kente at once. They may wear a blouse or shirt and wear the kente like a wrapping skirt, then wear another piece of kente like a shawl. Alternatively, they may wrap their body with the kente then use other pieces of kente as a shawl or cloak. The social status, age and marital status of a person determine the design and length of the kente one can wear.

Traditionally, the kente wasn’t supposed to be cut but today they’re tailored into dresses, shirts, trousers and more, just like African wax print cloth. Ghanaians today wear this piece of cultural heritage with immense pride.

Smock or Fugu

Smock, locally known as fugu or batakari, refers to a long shirt that men and boys traditionally wear in northern Ghana. Today, however, it is worn throughout the country, so much so that it has been adopted as a national dress due to its popularity and utility. It is interesting to note that the smock is also the national dress of Burkina Faso.

It was originally introduced by the Mossi people from Burkina Faso and the Hausa people from Nigeria. A population of both these ethnic groups settled in Ghana many centuries ago.

man wearing striped smock
Northern Ghanaian Fugu. Image Credit: Afrikea

The smock is a loose-fitted outer shirt with wide ¾ sleeves or half sleeves that reach the waist of the wearer. Its comfortable fit and ample space for airflow make it an ideal garment to wear in the hot Ghanaian climate. The smock may have an embroidered neckline and may occasionally even be decorated with beads. Fugu is worn over a simple shirt and a pair of trousers. The outfit is completed with a kufi cap, a circular, flat-top, brimless cap on the head. Fugu is still frequently worn in both rural and urban areas. In fact, it is a staple outfit for many local politicians. They just customize their fugu to match the colours of their political party. It is also worn at weddings and funerals.

Gonja Fabric

ghanian striped gonja fabric
Colourful gonja. Image Credit: Pinterest

Traditionally, fugu is made of a special fabric known as gonja. Gonja is a thick cotton fabric that was seemingly first made by the Gonja people from northern Ghana.

The Gonja people were always known to be exceptional weavers and over time they developed weaving methods to produce this fabric. To make Gonja first,  cotton balls are picked and processed by hand. Raw cotton is turned into thread using a spindle. Then, the threads are dyed using dyes extracted from natural sources. Colourful vertical strips of cotton cloth are then sewed together to form a bigger piece of fabric, resulting in a material that is durable and thick.

As for women, on more casual occasions, they wear long skirts with a blouse or long dresses made of African wax print cloth. They also wrap their heads with a matching cloth to complete the outfit.

A Brief Summary

elderly women wearing african wax print cloth
Women wearing tunics, wrapping skirts and headwraps made of African wax print fabric. Image Credit: The Conversation

In this post, we first briefly looked at the general evolution of clothing on the African continent. Then, we understood the factors that influence the nature of traditional clothing in Western Africa. We also discovered some common types of clothes and fabrics found in the region, such as the African wax print cloth, pagne and raffia cloth. In the process, we learned that trade and colonization had the most drastic effects on historical fashion and they’ve shaped the nature of cultural clothing in West Africa today. Next, we looked at some of the traditional clothing from Mali and Ghana and, learned that West African countries share many of these garments. The difference is in the philosophy behind them and, most obviously, in the colours, patterns and way of wearing them.

Link to last week’s post, in case you missed it: Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Central Africa

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