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There is a high Interest in African clothing but also a desire to understand the stories and culture behind the clothing. In this post we will understand the background of African clothing, traditional fabrics and how fabrics have been used in modern African clothing.

What is traditional African clothing?

Traditional African clothing is clothing worn during special occasions and ceremonies and are made of different types of fabrics with symbols and patterns. Africa is a large continent and with different countries and tribes. Therefore, traditional African clothing are worn by different cultures in Africa.

Today, African clothing is more than a fashion statement. It is worn to identify and show a sense of belongness to African roots.

“These clothing and items of dress also serve as sources of confidence and inner strength for daily activities for others. Others use them as points of nostalgia, to remind them of their times before migrating” - Paul Agoe

Background of African Clothing 

The first forms of clothing were animal skin, fur, feathers and bark cloth with the body adorned with marks for beautification and colour pigments. Males wrapped the bark cloth that passed between the legs over a belt while women wore wraps around their waist or breasts, often adorning the rest of their bodies with scarification and paint ochres.

These clothes were not needed for warmth or protection, as most areas of the African continent had a warm and hospitable climate and many tribes did not wear much of them.

Shipping routes and trading opened up during the 15th century, between Europe, Africa, and the East. Africans used uncommon items from trading. They coveted and decorated local cloths with them. Beads, buttons and shells were adopted on garments, either as an embellishment or used as the entire garment. For example in beaded aprons, capes, headbands and shoes.

 Traditional Fabrics

Generally, traditional African clothing of different cultures is worn in different styles with different types of cloth. Some known fabrics used for different styles are:

The intricately woven Kente fabric of Ghana


[Asantehene Osei Tutu II wearing kente cloth, 2005 (photo: Retlaw Snellac, CC BY 2.0)]

kente was reserved for Asante royalty and limited to special social and sacred events and functionsAs time passed, production of kente increased and become more accessible to those outside the royal court. Kente continues to be associated with high social status, wealth and cultural sophistication 

The quintessential brown and beige mud fabric of Mali



The tufted Kuba cloth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

 The ‘African fabric ’Ankara 

 The African wax fabric is a vibrant material with colourful patterns, originally manufactured by the Dutch for the Indonesian textile market and then later diverted to West Africa. The designs are a form of expression pronouncing everything from marital status to popular culture, political and religious beliefs.   

 The Adire Fabric 

The fabric is made from indigo dye, although the dye can vary in synthetic forms from blue, red, chestnut brown and brown, and the decoration is often replicated and organized into geometric patterns. The cloth was a mixture of fabric fashion from all over the world and from people from South Africa and appeared as clothing for working class people, rural women and male soldiers. With further contacts, the Europeans introduced other Western articles and Western clothing styles. 

 Traditional fabrics into modern African clothing

  In recent years African fabric has become very trendy and even made its way to luxury designer brands. Its application has gone beyond being just a wrap to being used as a base for hats, handbags, shoes and all manners of clothing, as well as décor items for the home. Dressing for African ceremonies has changed over the years, with the biggest impact on clothing trends since the 20th century. Over the years, African clothing has been modernized and adapted to the latest fashion trends without losing its unique style. 

1. Dresses 

African dresses are made with Ankara, or other types of materials. They are made in maxi African print dresses, midi dresses or Short African print dresses.







[Photo credit: Etsy-Pinterest]

2. African print outfit set

These are made with Ankara, African wax print, or a combination of other types of material. Designs are a trouser and top set, Jumpsuits and playsuits.


3. Kaftan/Dirac








 photo credit: [AfriFashion Slayerssilkkaftans.com/pinterest] 

 4. Madiba and African Shirts

Nelson Mandela made the Madiba shirt his signature dress and whilst this shirt also has its roots in Indonesian wax resist fabric, it has since been adopted as an African garment. African shirts are made of different types of fabrics and have become popular. They are worn for a smart or casual look.








5. Dashiki


Dashiki is made of loose fitting clothing made of light fabric. It is predominantly worn in West Africa and made its way into mass culture. Dashiki is a unisex clothing worn as an oversized shirt to a full-length dress .







Traditional African clothing are worn by different countries and cultures in Africa during ceremonies or important events. These clothing’s are made of different fabrics form different cultures. Today the clothing is worn to identify and show a sense of belongness to African roots.


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