Despite not always doing it correctly, the global fashion industry has made references to African clothing for many years. We talk about the history of African fashion, why it is so popular right now, and what African designers can do to benefit from the trend.
It should therefore come as no surprise that a vibrant fashion industry coexists with such a lengthy past.
African Fashion’s History
African clothing has long been mischaracterized as “tribal” or “exotic” and reduced to leopard skins and mud cloths. It serves as a reference point rather frequently. The source, however, is never valued as highly as the derivative.
The fashion in Africa is as rich and varied as the continent itself, which is a complex social and historical entity. There are numerous examples of histories where local traditions have interacted with and incorporated shape and fabric brought in from other places. Fashion has long been a universal language, serving as a platform for Africa’s diversity to communicate with the outside world.
Contrary to conventional assumption, several of the greatest empires in global history had their beginnings in Africa. Due to a dearth of historical records, it is challenging to determine how African dress evolved.
The Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria are the creators of the adire textile, a resist-dyed fabric. Adire, which translates to “tie and dye” in Yoruba, was first used on indigo-dyed fabric embellished with resist-patterns.
The images depicted on the fabric were produced and codified by the people and were based on their history, traditions, myths, proverbs, folklore, and close study of their surroundings. The distinctive weaving methods of the Adire fabric served to highlight its peculiar ethical/regional traditions. Within dyeing families, women pass down the Adire motif to daughters from generation to generation.
The Kampala technique, which uses a multicolored wax-resist cloth, finally signified the demise of the Adire’s popularity in the 20th century as local preferences started to favor it.
The Takur and Ghanaian Empires in the eighth century and the Mali and Songhai Empires in the thirteenth century both wore the Boubou, also known as the African kaftan. The kaftan is typically worn with a gele, or matching headwrap.
The kaftan can be worn with a sash and is available in wool, cashmere, silk, or cotton. The Boubou is a traditional example of Middle Eastern men’s modern clothes. As semi-nomadic people migrated, the dress expanded throughout the West African region.
Adinkra and Kente
A pre-colonial African state known as the Ashanti Empire first appeared in the 17th century. Two distinct forms of clothing made by the Ashanti are printed Adinkra and woven Kente. Colors, symbols, and the way clothing is worn are used to convey different political statements through the visual presentations printed on the fabrics.
Adinkra, which meaning good-bye, was historically worn during funeral rituals. On black or russet colored fabric, stamps were used to create mourning-themed motifs.
Previously produced from cassava tubers, the textile is now created from calabash rinds. Initially, the King or Asantehene held sole ownership of the Adinkra fabric.
The Kente is made up of long, thin strips of hand-woven fabric that are joined together to create a rectangle.
The famous East African outfit is a Tanzanian traditional outfit worn primarily by ladies. In the middle of the 19th century, the Kanga, a vividly colored wax-printed cloth, first appeared. The rectangular piece of fabric is made entirely of cotton and has a border around it that is printed with strong patterns and vivid colors. Kangas are typically worn in pairs, or “dotis.”
Ankara, also referred to as “Real Dutch Wax,” was created in Europe in the early 19th century as a copy of batiks from the far east. A printed fabric with patterns on both sides is called a batik. Originally marketed as “Java designs” to the Dutch East Indies, the Ankara cloth has a hybrid cultural heritage with historical antecedents in contemporary Indonesia.
African-inspired designs with vibrant textiles and tribal patterns and motifs were first produced by European companies including Vlisco, HKM, and ABC Wax. Now, locally made fabrics with wax-like appearances are available.
There has been a rise in interest in Africa’s cultural, economic, and technical advancement over the past ten years. Africans are assisting in the redefining of the luxury market. Africa impeccable craftsmanship and thirst for beauty naturally lend to compete the fashion industry.