African Clothing History and Present Day Facts


A person sitting on a bench in the sand

For a long time, African fashion has been misconstrued as ‘tribal’ or ‘exotic’ and simplified to leopard skins and mud cloths. Many times, it is a point of reference. However, the source is never regarded as much as the derivative. Here are some facts on African clothing fashion.

Early Dress

A person in a blue shirt

The majority of Africans did not dress for warmth, due to warm climates of the continent. Loin cloths or aprons were sufficient for men, while women wore wraps around their waist or breasts.  

The first forms of clothing were bark cloth, furs, skins and hides, and the rest of the body adorned with beautification marks and colour pigments. Males simply wrapped the bark cloth that passed between the legs over a belt. Similarly, women draped the cloth over the belt to hide the front of their bodies.

Effects of Colonisation

A man wearing a blue shirt

Colonisation enforced a massive change in daily wear in African cities. Even after independence, traditional garments were not encouraged in many corporate scenarios. Consequently, traditional robes were replaced or influenced by the western dress code, which became popular. However, they remained prevalent in rural areas. Today, people in urban areas are warming up to traditional garments outside of special occasions. An example would be men who opt for kaftans for work wear for dress down Fridays.  

Africa as a Reference Point 

Africa is constantly referenced in fashion, sometimes tastefully, other times rather poorly. Yves Saint Laurent’s Spring-Summer 1967 collection is an example of a tactful interaction with African fashion styles. He created a series of delicate gowns using materials including wooden beads, raffia, straw, and golden thread. The most distinct dress paid homage to Bambara sculptures produced by the Bambara people in Mali. Their statues depict women characterized by long bodies and pointy breasts.

Africa in the Spotlight 

In the 21st century, African fashion is in the global spotlight, from runways to its use by celebrities in music videos and film. It is almost impossible to ignore. When influential people like Beyoncé and Michelle Obama step out on red carpets wearing African clothing, they turn heads, and reinforce trends to follow.

African culture is popular around the world right now, Afrobeats and African dancers are on almost every screen. This inevitably causes the world to take note of what they are wearing. There are a large number of young Africans living around the world, who are increasingly trying to reconnect with their heritage. This includes learning about fashion from their homeland and adopting it to feel more in touch with their roots.

The Future of African Fashion

Social media has also played a huge role in familiarizing the world with African fashion. Certainly, seeing in real time how Africans dress and the variety of styles available makes people want to connect with African culture and style. 

These are some important and interesting tidbits on African clothing history, present and future.

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