Different tribes in Africa pride themselves in their traditional attires, which are mostly worn in ceremonies and other special occasions. African attires often reflect the society and status of the individual or groups within that community.
In ancient times, Africans, in most parts of the continent, rarely needed clothing for warmth or protection because of the warm and hospitable climate. Instead, they would wear light clothing that was more suited to their environments. Men wore loin cloth or aprons, while women wore wraps around their waists and breasts, with scarification and paint ochres used to beautify the rest of their bodies. These early forms of clothing were mostly made from bark cloth, fur, skin and hide.
Women wrapped the bark cloth over the belt to cover the front of their body, while men tied it around a belt and passed it between their legs. They used raffia for grass skirts and stitched together various pieces of bark cloth.
Men of the Stone Age got bark cloth by removing bark from trees and pounding it using a rock and pounding it until it was thin and malleable. To get larger pieces, they would weave little sections together with skins or raffia. Sometimes, the bark cloth was decorated with patterns. The adornment of clothes came with fashion jewelry and headgear made from seashells, bones, ostrich egg-shell pieces, and feathers.
African fashion has certainly evolved over the years. Nonetheless, many elements of traditional African fashion influence contemporary clothing styles on the continent.
Africans later developed different weaving techniques using fibres such as cotton, raffia, silk and wool. Woven and decorated textiles used for African clothes became a reflection of status, socio-economic standing, culture, environment and climate. The origin of printed fabric and its popularity dates back to the mid-1800s when a Dutch company, now named Vlisco, traded in West Africa’s coastal towns. Since then, the fabric, having different local names from country to country, has been a mainstay of African fashion.
The generic ‘Wax Hollandais” reference originated then. The name, however, has now extended to any similarly painted fabric, irrespective of the print technique or the manufacturer. Over the last decade the popularity of the fabric has grown outside the continent, including among the African diaspora and African American communities in the United States of America.
Beyond the fashion, however, the unique position of naming the patterns as they come on the market, make them one of the best chronicles of historical and contemporary events, reflecting social trends or celebrating social rites of passage. The most iconic of the fabrics, which is recognizable through-out the world, is Angelina, a V-shaped ornate main pattern, with a dotted band on the edge, which was reportedly inspired by Ethiopian clothing. The name came from a popular song by Ghanian high-life band, that was released around the time the fabrics were offered for sale.
Angelina comes in several color combinations and is almost always worn in Dashiki style. The dashiki is a pull-over outfit, either as a shirt or a dress, with the V-shaped pattern forming the collar at the front, while the same pattern is centrally displayed at the back. Another design, which shows clusters of trees grouped together in a brain-like shape, is called Kofi Annan’s Brains. The name came about because the pattern design got into the market around the time Mr. Annan was ending his second term as a United Nations Secretary-General. The brain-like shape was seen as a symbol of his brilliant mind.
Following former US president Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008, consumers found ways to honor him and the first lady Michelle Obama. Two of the fabric patterns that were released into the market at the time were called Barack Obama’s Heartand Michelle Obama’s Handbags.
The same patterns can have alternative names in different countries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for instance, Angelina is called “Ya Mado,” because dancers in a video of the song were wearing the fabric pattern. Another pattern commonly referred to as Cha Cha Cha, evokes the 1960 legendary Congolese rumba song titled “Independence cha cha.” In Ghana the same pattern is called Senchi Bridge, named after a suspension bridge on the Volta River that swings widely when traveled on. In neighboring Togo, however, cha cha cha is referred to as “The Back of the Chameleon”.
Whether in DRC, Ghana or Togo, these names chronicle life events, reflecting milestones such as independence, or the end of war, or changes in fortune, or personal circumstances. For a long time, women were the fabric’s largest consumers, as they would use them to make simply designed attires – usually a two-piece skirt and a top or a three-piece top, bottom and waistcoat. Men would mostly make simple shirts out of the fabric or an ensemble of a top and trousers, that are often only worn on special occasions, but at present things have changed significantly.
According to Tanya Kagnaguine, a Johannesburg-based fashion designer, “It is no longer just about a two or three-piece, it is about offering new contemporary designs, capable of rivaling ready-made attires that are imported from Europe. These new designs, which are now called Afro-Chic, are a blend of traditional African designs as well as modern and creative fashion wear. Mainstream American artists such as Beyonce Knowles, Rihanna, Madonna, politicians, and world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Ghana’s president Nana Akuffo-Addo, US former First and Second Ladies, are just some of the many influential people who have embraced the fabric as well as its Afro-chic designs.”
However, a few African tribes in remote areas, which have been free of Western influence, have stuck to the original African clothing styles.