Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Western Africa

Welcome back to another workweek of the anthropology in fashion series, where we learn about the traditional dresses from one region in the world every workweek. This week we ’ ll memorize about traditional invest discrete 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 confederacy 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, dress in West Africa is besides inspired by its climate, geography, its socio-political history, respective ethnic groups and their cultures, colonialism, cultural exchange and trade with early places .
historically, the early inhabitants of Africa began wearing clothes around 180,000 years ago. They made manipulation 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 broadly warm climate on the continent, the motivation to dress up was more to communicate their long time, social and marital status than to protect themselves from the weather.

The process of making clothes with animal skin developed and over clock they became master leather makers. soon after, it was discovered that plant fibres could be used to make clothes and textiles. Raffia fabric made from weaving raffia palm fibres, for case, was used around Central and West Africa .
Click here to read about Raffia fabric in Central Africa. With fourth dimension, dyeing techniques were developed. natural dyes obtained from tree barks, leaves, flowers, rocks and cadaver were used to add colours and patterns to woven fabric .

Influence of Trade on Fashion

multicoloured beads with patterns
The different regions of Africa have a history of trade with each early since prehistoric times. trading routes connecting Africa, Europe and Asia, however, opened up during the fifteenth hundred and this had an huge 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 alone used to decorate clothes but besides used to make integral pieces of clothing, such as beaded headbands, aprons, cloaks, etc. Materials such as cotton, silk and wool were besides introduced and these along with raffia became the main materials to make clothes with .

African Wax Print Cloth

In the nineteenth century, trade wind besides introduced the continent, and West Africa in particular, to a type of clothe that is hush used daily. This is the african wax photographic print fabric. The fabric is known by many names, including Ankara fabric, kitenge, chitenge and wax hollondais .
african wax print fabric is a large piece of cotton fabric featuring bright colours and traditional african designs. The african wax print fabric uses a mechanize dye technique that is derived from the indonesian batik method .
The color and designs differ from acculturation to culture. The use of the fabric remains the lapp around the continent. It is primarily used as a envelop fabric, a headwrap and a child mailman. It may besides 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
The dutch learned about the batik dyeing proficiency in Indonesia, where they had been trading since the sixteenth century. They took some samples back to their fatherland 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 ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate compete with authentic indonesian batik. however, the imitations wouldn ’ t go to waste as the dutch merchants knew that there was a demand for print cotton fabrics in West Africa. They introduced cloth to their trade mail in contemporary Ghana in the mid-19th century and fabric thrived there. From there, it even spread to other parts of the African continent .
today, African wax print fabric has become the symbol of african fashion and it is used by both men and women daily .

Colonial Period

The nineteenth hundred besides saw the west african nations being colonized by european powers. colonization in particular had the most affect on dress .
The locals were discouraged to wear their cultural clothe between the late nineteenth hundred and twentieth century. Their clothes were replaced about entirely by western-style clothes, which are now separate of daily overdress. traditional clothes are used casual by the rural communities. otherwise, people in urban areas now largely 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 much 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 invest and explored how invest evolved in West Africa over the years, let ’ s look at some distinct textiles and invest from a few of the west african countries .


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


There are several heathen 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 shank with drawstrings and are tightened at the ankles ; a cap and the outer ankle-length clothe which is the highlight of the outfit. The clothe has a v-shaped neckline decorated with embellishment, the sleeves are wide and open-stitched. The boubou is besides worn in other west african countries such as Senegal, Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea and Mauritania. It is worn in some cardinal african countries arsenic 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 colorful and bright fabric that is known for its reflect. estimable timbre bazin clothes are reserved for very extra occasions .
three women wearing boubou


The bogolan or mire fabric is possibly the best-known framework originating from Mali. Bogolan in the Bambara language translates to ‘ comes from the earth ’. Bogolan refers to both the textile itself and the dye proficiency. It is believed to have been created around the twelfth hundred, in the lands where the west african country, Mali, is located nowadays .
The mud fabric is a thick fabric made of cotton and dyed using a traditional proficiency. The fabric is dyed using earth tones and features tribal motifs with cultural significance. Historically, the bogolan was entirely reserved for hunters, warriors and healers to wear .
bogolan fabric with geometric patterns
The exact origins of this dye technique are obscure. Some say that the Dogon people invented the proficiency, while others believe in a local anesthetic legend. According to this legend, a woman who was once sitting by the river had stained her breechcloth with mire. Failing to remove the mark, she realized that the mud had permanently dyed the fabric. This purportedly led to the discovery of the dyeing method .

Making Bogolan

man painting on mud cloth
The action of making mire fabric is retentive and long-winded. To make it, traditionally women spin white cotton which the men then weave into small squares and dye them. Thick hand-loomed cotton fabric has to first pawn in a liquid made by brewing leaves and tree bark. The fabric 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 fix for consumption. The agitation ensures the permanence of the dye. Bogo creates earthen tones and dark hues. To achieve lighter color, 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 come of old age rituals ; their social and marital condition and occupation. The patterns overall are geometric in nature and their colours contrast the background color .
The visualize under shows some of the most park motifs found on Bogolan fabrics and explains what they symbolize :
patterns on mud cloth and their meanings
Bogolan fabric nowadays has been popularized not only throughout Africa but the world thanks to the works of malian fashion couturier Chris Seydou .

Women’s Traditional Clothing

Women, on the early hand, wear skirts, blouses, long dresses, tunics and wind skirts. Their outfits are completed by wearing matching turbans on their heads. Women ’ mho clothes are besides made of bezin and bogolan or they ’ re made with pagne. Pagne is a fabric similar to the African wax print fabric .
Click here to read about pagnes in detail .


Ghana has a rich history when it comes to clothe. For centuries, people in Ghana have been known to use looms to weave raffia fibres. It was besides one of the beginning places to weave materials such as cotton, silk and wool as Ghana was an important trade empire, particularly from medieval times till the colonial era .
In Ghana today, the kente fabric and the duster are considered to be the national costumes of the country. We will be discussing them in contingent below.


Kente cloth originates from southerly Ghana, more specifically from the Ashanti region. It refers to a hanker piece of fabric normally made of silk, cotton or both and is popular for its medley of forte and bright colours .
Kente was primitively made around 400 years ago, by the Akan people who inhabited the lands in southern Ghana. precisely how the artwork of making kente was discovered is stranger. however, there is a popular legend narrating its potential origins .
According to the caption, two men learned the art of weave after observing the way a spider weave 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 come back for some favours .
Note: Anansi is a popular quality 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
once the men learned the artwork, they returned to their village. Word of their skill gap and a firearm of fabric was presented to the first rule of the Asante Kingdom, Asantehene Osei Tutu. He named it kente, meaning basket because the check design of weaving resembled a basket. At the time, kente was only reserved for the king and priests, which they ’ d only wear on especial occasions. With developments in weave and looms via trade, more kente cloth could be produced and, therefore, the general public was besides finally allowed to wear the fabric. Although it is accessible to all now, it is still a symbol of wealth, status and elegance .

Kente Patterns, Colours and Significance

Each form 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 think. This is why kentes are frequently linked to the spiritual worldly concern. alternatively, community elders or tribal chiefs coin a name derived from pop culture, in award of a celebrity, an ongoing consequence and so on .
women wearing colourful kente cloths
Kentes are besides known for their color. however, the colours aren ’ t random. Each color on a traditional kente is culturally significant. For exemplify, yellow represents holiness, gold means wealth and royalty, red symbolize blood and spirituality ; blue is a symbol of the sky, love, peace, prosperity and one ; k represents nature and well health ; purple represents bring around and femininity, and white is the color of purity, heal, the cadaver used for rituals and ceremonies. These are barely some of the most popular colours to be found on a kente .

Wearing the Kente

men in colourful kente cloth
In Ghana, both men and women wear the kente. however, each has its own way of draping the fabric. Men normally entirely wear one assemble of fabric. They swing one recess 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 plain. Women have many ways to wear kente and they normally use two or even three pieces of kente at once. They may wear a blouse or shirt and wear the kente like a envelop surround, then wear another assemble of kente like a shawl. alternatively, they may wrap their body with the kente then use other pieces of kente as a shawl or dissemble. The social condition, age and marital condition of a person determine the plan and duration of the kente one can wear .
traditionally, the kente wasn ’ thyroxine supposed to be cut but nowadays they ’ re tailored into dresses, shirts, trousers and more, good like african wax print fabric. Ghanaians today wear this piece of cultural heritage with huge pride .

Smock or Fugu

Smock, locally known as fugu or batakari, refers to a hanker shirt that men and boys traditionally wear in northern Ghana. today, however, it is worn throughout the country, thus much so that it has been adopted as a national dress due to its popularity and utility program. It is interesting to note that the smock is besides the home dress of Burkina Faso .
It was primitively introduced by the Mossi people from Burkina Faso and the Hausa people from Nigeria. A population of both these heathen groups settled in Ghana many centuries ago .
man wearing striped smock
The smock is a loose-fitted out shirt with wide ¾ sleeves or half sleeves that reach the shank of the wearer. Its comfortable burst and ample quad for airflow cook it an ideal dress to wear in the hot ghanaian climate. The smock may have an embroider neckline and may occasionally even be decorated with beads. Fugu is worn over a bare shirt and a pair of trousers. The outfit is completed with a kufi cap, a circular, flat-topped, brimless capital on the head. Fugu is silent frequently worn in both rural and urban areas. In fact, it is a staple kit for many local politicians. They merely customize their fugu to match the colours of their political party. It is besides worn at weddings and funerals .

Gonja Fabric

ghanian striped gonja fabric
traditionally, fugu is made of a especial framework known as gonja. Gonja is a blockheaded cotton fabric that was apparently first made by the Gonja people from northern Ghana .
The Gonja people were constantly known to be exceeding weavers and over time they developed weaving methods to produce this framework. 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 substantial 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 fabric. They besides wrap their heads with a matching fabric to complete the outfit .

A Brief Summary

elderly women wearing african wax print cloth
In this position, we first briefly looked at the general evolution of dress on the african continent. then, we understood the factors that influence the nature of traditional clothe in western Africa. We besides discovered some park types of clothes and fabrics found in the region, such as the African wax print fabric, pagne and raffia fabric. 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 invest in West Africa nowadays. adjacent, we looked at some of the traditional clothe from Mali and Ghana and, learned that west african countries share many of these garments. The remainder is in the philosophy behind them and, most obviously, in the color, patterns and way of wearing them .
liaison to last week ’ s post, in case you missed it : Anthropology in Fashion : cultural dress in Central Africa
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