Traditional ethnic clothings typically expresses the identity or culture of a specific ethnic group in a geographic area. They are often worn at special events or celebrations; particularly those connected with cultural traditions, heritage or pride.
In Africa the clothes we wear are more than just material sewn together to cover our naked bodies, our clothes are a signifier of our identity and culture. In Africa you can tell where a person is from by just looking at their attire. For example, in West Africa, some of the most popular traditional clothings include the agbada, kente and dashiki and they are worn by both the men and women in the region.
In Southern Africa, Ndebele men wear animal skin aprons and beaded breast-plates or iporiyana which hangs from the neck., while their women are known for their beaded aprons.
In Northern Africa, they tend to go for long, loose-fitting unisex outer robe with full sleeves like the jelabiya and Djellaba.
Here we explore ethnic attires from around Africa, finding out the people who wear them and the craft that goes into them.
Traditional African Clothings: 20 Ethnic Attires from Around Africa
Kente is a type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips and is native to the Akan tribe in Ghana.
Historically the traditional African fabric was worn in a toga-like fashion by royalty among ethnic groups such as the Ashanti and Ewe in modern day Ghana, but today the wearing of Kente cloth has become widespread to commemorate special occasions, like weddings, birthdays etc.
Due to the popularity of Kente cloth patterns, Kente print, which is a mass-produced version, is popular throughout the West. Globally, the print is used in the design of academic stoles in graduation ceremonies.
2. Habesha Kemis
Habesha kemis is the traditional attire of women in Ethiopia.
The ankle length dress is usually worn by Ethiopian and Eritrean women at formal events, holidays and invitations. It is made of cotton fabric, and typically comes in white, grey or beige shades. Many women also wrap a shawl called a netela around the formal dress.
A kanzu is a white or cream coloured robe (ankle or floor length garment) worn mostly by men in the African Great Lakes region. It is referred to as a tunic in English, and as the Thawb in Arab countries.
The kanzu serves as the national costume of Tanzania as well as the Comoros, where it is called ‘Kandu’. The robe is also worn in some coastal Muslim regions of Tanzania and Kenya. The men of Uganda consider it their most important dress. Kanzu is a Ganda word of Swahili origin, which means “robe” or “tunic”. In Tanzania, the term is used interchangeably with kaftan.
4. The Shuka
The Maasai identity is often defined by colourful beaded necklaces, a wooden stick and a red or blue shuka cloth to wrap around their bodies. The Shuka is a very durable cloth. It’s also strong and thick and protects the Maasai from the harsh weather of the savannah.
In East Africa, the kanzu is the traditional dress worn by Swahili-speaking men. Women wear the kanga and the gomesi.
The kanga, is a colourful fabric similar to kitenge, but lighter, worn by women and occasionally by men throughout the African Great Lakes region. It is a piece of printed cotton fabric, about 1.5 m by 1 m, often with a border along all four sides (called pindo in Swahili), and a central part (mji) which differs in design from the borders. They are sold in pairs, which can then be cut and hemmed to be used as a set.
Kitenge or chitenge is a fabric similar to sarong that’s very popular in East, West and Central Africa. It is often worn by women and wrapped around the chest or waist, over the head as a headscarf, or as a baby sling. Kitenges are colorful pieces of fabric that contain a variety of patterns and designs. In the Coastal area of Kenya, and in Tanzania, Kitenges often have Swahili sayings written on them.
Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, Liberia, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo are some of the African countries where kitenge is worn.
In Malawi, kitenge is known as Chitenje and in Namibia and some parts of Zambia it is known as chitenge. They are sometimes worn by men around the waist in hot weather. In some countries like Malawi, kitenges never used to be worn by men until recently when the president encouraged civil servants to buy Malawian products by wearing a kitenge on Fridays.
The fabric was mainly known for making gowns for women, but now it has transformed and is used to make bags, shoes, trousers, suits, caps, hair bands, bangles and even earrings.
7. Ndebele Fashion
The Ndebeles in South Africa are renowned for their intricate beadwork and brightly coloured homes painted in striking geometric designs.
The main element of Ndebele women’s wear is an apron. Girls wear small beaded aprons, while older girls wear isiphephetu, a beaded apron given to them by their mothers, and isigolwani which are thick beaded hoops worn around their necks, arms, legs and waist.
Married women wear longer aprons made of hardened skin that are lavishly decorated in geometric designs. They also wear isigolwani and copper rings called idzilla around the neck, ankles and arms. Girls and unmarried women traditionally do not cover their breasts, whereas married women cover their upper bodies with blankets in multi-coloured stripes or beaded designs.
Ndebele men wear animal skin aprons and beaded breast-plates or iporiyana which hangs from the neck. The iporiyana is a symbol of manhood and is given to a young man by his father after he has undergone initiation. Animal skin headbands and ankle bands are also worn along with a cape.
8. Zulu Fashion
Traditional Zulu dress for men consists of animal skins and feathers; the kind of skins indicates the status of the person wearing them.
The tufts of a cow’s tail (amashoba) are worn on the upper arms and below the knee to make the person appear broader than he is.
The apron worn by men to cover their buttocks is called ‘ibheshu’, it is made from calf-skin, so it is soft and easily processed.
Ichikolo (Beaded hat)
Zulu Hat is called Isicholo in the traditional Zulu language and is traditionally worn during weddings, birthdays, cultural and religious ceremonies by a married Zulu woman.
The Ichikolo is made out of woven grass, covered with polyester cloth and patterned with cotton and wool threads.
9. Ghanaian Smock
A Ghanaian smock is a plaid shirt that is similar to the dashiki, worn by men in Ghana. There are also female versions of it.
Traditionally, the smock also called Batakari is considered a mark of power and tradition as some political leaders have been seen wearing the attire to make public statements. Kwame Nkrumah declared the independence of Ghana on March 6, 1957 wearing the Batakari.
The smock and Kente cloth are the national dress of Ghana.
The kaftan features long sleeves and falls down to the ankles. Usually made of cotton brocade, lace, or synthetic fabrics, these robes are found in a number of different cultures and regions especially in North and Western Africa.
In West Africa, the kaftan is worn by both men and women. The women’s robe is called a kaftan, and the men’s garment is referred to as a Senegalese kaftan.
A Senegalese kaftan is a pullover men’s robe with long bell-like sleeves. In the Wolof language, this robe is called a mbubb and is worn with matching drawstring pants called tubay.
In North Africa especially in Morocco, kaftans are mostly worn by women and the word kaftan in Morocco is commonly used to mean “one-piece dress”. Alternative two-piece versions of Moroccan kaftans are called Takchita and worn with a large belt.
The Isiagu, which literally translates to lion head ergo the lion head pattern on the fabric, is a traditional outfit worn by the people of eastern Nigeria. It is usually worn on special events, such as traditional weddings and chieftaincy titles, among others.
The shirt may be long or short sleeved. Some shirts have gold buttons that are linked by a chain. Traditionally, the Isiagu was given to a man when he received a chieftaincy title. The shirt is usually worn with a red cap or the Igbo leopard cap.
Agbada is one of the names for a flowing wide-sleeved robe worn by men in much of West Africa, and to a lesser extent in North Africa. The Agbada is usually decorated with intricate embroidery, and is worn on special religious or ceremonial occasions, such as festivals, religious functions, weddings, funerals or for attending the Mosque for Friday prayer. It has become the formal attire of many countries in West Africa.
The kanga is a single piece of cloth, measuring around one metre by one and a half metres. Usually it has a border on every side and a design of some sort in the middle. As a wrap garment, it is a traditional form of dress among men and women in the African Great Lakes region.
14. Aso Oke
“Aso Oke” is a traditional women’s fashion among the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Benin. Typically there are four components to a traditional Aso Oke outfit: a blouse known as a “buba,” a wrapped skirt referred to as an “iro,” a head tie called a “gele,” and a shoulder sash called an “iborun” or “ipele.”
The dashiki is a colorful garment worn mostly in West Africa. It is a simple tunic with a V-shaped collar. The Dashiki which covers the top half of the body is worn mostly with Jean trousers. The Dashiki may be formal or informal, and is generally embroidered with elaborate designs and dyed in bold colors.
A gomesi or busuuti is a colorful floor-length dress with a square neckline and short, puffed sleeves with two buttons on the left side of the neckline. The dress is tied with a sash placed below the waist over the hips. Most gomesi are made of silk, cotton, or linen fabric, with silk being the most expensive. It is common among women in Buganda and Busoga in Uganda. The gown is worn to weddings and other special occasions by urban women in Busoga and Buganda. But in the Rural areas women may wear it everyday.
The Jelabiya is a loose-fitting, traditional Egyptian garment from the Nile Valley. It is also traditionally worn in Sudan, Northern Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The jellabiya differs from the Arabic thawb, as it has a wider cut, no collar and in some cases, no buttons. The sleeves are also longer and wider than that of the Thawb.
The Jelabiya may be worn by men or women, and may be formal or informal. White Jelabiyas are popular during the summer months because they keep out the heat, while the darker ones are fashionable during the winter,
This North Africa clothing is a long, loose-fitting unisex outer robe with full sleeves that is worn in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Traditionally, djellabas are made of wool in different shapes and colours, and they are worn by both men and women. Among the Berbers, the colour of a djellaba traditionally indicates the marital status of the bearer.
Djellabas of both styles (male or female) comes with a large hood referred to as a “qob.” The hood provides protection against bright sun, cold winds, precipitation, and blown sand.
Adire is common among the people of Egbaland in Ogun State but also throughout Yorubaland. It is a material designed with wax-resist methods that ends up producing patterned designs in a dazzling array of tints and hues.
Adire are made by resist-dyeing which involves creating a pattern by treating certain parts of the fabric in some way to prevent them absorbing dye. Cloths were made up of two strips of factory produced cotton shirting sewn together to form a shape that was roughly square.
Ankara also known as African wax prints, are ubiquitous in Africa, especially West Africa. These cloth materials are industrially produced colorful cotton cloths with batik-inspired printing. One feature of these materials is the lack of difference in the color intensity of the front and back sides. The wax fabric can be sorted into categories of quality due to the processes of manufacturing.
Ankara print fabrics can be worn for regular occasions, but many people typically consider it a formal fabric and it wear it for special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, etc.