It is commonly said, that ‘Mother Africa holds in its hands, the cradle of humanity’.
Well, since the cradle of humanity is being held by ‘Mother Africa’, it is very normal that she holds some of the world’s best fashion styles as well, don’t you think?
In Africa, fashion has always been a global language; one through which the diversity and richness of the continent speaks to the world. This is very reflective on how African men dress especially when they are in Europe, America or anywhere not Africa. These men take so much pride in donning their Agbada. Ask them why, and they would tell you, “You must let the world know who you are”.
Contrary to popular belief, some of the world’s greatest empires started in Africa. And it is not surprising, that a colorful world of fashion coincides with such rich history. Every African textile and clothing takes us on a journey through the fascinating history of the African Motherland and its ancestors.
We’d be looking at some of the most iconic and contemporary African fashion styles and their origin in this article.
Let’s head back to how and where it all started for African fashion!
THE GRAND BOUBOU
Also referred to as the ‘African Kaftan’, or Agbada by Nigerians, the Grand Boubou first found its way into the continent through the people of Takur and the Ghanaian Empires of the 8th century.
At weddings, political events and special occasions in West Africa and even global conferences and world summits, this famous piece of clothing always makes an appearance till this day.
The Grand Boubou or Kaftan, is made using either silk, cotton, wool, or cashmere, and can be worn with a sash. A matching head wrap called a Gele, complements the Grand Boubou to perfection.
A young man rocking his Agbada (Grand Boubou) and Gele
This piece of clothing is also associated with wealth in some parts in Africa. According to some, if you can afford more than one Agbada, then you have money.
Three pieces make up the Grand Boubou. They are;
- A long-sleeved shirt
- A pair of tie-up trousers that rest narrow on the ankle, and
- An open-stitched overflowing wide sleeveless gown that is worn over the shirt and trousers.
This African attire has a very interesting story behind it, and a more interesting meaning. The phrase Bogo means ‘earth or mud’, Lan means ‘with’, while fini means ‘cloth’.
So yep! This confusing African word ‘Bogolanfini’ simply means ‘Earth with cloth’. (Well, not quite simply).
Who thought of this?
The Story Behind this attire
According to historians, this attire found its way into African folklore in the 800 C.E; a period when the Ghanaian empire started to flourish due to the development of extensive trade routes in Northern Africa and the discovery of gold throughout the region.
Then came the Malian empire in the 1200 C.E; Mali was the largest empire in West Africa and profoundly influenced the region’s culture through the spread of its language, laws, and customs.
It was these Malians that wore hand printed cloths called the ‘Bogolanfini’ or mud cloth if you like.
What makes this piece of clothing unique is that it has arrangements of symbols that reveal something secret about its intended meaning. And till this day in some parts of Afrcia, the language of this clothing is being passed down from mother to daughter along with specific motifs.
The Bogolanfini being rocked modern style.
Back in the day, men were responsible for weaving the narrow strips of plain fabric that were pieced together into a larger rectangular cloth. Thank goodness technology and machines have relived men from this task in the present age.
Probably the most famous of them all, the Ankara is still called ‘the controversial textile’ or real Dutch wax’ by tailors and fashion designers across Africa.
Africans have the Europeans to thank for this ‘controversial’ textile, as it is said to originate from the European replication of batiks from the Far East during the early 19th century.
In case you didn’t know, Batiks are a printed fabric with designs on both sides of the cloth.
The controversial textile
Initially, marketed to the Dutch-East Indies as “Java prints,” the Ankara fabric has a crossbred cultural background that finds its historical roots in present-day Indonesia. It has been theorized that West African men conscripted to the Dutch army bought batik fabrics home. The European Companies such as Vlisco, HKM, and ABC Wax began to tailor designs according to African tastes and demands that included colorful cloths and tribal patterns/ motifs. Currently, imitation wax fabrics are made locally and also imported from Asia, both ubiquitously exemplify African fashion.
However, a question of Ankara fabrics African authenticity is a subject of much debate. What do you think?