The human evolution is a chronicle that spanned millions of years on earth and the story is still unfolding with each rising and setting of the sun. Man and his environment have an adaptive relationship from the very moment he was born naked into this earth and the biological impulse to protect himself is a natural phenomenon. The early education of African fashion and its colors of print can be traced down to the very beginning when man uses leaves and animal skin to cover his modesty. knowing this might help us in understanding the dynamics of our culture, the tradition behind the obsessiveness of apparel and why fashion and clothing continue to appreciate even in the gravest of an economic mishap today.
To understand African cultures you must first and foremost understand the people and their ethnicities, to understand the African prints you must first read the colors in the rainbow, to understand the languages of Africans you must learn the contents of its proverbs and finally, to understand African fashion you must be Africally inclined.
Even though a general consensus might deliberate and argue about the African fashion and its evolution one cannot rule out the history of mankind and his beginning when he was still a wild being in the jungle with leaves and skin for clothing. This is the only place we can start from, the evolution of man before modern civilization.
A curious mind would ask “Where did the African print come from? How did it all start?” These are not unusual questions and yes, these are questions you all might want to sit back and consider quietly. Is the African fabric really African originated or it came from somewhere? Now for the sake of posterity, to pay respect to the forefathers who started it, let discuss a little bit of the origin of African fashion.
African clothing is difficult to trace because of the lack of historical evidence and most of the verbal document that was passed from one generation has been lost with the passing of time. However, the colors and the perception has remained till this day, the evidence is in the culture, the tradition and blood that flows in every African descendant, subconsciously aware of its origin.
By 800 C.E. the Ghanaian empire began to flourish due to the development of extensive trade routes in Northern Africa and the discovery of gold throughout the region. Many smaller groups developed into communities in Southern Africa as a result. The Malian empire became large and powerful after the fall of the Ghanaian people in 11 C.E. by 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.
Mali wore hand printed clothes called Bogolanfini (Bogo= “earth” or “mud” Lan= “with” Fini= “cloth”) or mud cloth. Each cloth had an arrangement of symbols revealing something secret about its intended meaning. The language of the cloth was passed down from mother to daughter along with specific motifs. Men were responsible for weaving the narrow strips of plain fabric that were pieced together into a larger rectangular cloth.
Meanwhile in the southern part of African, in Uganda, tree barks were used for clothing, Bark cloth was being crafted by the Baganda people of Uganda during the 15th century. Barkcloth was one of the first fabrics made by mankind; using an ancient technique that predates the invention of weaving. Serving as a versatile fabric, the cloth was used to produce loincloths, skirts, draperies, wall hangings, and even bedding. This material is harvested from the locally grown Mutaba tree without bringing any sort of damage to the tree. The long history of the production of bark cloth among Uganda’s indigenous population provides a great pre-historic example of how to utilize our
Meanwhile, in Southern Uganda, Bark cloth was being crafted by the Baganda people of Uganda during the 15th century. Barkcloth was one of the first fabrics made by mankind; using an ancient technique that predates the invention of weaving. Serving as a versatile fabric, the cloth was used to produce loincloths, skirts, draperies, wall hangings, and even bedding.
Bark cloth is harvested from the locally grown Mutaba tree without bringing harm to the tree. The long history of the production of bark cloth among Uganda’s indigenous population provides a great pre-historic example of how to utilize our environment’s renewable resources. Nevertheless, the art of bark cloth making is slowly disappearing to modern convinces. In 2005, UNESCO declared bark cloth making to be a masterpiece of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
In many African societies, men and women are responsible for different stages of cloth production. The gender responsibility and division of labor, however, varies widely by region, and in many places has changed over time.
For example, in Mali, women used to dye bogolanfini mud-cloth, but today young unemployed men in urban areas have taken up this craft. They typically produce lower-quality cloth, which is sold to tourists who visit these regions or exported. Indigo dyeing is women’s work among the Yoruba and the Soninke of West Africa, but among the Hausa, fabric dying is traditionally a men’s craft.
Commercial textile and clothing production has a long history in some parts of Africa. In Tunisia, weavers and dyers as early as the tenth century C.E. organized guilds in order to protect their business. By the fifteenth century, the dyeing pits of Kano in northern Nigeria were renowned as far north as the Mediterranean coast. They are still in operation today. In Kano as in many other precolonial centers of commercial textile production, the city’s political elite was among the weavers’ and dyers’ most important clientele. Royal patronage fostered the development of special luxury cloths. The court of King Njoya of Baumun in present-day Cameroon, for example, produced especially fine examples of raffia-stitched tie and dye. The Asante court in Kumasi (in present-day) Ghana) supervised the production of silk kente cloth.
In West Africa, men in many societies weave cotton cloth in long narrow strips, which are then stitched into large pieces. Among the Asante, the men wrap the long piece of cloth around the waist and then loop it over the shoulder, toga-style. Baggy pants that are tight around the lower leg are popular, as are elaborately embroidered, full-length robes. Women across West Africa commonly tie a long wrap around the waist, accompanied by a wide sash, a matching blouse, and a head wrap.
The Yoruba of Nigeria prepares indigo-dyed cotton called adire eleso. The artists sew finely detailed patterns onto the cloth using raffia or cotton thread, then take the cloth to a dyer, known as an aloro, who, it is said, works under the protection of the Yoruba spirit Iya Mapo. Similar techniques are also used farther west, among the Wolof, the Soninke, and the Mandinka, and as far south as the Kasai region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Yoruba women cloth makers, known as aladire, use resist dye methods to make adire eleso. They use cassava paste to paint or stencil repeated abstractions of animals and plants onto the cloth. After dyeing the cloth indigo blue, they beat it with a wooden stick until it attains a bright glossy sheen. Bambara women in Mali also use the resist technique to produce a speckled blue fabric, while Soninke women coat cloth in paste and then run a comb through it, to create a wavelike design after dyeing.
Ankara also known as “Real Dutch Wax” originates from the European replication of batiks from the far east during the early 19th century. Batiks are a printed fabric with designs on both sides of the cloth. 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 clothes 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.
But a lot has changed since the turned of many centuries, African fashion has evolved into a more sophisticated and brightened. The new generation now plays with colors that defined their mood and sense of belonging in this new world.
Even with the massive influence of western culture, the new generation has been able to adopt the African print and marry both cultures (Western and African) together to give birth to something of a biracial fuse. These are what we see in today’s African fashion across the continent. See some exciting example below;
Though, the question still remains that, what’s the future of African fashion? Will the industry drop the ever-present of the western influence in its fashion content? Or will African discover a new idea that is originally Africa?