African-style clothing for women reflects centuries of culture and the influence other societies have had on the various African tribes. Much of today’s African-style clothing is inspired by the traditional garments worn by Africans for thousands of years.
The traditional styles of clothing worn by African women were often representative of the wearer’s social, political and religious standing.
Senegalese women traditionally wore a boubou (French for kaftan or caftan), a loose-fitting full-length embroidered robe. Older Senegalese women wore long gowns called grand boubous over baggy trousers. Younger women often wore anangos–close-fitting tunics with plunging V necklines–and matching wrap skirts made from cotton prints.
In Nigeria, the wrapper was the most common style of traditional dress. It consists of an uncut length of fabric that is wrapped and pleated around the body.
In southwestern Nigeria, Yoruba women wore bubas, blouses that were either fitted with a curved bottom or baggy with a V-shaped bottom.
In East Africa, women wore kangas, colorful African-style shawls. The middle part of the shawl usually featured a second, different pattern.
Traditional African clothing has bright colors and vivid patterns. Typically, patterns and colors vary from one region to another. Durable and natural fibers are predominant, because they “breathe” and keep the body comfortable in warm weather. Silk is a popular fabric, as is Egyptian cotton.
Boubous and grand boubous are often made from tie-dyed damask and are embroidered with elaborate designs. Anangos and shorter boubous can also be made from strip cloth, which is made from multicolored strips of fabric that are sewn together. Each strip’s pattern is said to symbolize an aspect of African culture.
Tie-dying is an African technique invented by the Tuaregs, a Berber tribe from North Africa. Patterns created by this process symbolize aspects of fertility.
Aso oke is a traditional African fabric made from woven strips that are sewn together, similar to a quilt, before being cut into a pattern to make a garment. Adire fabric is created when a tie-dye process is used to imprint a pattern in the woven cloth. Kanga fabric is used by Swahili women to make colorful shawls, and kitenge fabric, also made in a wide array of colors and patterns, is worn wrapped around the bust or waist.
The wrapper gained popularity in the West following the black pride movement of the 1960s. It is enjoying a resurgence thanks to African immigration, and the formal wrapper is frequently worn at weddings, graduations and other special occasions.
The kaftan and dashiki also were adopted by African American women and men to demonstrate their solidarity with their African sisters and brothers during the civil rights movement in the U.S.
Head wraps are another African style that became popular with African American women during the ’60s, as a way to acknowledge their enslaved ancestors and their West African roots.
Kaftans and dashikis (long V-neck shirts with border patterns) were both traditional men’s styles that were adopted by women. The kaftan was supposedly the garment of choice for Cleopatra. The Egyptian queen is said to have possessed many silk kaftans embellished with prints, embroidery, small mirrors and amulets.
For a traditional West African-style wedding, the bride’s kaftan is the same color as the groom’s dashiki. White is the traditional color for West African weddings, but purple or lavender, the color of African royalty, and blue, the color of love, are also common if less traditional colors.