A dashiki is a loose-fitting, pullover shirt usually sewn from colorful, African-inspired cotton prints or from solid color fabrics, often with patch pockets and embroidery at the neckline and cuffs. The dashiki appeared on the American fashion scene during the 1960s when embraced by the black pride and white counterculture movements. "Dashiki" is a loanword from the West African Yoruba term danshiki, which refers to a short, sleeveless tunic worn by men. The Yoruba borrowed the word from the Hausa dan ciki (literally "underneath"), which refers to a short tunic worn by males under larger robes. The Yoruba danshiki, a work garment, was originally sewn from hand-woven strip cloth. It has deep-cut armholes with pockets below and four gussets set to create a flare at the hem. Similar tunics found in Dogon burial caves in Mali date to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (Bolland). In many parts of West Africa today such tunics of hand-or machine-woven textiles (with or without sleeves and gussets) are worn with matching trousers as street clothes. In the 1960s, the dashiki appeared in the American ethnic fashion inventory, along with other Afrocentric clothing styles, possibly from the example of African students and African diplomats at the United Nations in New York (Neves 1966). A unisex garment, the American dashiki varies from a sleeveless tunic to the more common pullover shirt or caftan with short or dangling bat sleeves. Both sexes wear the shirt, and women wear short or full-length dashiki dresses.
Dashiki as American Fashion
In the United States the term "dashiki" entered American English circa 1968 (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 2000). Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the popularity of Afrocentric clothing grew along with pride in racial and cultural heritage among Americans of African descent. First worn as an indicator of black unity and pride, the dashiki peaked in popularity when white counterculture hippies, who "set the tone for much of the fashion of the late sixties" (Connikie, p. 22), included the colorful shirts and dresses in their wardrobes. The aesthetics of mainstream male fashion shifted toward the ethnic, men began to "emulate the peacock," and the dashiki became trendy by the end of the 1960s. Worn by increasing numbers of young white Americans attracted to the bright colors and ornate embroidery, the dashiki lost much of its black political identity and epitomized the larger scene of changing American society. By the late 1960s, American retailers imported cheap dashikis manufactured in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand. Most of these loose-fitting shirts and caftans were sewn from cotton "kanga" prints, a bordered rectangle printed with symmetrical bold colorful designs, often with central motifs. Kanga prints were introduced in the nineteenth century by Indian and Portuguese traders to East Africa, where in the early twenty-first century women still wore them as wrappers (Hilger, p. 44). Contemporary kanga, manufactured in Kenya and Tanzania, was discovered by African American fashion designers in the 1960s (Neves 1966) and was ideal for the simply tailored dashikis. One kanga-patterned dashiki with chevron, geometric, and floral motifs became a "classic" and was still manufactured in the twenty-first century.
Dashiki as Symbol
Throughout its history in American fashion, the dashiki has functioned as a significant, but sometimes ambiguous, identity marker. In its earliest manifestation, with the Afro hairstyle, headgear, and African beads, it was associated with black power, the "Black Is Beautiful" movement, and the development of Afrocentrism. The historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. recalls, "I remember very painfully those days in the late sixties when if your Afro wasn't 2 feet high and your dashiki wasn't tri-colored, etc., etc., then you weren't colored enough" (Rowell, p. 445). Initially, the garment had strong political over-tones when "dashiki-clad cultural nationalists … typified the antithesis of the suit-and-tie integrationists" (Cobb, p. 125). Political activists such as Huey P. Newton and Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panthers Party sometimes combined the dashiki with the black leather jacket, combat boots, and beret that identified the militant group (Boston, pp. 204–209). However, the dashiki never gained a clear militant identity in the African American community. Leaders of the more moderate wings of the Black Civil Rights movement, such as Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young, sometimes wore dashikis to project a distinctive Afrocentric look as they promoted the more peaceful goals of Martin Luther King Jr. (Boston, p. 67). As the dashiki grew popular with African Americans as a symbol of cultural pride, it gained metaphorical significance in black activist rhetoric. The educator Sterling Tucker stated, "Donning a dashiki and growing a bush is fine if it energizes the wearer for real action; but 'Black is beautiful' is dangerous if it amounts only to wrapping oneself up in one's own glory and magnificence" (Tucker, p. 303). The Black Panther Fred Hampton wore dashikis but declared, "we know that political power doesn't flow from the sleeve of a dashiki. We know that political power flows from the barrel of a gun" (Lee).
Dashiki in the Twenty-first Century
In the early days of the twenty-first century, the dashiki has retained meaning for the African American community and a historical marker of the 1960s counterculture. While seldom seen as street wear, the dashiki is worn at festive occasions such as Kwanzaa, the annual celebration to mark the unity of Americans of African descent and express pride in African heritage (Goss and Goss). A 2003 Internet search called up over 5,000 entries for "dashiki," largely from marketers who offer a range of vintage or contemporary African clothing. Vintage clothing retailers market dashikis as "a must for all hippie freaks" and for "wanna-be hippies." Costume companies offer "the dashiki boy" with a classic dashiki shirt, Afro wig, dark glasses, and a peace pendant necklace. Purveyors of African clothing have expanded the meaning of dashiki
beyond the distinctive shirt to include a variety of African robe ensembles and caftan styles. The dashiki's popularity as a street style has faded, but it continues as an integral part of the African American fashion scene for festive occasions and as a form of dress evocative of the lifestyle of 1960s America.
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Cobb, William, Jr. "Out of Africa: The Dilemmas of Afrocentricity." The Journal of Negro History 82, no. 1 (1997): 122–132.
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Norma H. Wolff