The Art of Attire

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The Art of Attire


Cloth Weaving. Archaeological and historical evidence suggests that the domestic cultivation of cotton and cloth weaving evolved around the third or second millennium B.C.E. in the middle Nile region. By the beginning of the Common Era both cotton and ceramic technologies had also developed in the Western Sudanic and Atlantic areas of West Africa. These technologies were passed on through guild systems. Young apprentices learned not only

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the skills necessary to practice the craft but also the taboos associated with protecting them. As weaving became an art, various ethnic cultures developed distinctive styles. Historical and archaeological records suggest that cloth weaving began with the use of raffia, specially treated fibers made from the bark of a tree called the raffia palm. Raffia cloth was followed by woven strips of cotton and other fibers. Archaeological evidence dates the use of these textiles in West Africa at least back to the eleventh century, when woven cloths were used in funerary rites in the area around the Bandiagara cliffs in present-day Mali. From Senegambia to the Niger long strips of cloth in diverse widths and patterns are still made. During the early years of African-European trade in the fifteenth century, these woven fabrics were so admired that Portuguese traders used them as currency along the western Atlantic coast of Africa.

Looms. With many variations, most West African woven cloth is still made by one of two dominant weaving technologies: either an upright single-heddle loom or a narrow-strip, double-heddle loom. (A heddle is a set of parallel strings that guides the warp, or lengthwise, threads on a loom.) The strips woven on these looms vary in width, length, and pattern. The strips are cut and sewn together edge to edge to make six-yard garments that are wrapped or sewn in a variety of styles according to cultural preferences. Although the basic interior design of the looms is similar, the outer construction varies from ground looms to upright looms and elaborate treadle looms. A few fragments of a single-heddle loom were found in the Igbo-Ukwu area among brass works that were carbon dated to the ninth century.

Cloth for the Elite. Akan and Ewe kente cloth, Yoruba aso oke, and Bambara bogolanfini, or mud cloth, are well known and popular West African textiles. The exquisite artistry of such traditional woven cloth was associated with ruling elites and the wealthy. According to Adu Boahen, the “enlightened and capable” Nana Obunumankoma, who ruled the flourishing Akan state of Bono for more than sixty years during the fifteenth century, imported weavers and embroiderers from the north, most likely from among the Fula. The weavers were commissioned to fashion attire for his court that reflected the growing wealth of the state, its rulers, and elders. Images representing Akan philosophical and spiritual beliefs, as well as state symbols, were embroidered onto the cloth. This tradition exists today in adinkra cloth. The court-sponsored Fula weavers influenced the local textile industry of Bono. According to Doran H. Ross, who cites the research of linguists and historiographers, Fula weaving and textiles had been spreading throughout West Africa since the eleventh century.

Attire as Literature. Art historian Robert Farris Thompson has suggested that designs created by some West African textile artists can be “read as ideographs related to a system of writing.” In her unpublished photography exhibition “A Language of Their Own: Yoruba Women’s Attire,” Andrea Benton Rushing illustrated how clothing in Yoruba culture tells the story of a woman’s social, marital, and economic status through the patterns and colors of the fabric and the style of the garment into which it is fashioned. Since the wearing of a certain cloth and style occurs within an extended family or cultural context, it also carries messages of familial or cultural connections. Nor is the language of attire unique to the Yoruba. In fact, dress in most West African societies communicates much about the wearer and her or his entourage. Indeed, the Dogon word for “woven material” is the same as that for “spoken word.” Each ethnic group in West Africa created symbols to represent their cultural philosophies, epistemologies, and environmental realities. Specific colors also had different meanings for various ethnic groups. This combination of image and color often had historical as well as cultural significance, frequently locating a people in a time and place. In other words, those versed in a particular culture could “read” the cloth.

Kente Cloth. Although it is impossible to document the origins of Akan and Ewe kente weaving, it dates at least to the fourteenth century. Kente-cloth patterns are created using either weft (crosswise) or warp (lengthwise) weaving techniques, and Ross has estimated that there are more than five hundred designs in each technique. Bonwire, a town north of Kumasi in the modern nation of Ghana, was known for kente weaving and remains so today.

Bogolanfini. Because of drastic shifts in temperature in the environs of the Sahara Desert, heavier garments, including blankets, were needed there, and clothing was made from animal wool and skins, as well as from various treated woven cottons, including bogolanfini, made by the Bambara of Mali. The production of this cloth has always involved both men and women. In some societies the men wove the strips of cloth, and the women dyed it. In others both women and men wove the cloth. Made during the dry season, mud cloth is still handwoven and hand dyed. For centuries women have learned dyeing techniques from their mothers and passed them on to their daughters. They first soak the fabric in a solution made from a combination of various leaves, creating rich shades of mustard yellow, and then they apply black mud in various designs. The tannic acid in the leaf solution combines with the iron oxide in the mud to create a colorfast dye called iron tannate. For designs that include white, they apply caustic soda to some areas. Frequently, the designs and colors on the cloth indicate either a rite of passage or some significant event in the wearer’s life—including women’s experiences such as marriage, births of children, and competition among co-wives. The designs include fish bones, little stars, squares, and a series of concentric circles.

Aso Oke. Aso oke is a heavy woven cloth. Its date of origin is unknown. Historians do know, however, that it was worn in the courts of Oyo during the sixteenth century.

Other Patterns and Dyes. West African flora and fauna are the sources of raw materials for a variety of colorful natural dyes. One popular coloring agent is the deep blue dye obtained from the indigo plant, which is used throughout much of West Africa to create designs that are characteristic of each different ethnic tradition. For most West African peoples dyeing has always been a female enterprise. For example, as Marietta Joseph points out, among the Yoruba dyeing is under the aegis of iya Mapo, the “protector of female trades and the custodian of indigo dyeing.” The Yoruba hold in sacred respect those who transform raw materials into art, attire, and other material objects. Throughout West Africa, practitioners of this craft draw on a vast store of traditional knowledge about the natural resources of the local environment and chemical interactions among them, and they are recognized as bearers of cultural and ritual authority.


Adire African Textiles <>.

Adu Boahen, Topics in West African History (London: Longmans, 1966).

Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002).

Marietta Joseph, “West African Cloth,” African Arts, 11, no. 2 (1978): 34-36.

Doran H. Ross, Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998).

Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983).

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The Art of Attire

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The Art of Attire