Clothing and Ornaments

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Clothing and Ornaments


Clothes. Because of the hot climate in West Africa, some of its peoples dressed scantily. In the Zaghawa kingdom (in present-day eastern Chad and western Sudan) around the year 1000, most ordinary people were almost naked, covering themselves partially with skins and painting their bodies. At about the same time, the forest peoples of the area stretching from the modern nation of Gambia to the western part of present-day Liberia wove fabrics mainly from the leaves of the screw pine and raffia palm, or they made bark cloth by soaking the inner bark of trees and then beating it so that the fibers became interlaced and thinner. While early societies often wore only woven-grass or bark-cloth waistbands, they gradually adopted elaborate garments that covered much more of the body. This change in the daily dress of West Africans was influenced by Islam, whose emphasis on modesty led Muslim converts to clothe themselves more fully than practioners of traditional African religions.

Textile Production. Weaving and other branches of the textile industry seem to have expanded in the western Sudanic region along with Islam. Muslim towns such as Timbuktu and Djenné had many workshops of weavers and tailors, who were often part of the Muslim elite. Around the year 1000, the people of Kano (in present-day Nigeria) began growing cotton and weaving it into fabric on narrow and broad looms. The Mandyaka of the Senegambia region wove fabric to create beautiful pagne cloth in many colors and patterns to wear wrapped around the lower part of the body. The Wolof people of the same region wove cotton cloth that was used as a medium of exchange, even for the payment of taxes. Beginning in the 1500s, there was a dramatic growth in textile design and manufacturing. Nearly every large village had spinners, weavers, cloth dyers, and tailors. As a result of trade, West Africans also wore European cotton textiles.

Clothes for Important Events. Costumes were sometimes worn to mark special occasions, especially in Mali, where the symbolism of dress—for both the nobility and ordinary people—was much more apparent than in other West African countries. For example, to commemorate his victory over the Susu of neighboring Kaniaga, circa 1235,

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

Sundiata, the great warrior who founded the Empire of Mali, rode in triumph among the Malinke chief’s of Mali wearing the costume of a hunter-king to stress his connections to the hunters’ associations that unified the various Malinke clans and chiefdoms. Dress also denoted status, particularly to identify people of the royal household who should be treated with reverence. As in other kingdoms of the Sudanic region (the broad savanna, or grassland, that stretches across Africa between the Sahara Desert on the north and the forest zone to its south), the mansa, or ruler, of Mali and his court were richly dressed. The mansa was surrounded by a slave bodyguard, and seated before him were dignitaries who included the farariya, or commanders of the cavalry, to whom Mali owed much of its military superiority in the region. The mansa maintained their goodwill by giving them gold, imported Arabian horses, and luxurious clothing. They wore gold anklets and were given the privilege of wearing wider trousers than other dignitaries. Mansa Musa (ruled 1312-1337) dressed in even wider trousers, which were made from about twenty pieces of a kind of cloth that only he was allowed to wear. Emblematic of his power, his weapons—all made of gold—stood near his throne. A page stood on his left holding a silk umbrella surmounted by a dome and a gold falcon.

Protective Clothing. In Kano during the reign of Kanajeji (1390-1410), warriors began to wear iron helmets and coats of mail; quilted protection for horses was also introduced. Kano became the chief market and shipping center for “Morocco” leather manufactured from the hides of cattle from the western and central Sudanic region.

Travelers’ Reports. When the North African Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta visited the Empire of Mali in 1353, he described how the people dressed for public prayers during the great Muslim festivals. They went to the prayer site, which was close to the ruler’s palace, wearing well-made white clothes. Mansa Sulaiman (ruled 1341-1360), whom Ibn Battuta called a “sultan,” wore a black turban and tailasan (mantle). Most people were allowed to wear the tailasan only during the two major Muslim festivals, but judges, preachers, and jurists could wear it daily. Ibn Battuta described a ceremony in which dress played an important symbolic role:

The sultan emerges from a door in the corner of his palace with a bow in his hand and a quiver of arrows on his shoulders; on his head is a golden skull-cap, held in place by a golden turban which has edges as thin as knives, eight inches or more long ….

When he calls one of his subjects at an audience, the man removes his clothes and puts on worn-out garments and replaces his turban by a dirty skull-cap. Then he enters raising his garments and pantaloons to halfway up his shins and comes forward in a submissive and humble way and strikes the ground hard with his elbows …. When one of them [the subjects] addresses the sultan and the sultan replies, the man removes the garments from his back and pours dust on his head and back like one washing with water.

Similar ceremonial recognitions of a ruler’s power are thought to have been common in many parts of West Africa. The Dutch writer Willem Bosman, who arrived in West Africa during the late seventeenth century, reported in his 1705 account of his travels about an apparently longstanding practice at the court of the oba, or ruler, of Benin: “No man is allowed to wear any dress at all at court before he has been clothed by the king; nor let his hair grow before this has been done. There are men at the king’s court, twenty and twenty-four years old, who without any semblance of shame go about naked, only wearing a chain of corals or jasper around their necks. But when the king gives them clothes, he usually presents them at the same time with a wife, thus making them from boys into men. After this time, they always wear clothes and let their hair grow without being obliged to shave it off with a knife any more.”

Cosmetics and Scarification. Cosmetics and scarification were also used to communicate status and wealth. The oasis city of Audaghost was said to be so rich that the young women did not soil their hands with any kind of work but focused only on their looks and the condition of their skins by never exposing themselves to the harsh rays of the tropical sun.

Ornaments. West Africans wore ornaments with their everyday garments. Before the middle of the fourteenth century, cowrie shells were worn as accessories, and only later did some West Africans begin to use them as currency. In wealthy areas, such as Audaghost, even ordinary people wore gold ornaments, which were imported from the kingdom of Ghana. In some West African countries people wore rings, pendants, bracelets, and hairpins made from ebony, copper, and gold. The people of Nok, an ancient city in northern Nigeria, were particularly fond of accessorizing. The smooth stone and tin ornaments discovered in the region include jewelry worn on the neck, wrists, and the waist, as well as lip plugs and earlobe plugs. Royal families commissioned artisans to fashion rings, pendants, bracelets, and hairpins from gold, copper, ivory, and exotic woods. To glorify the monarchy of Kano, Muhammad Rimfa (ruled 1463-1499) initiated the royal use of figinni (ostrich-feather fans) and sandals. The Hausa, Nupe, and Yoruba peoples of present-day Nigeria wore caps (especially red ones) and copper armlets. In Ghana even domestic pets and beasts of burden wore ornaments. At the king’s court, hounds often wore collars and bells made of gold and silver, and the bits and buckles of the horses’ bridles, as well as the peaks of their saddles, were made of pure gold. The saddle cloths were sewn and edged with gold thread and held in place with gold bosses. Pages, counselors, and vassals wore gold, and the king adorned himself with as much as he could carry.

Hairstyles. From surviving sculpted heads scholars have concluded that some West Africans of the period 500-1590 wore elaborate hairstyles. The style on a recovered head in Nok resembles those worn by the present-day Kachicheri and Numana peoples living about thirty miles away. Some people of the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo shaved their heads or cut their hair short.


J. F. Ade. Ajayi and Ian Espie, eds., A Thousand Years of West African History: A Handbook for Teachers and Students (Ibadan, Nigeria: University of Ibadan Press / London: Nelson, 1969).

Anthony Atmore and Gillian Stacey, Black Kingdoms, Black Peoples: The West African Heritage (London: Orbis, 1979).

Edward McNall Burns and others, World Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture, seventh edition, 2 volumes (New York: Norton, 1986).

Roland Oliver, ed., The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 3: from c. 1050 to c. 1600 (Cambridge, London, New York & Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

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Clothing and Ornaments

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