Throughout the diverse continent of Africa, weddings have two things in common: the centrality of family and the importance of the bride as a link between any unborn children and the ancestors of both sides of the family. Some weddings take place over days, some are arranged before the bride-to-be is even born. Whatever the case, tradition and custom play a vital role in every aspect of African weddings, including the bride's attire.
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Geography and Ethnicity
Including island nations, more than 50 countries call Africa home, and Africa's people represent more than 1,000 cultures. Each has its own history and traditions, including those surrounding wedding ceremonies. This makes it impossible to generalise what constitutes a traditional "African" wedding gown.
Africa's long history of colonisation, internal strife, and as a source of slave labour has stirred these cultures beyond just country borders. Descendants of slaves often try to connect to their roots by rediscovering their cultural traditions. And today, many people are refugees from their homeland, bringing traditions into foreign countries within and beyond Africa and potentially blending them with the customs of their new homes.
Class and Wealth
Though money doesn't always dictate wedding traditions, wealthier brides may be able to afford more elaborate gowns and accompanying ornamentation than a bride with less means. Cost may mean a simpler interpretation of traditional wedding attire or simply more dependence on other resources; making your own gown, borrowing jewellery, passing down items used in the weddings of family or friends. A wealthier bride may choose to follow this route as well, or may have such choices dictated by the traditions themselves.
Africa's religious diversity is as complicated as its diversity of nations. Long-held belief systems coping with European, Asian and Middle Eastern influences have resulted in a patchwork of faiths, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Baha'i and others. These faiths come with their own wedding customs, which are often blended with existing ethnic traditions.
Gowns on the Continent
Wedding gowns themselves vary between countries, cultures, religions and traditions. In Morocco and Sudan, brides wear elaborately embroidered robes. Nilotes brides, whose people live along the Nile and are nudists, wear a bead apron and a half-skirt, along with sandals, feathers, ash, clay and a necklace.
Kente cloth, historically woven in Ghana, is probably what most people associate with traditional African garb. Red, gold and green--symbolising blood, prosperity, and home--are liberation colours repeated in patterns of various meanings. In general, bright colours, whether or not those of African liberation, are the norm. African royalty wear purple with gold accents.
Brides following traditions tied to this symbolism wear an ensemble rather than a single gown; a headpiece, wrap skirt, shawl and loose blouse.
Gowns Beyond the Continent
Brides following African traditions or combining those traditions with those of their new homes can order traditional bridal wear from clothing makers who specialise in ethnic wedding attire, or they may reflect their heritage by using bright colours; traditional fabrics, jewellery or embroidery; henna tattoos, which are used in many African weddings; or other reflections of the culture they wish to honour.
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