African Dress Traditions

Written by melanie williamson
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African Dress Traditions
Long robes, or boubous, are commonly worn throughout West Africa. (Thinkstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images)

Many of the items worn in traditional African dress were originally designed to show status or rank as well as to protect the individuals wearing them from the weather. Most of the items worn are loosefitting and full-length, many with long sleeves, to protect the wearer from the sun and heat. Many of these dress traditions have been carried over into contemporary Western fashion and reflect an African heritage.


The dashiki is a loosefitting pullover tunic-style shirt. Dashikis originated in West Africa, were originally worn sleeveless, and were used as a work shirt exclusively by men. Dashikis were made from strips of hand- or machine-woven material sewn together. Over time, dashikis have become a symbol of African heritage and, beginning in the late 1960s, a common clothing item in the United States. Dashikis are now made with or without sleeves and are worn by both males and females.


The agbada is a four-piece garment traditionally worn by men in Southwestern Nigeria and the Republic of Benin, West Africa. The agbada is composed of a large loosefitting robe, or awosoke, an undergarment, or awotele, long, loosefitting trousers, or sokoto, and a hat, or fila. The entire garment is very loosefitting, ankle-length and puffed out. The garment looks big regardless of the size of the individual wearing it. The material of the agbada is embroidered with different designs. The amount of embroidery present on the garment has traditionally reflected the wealth of the person wearing it. There are two types of agbadas: casual and ceremonial. The ceremonial agbadas are typically bigger and more detailed than the casual agbadas.


The boubou is a robe worn throughout West Africa by both men and women. The boubou is sewn from a single piece of material and is typically 59 inches wide and a variety of lengths. The grand boubou, a specific type of boubou, is elegant and ceremonial. The grand boubou typically goes all the way to the feet of the person wearing it. Boubous are constructed of richly coloured materials and embroidered in white or beige. Women wear boubous with matching pagnes and head-ties.


"Pagne" is the French word for a traditional wrapper worn by many in West Africa. The pagne is simply a large piece of material, approximately 59 inches wide by 98 inches long, which is wrapped around the body instead of sewn together -- a fairly common practice with traditional African dress. Traditionally, both men and women wore pagnes, but over time, it has become strictly a woman's dress. In a handful of African cultures men still wear pagnes as a sign of the individual's rank within the tribe.

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