The idea of African clothing inspires images of rich colours and ceremonial dress but, the fact is, African clothing is as diverse as the African continent. Africa's ancient civilisations demonstrate the continent's long history of creating clothing for utilitarian as well as celebratory and symbolic purposes. Despite its many variations, there are several unifying features of and facts about African clothing.
The origins of African clothing date back about 75,000 years. These early examples of clothing were not conducive to living in hot or arid conditions, as they were mostly made out of animal skin and fur. Other indications of ancient clothing traditions can be found in Egyptian tombs from around 2,000 B.C. Among the hieroglyphics on the tombs are drawings of looms.
There are countless types of African clothing, but some styles that stand out for their popularity or their symbolic significance include dashikis, brightly printed tunics that became popular in the United States during the Black Power movement; embroidered Yoruba aso oka, worn for celebrations; and princess kaftans, which usually are printed in intricate patterns. For men, a standout African ensemble consists of a four-piece coordinated babariga outfit featuring a hat, long-sleeved shirt, agbada bubu (sort of like a flowing cape) and trousers.
Some of the classic features of African clothing pertain to its colours and prints. Patterns may be created by tie-dye or batik, a method of applying wax to fabric before dying it. Embroidery, brocade and beading are common ornamentation. For special occasion or expensive clothing, people still hand-weave the fabric, using traditional looms.
Traditional African clothing represents different regions' natural resources and agricultural practices. Hence, locally grown cotton is a typical element in African clothing. However, in the Sahel and in North Africa, people also use camel and sheep wool to weave fabric. In Central and West Africa, raffia palm is a common fibre. In West Africa and Madagascar, flax and jute comprise part of the textiles. Silk is produced in East Africa and Nigeria.
The contemporary age has brought an immensely popular, but highly controversial, type of clothing to Africa. Known in Eastern Africa as mitumba, or white man's clothes, these are the second-hand clothes brought to Africa from the Western world. Although mitumba is a popular consumer item, even sold in regions where it has been outlawed, it has ravaged the local textile manufacturers who cannot compete with the market of donated items that are then sold for profit by companies.