Ancient African Clothing

The topic of fashion in Ancient Africa is fascinating to historians because of how little we know about it. For instance, it’s not really known when clothes became a staple part of African culture – in many parts of the African continent, clothes are not necessary because of the immense heat. Because of this, a large number of the ancient tribes developed different ways to express style (body modifications, piercings, tattoos, etc.) rather than with cloth.

Where did the Africans get their sense of fashion?

However, there are a great number of tribes who did develop their own systems of clothing-based-fashion. The first clothes in Africa seem to have been made of leather and fur, in response to a cold snap in the region nearly 200,000 years ago. Over time, this material was changed to bark cloth.

Barkcloth was a kind of cloth made from the bark of a tree. Strips of bark would be peeled off a tree and beaten with a rock until it had softened enough to wear. Pieces of this bark cloth would be attached together to form shawls, shirts, trousers, and headbands.

Another plant-based fiber, raffia cloth (which came from the raffia palm tree) was used to connect these pieces of bark cloth. In Uganda, historians have discovered that the traditional bark cloth was made of fig bark – the same kind of bark that was used to make paper in Ancient Egypt.

Kente cloth patterns

What else were Ancient African clothes made from?

As time passed, materials like bark cloth became less popular, as cotton and linen became available to the public. It was around this time that the first clothing dyes appeared in Africa. Color would go on to have a very important place in the clothing practices of Africa.

Different tribes colored their clothes with specific dyes to mark where they came from – for example, if one tribe wore yellow, a neighboring one may instead wear blue. Patterns and decoration on clothes were used in a similar way, with certain tribes having “ownership” over specific clothing ornamentation styles.

The most important dye was in the color indigo, although there were no indigo plants in Africa. Instead, African traders bought this dye from India.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region

The Most Important Types of Clothes

Headdresses and animal skins were of immense importance in Ancient Africa, all the way up until the 16th or 17th centuries. A headdress was an immense, intricately crafted piece of headwear (sort of like a fancy, expensive hat) that was worn by the wealthy or powerful to designate their position in society. The leaders of tribes would often wear special headdresses, for example, and so would powerful warriors.

Traditional headdresses were typically decorated with feathers, cloth, jewelry, beads or glass. Alongside these headdresses, powerful tribe members would wear animal skins – elephant, lion, leopard and deer skins were among the most popular – and could be used to line boots, capes, or headdresses.

The rarer the animal you wore, the more power you were believed to hold. These animal skins and clothing made from them were sometimes seen as magical protection from evil spirits and used in some African rituals.

BaKongo masks from the Kongo Central region

As the empires of Africa expanded, and there was a shift from tribal communities, there was a dramatic change in the clothes that people wore. For example, in the Songhai/Mali Empires, the people could afford more expensive kinds of cloth, and more richly colored dyes.

It would not have been unusual, in this era, for a woman to wear a full-body wrap of purple cloth, if she had the money to pay for it! However, even in this period, the poor wore little – herd boys wore nothing but a belt and loincloth to cover their lower bodies, while certain positions of spirituality (i.e, a diviner) were required to wear next to no clothing so that they could stay in touch with nature and the gods.

Facts about Ancient African Clothing:

  • The first clothes in Africa seem to have appeared on the continent about 180,000 years ago.
  • The first clothes in Africa were made of leather and fur, in response to a cold snap in the region at the time.
  • Over time, bark cloth became a more popular material to make clothes with.
  • Barkcloth was a kind of cloth made from the bark of a tree. The bark would be cut into strips and beaten with rocks to soften it. Barkcloth was typically made from the bark of the fig tree, or from the Raffia palm (this kind of cloth was called raffia cloth.)
  • Cotton and linen became gradually more popular over time, though cotton could never be grown in Africa itself. Linen was a more affordable option.
  • Around the same time, clothing dyes first began to appear in Africa.
  • Clothing dyes were significant culturally because they were used to identify members of tribes – if one tribe used yellow dye, for instance, another would use blue to make themselves stand out.
  • Headdresses and animal skins were of immense importance in Ancient Africa and remained prevalent all the way up to the 16th or 17th centuries. Headdresses were status symbols and were a sign of the wearer’s role in society.

Q&A:

When do historians believe the first clothes appeared in Africa?

– 180,000 years ago.
What were the first clothes in Africa made out of?

– Leather, fur.

What materials became popular over time, and eventually replaced the materials the first clothes were made of?

– Cotton and linen, though primarily linen.

Why were clothing dyes important in Ancient African society?

– They were used to identify members of different tribes, and show where they came from.
What was a headdress?

– An immense, intricately woven piece of headwear that was often decorated with feathers, jewelry, glass, etc. They were status symbols and served as a sign of the wearer’s importance.