African textiles are unforgettable. Immediately recognizable, the beautiful weaves of bright colors and bold patterns capture the eye and refuse to let you go. This iconic fashion style is found across the globe and honors a wide variety of tradition and culture.

Historically, African textiles were handmade on looms from animal hair, animal skin, tree bark, and palm leaves. These materials were stripped and pounded to make a durable weave. When European colonists came to the continent, cotton and wool became the dominant textiles.

In fact, many of the textiles and fabrics that people see in African clothing were inspired by European fashion. Ankara fabric, known for bright patterns and colors, is also known as Dutch wax fabric. It was originally created by the Dutch for the Indonesian textile market. The Africans were drawn to the fabric because of the tribal designs. Royal families began to wear the patterns and soon enough, the colorful fabrics began to be used to make traditional dress. 

Before synthetic dyes were introduced into the fabric-making process, bright colors were achieved with a mix of natural ingredients including clay, mud, vegetables, minerals, shells, and charcoal. Indigo, a compound extracted from tropical plant leaves, was used to make the most popular textile dye across the continent. 

During the dying process, cloth is folded and twisted to create geometric patterns. Other methods include making wax drawings, stitching, stamping, and embroidering the cloth either before or after dying. Some unique patterns are created with an acid discharge.

Regardless of how the fabrics are created, they are worn to celebrate many aspects of life like marriages and funerals. Specific designs are considered family patterns and are worn to signify relationships. Depending on the community, certain colors have different meanings which can be combined to represent an important event, person, or belief. For example, in the traditional Ghanaian cloth kente, red stands for death, green for fertility, white for purity, and blue for love.

An understanding of the heritage and variation in these stunning textiles only brings more awe and beauty to the African textiles as we see them today. With a bright pop of color, African fashion celebrates a people as diverse and beautiful as the different patterns they wear.

Fashion Around the Continent 

On the western coast, bright colors are dominant. Special pieces include the kente, made in a basket weave or checkerboard design, and dashiki, a celebration shirt with embroidery around all the edges.

In northern Africa, fashion is influenced by the Middle East; people wear loose fitting robes, kilts, and dresses paired with head wraps or turbans. Traditional colors include soft blue, green, yellow, and mauve.

Eastern Africa is home to the traditional fabric kanga. Kanga are rectangular pieces of fabric decorated with patterns along the border and motifs in the center. Kanga pieces are worn as wraps, skirts, dresses, and head covering.

Clothing in central Africa shares many similarities with West Africa. Colorful wraps called pagne are worn as a dresses or head scarves and vary in formality. Bark and palm leaves are traditionally used in weaving this fabric.

Due to colonization, southern fashion includes shirt and pant separates. Straw hats are often matched with traditional shweshwe fabrics—intricate geo-metric patterns made with indigo dye. Beadwork is a common addition to wraps and headscarves.

Hannah Mortenson