Traditional African Accessories
& Their Effects on Modern Fashion
By Quinn McCaffrey
Africa is comprised of 54 different countries, a population of about 1.4 billion, and 11.7 million square miles of land, making it the second-largest continent both in population and land mass. Across the mainland, thousands of tribes have formed, all speaking over 2,000 distinct languages. To say the continent is diverse would be an understatement. This diversity is just one of a multitude of reasons that African cultures must be included in conversations about clothing. Each different region contains its own subtle nuances and narratives, expressing the history of their unique part of the continent through the clothes they wear.
When thinking of traditional African clothing, brightly colored materials loaded with bold patterns and designs tend to come to mind. Although this is true, the garments worn across the continent offer a much larger assortment of styles and shapes. Not only are these pieces important to African history, but they also have a clear and substantial influence on modern-day fashion. Now commercially produced and constructed for aesthetic purposes, many of these comparisons are poorly made. The contemporary items do not hold the same value of tradition as the pieces made during the early conception of these specific and culturally rich communities. Here are a few of these pieces as well as the modern-day versions that were influenced by African tradition.
Neck coverings can be seen in many forms when looking at traditional African garments. Many were worn to signify status, specifically in terms of relationships. A few traditions include elongating neck rings, worn to signify a woman’s fidelity to her husband. Examples of these neck pieces include Enkarewa necklaces which were worn by brides at weddings, and Xhosa beads which were given as a declaration of love. Large neck attachments were also worn in traditional ceremonies across Africa, donning bright colors and many different materials including feathers, silks, beads, and bones. We can see the influence of these garments in present day in the form of statement necklaces using patterns and tassels that are many times decontextualized and borrowed from traditional African design.
Hair charms signified a variety of different things in traditional African culture, including wealth and fertility. They were also used as a form of regalia in spiritual ceremonies and accessories for brides at their weddings. Early on, many of these beads were made of glass and even used as a form of currency. A nomadic tribe called the Himba people, originating in West Africa, have now settled in regions of Angola and Namibia, and are well known for their long-standing tradition of hair decoration. They use these embellishments to represent moments in women’s lives such as their coming of age. Nowadays, hair decoration can be seen just as prominently in Black communities, with women wearing colored and metallic adornments daily. This style can also be seen as a trend in rave and festival wear, being translated into a “bohemian” aesthetic.
Known fondly for its iconic presence in the 70’s, tie-dye has been reappearing in fashion trends in recent years. Something people may not know, is that tie-dyeing in the sense that we know it today actually draws influence from African traditions. In a region of southwestern Nigeria, the Yoruba women use a method of resist-dyeing called Adire to create designs on fabric. A similar method is used in Sierra Leone where the cloth is stitched pre-dye in order to obscure certain areas and is labeled as Gara. Although the method of tying and dying has existed in fashion for years with origins in many countries, Africa can be attributed for some of our methods and influences.
Head coverings come in many forms when surveying the vastness of traditional African garments. Wraps specifically can contribute their origin to sub-Saharan African and have the unique function of indicating a woman’s age throughout her life, depending on the type of wrap and way that it was worn. In addition, these hair adornments were practical to protect from the sun and cool during work or travel in hot weather. Looking at its function in present day society, many women do still wear them when working in warm conditions, but the majority of its use has moved to aesthetic purpose only.
From head wraps to statement necklaces and hoop earrings to tie dye, African culture has been influencing contemporary dress for centuries and will continue to do so. The aforementioned examples are just some of the many influences that African dress and culture have had on the way we dress today and throughout history.