African Fashion Dictionary
A special colored cotton cloth originated in Ghana. It features sewed together panels of stamped symbolic designs using special tools and natural thick black dye from the bark of indigenous trees. The word ‘Adinkra’ means goodbye. Darker colors are used for mourning and lighter colors are intended for festive occasions.
An indigo dyed cloth made in Nigeria by Yoruba women using a variety of resist dyeing techniques. Known today as, tie-dye, the traditional process includes the tying of cloth or stitching of stones onto cloth then hand-dying it to reveal an African brocade of patterns and designs. This cloth is significant in the boom of entrepreneurship in Nigerian women and their artistic efforts, making adire a major local craft and attracting buyers from all over West Africa.
African Trade Beads
A form of currency originating in South Africa over 75,000 years ago. Ostrich egg shells, cowrie shells, and animal bone were some of the first known manmade beads for decorative and currency purposes. Later, decorative European glass beads emerged as currency in exchange for goods, services, and slaves in Africa, affiliating the term with ‘slave beads’.
A multi-banded mineral of Silica and Quartz produced from volcanic activity from over 187 million years ago, now found in many accessories and finishings. Although agates may be found all over the world, Botswana agate of Africa is one of the most sought out, highly unique, and desirable. Also, called the Sunset Stone, it retains sunlight, comforts people through dark, lonely nights, and was traditionally used in African fertility ceremonies to encourage potency and the conception of strong, healthy offspring.
A four-piece male attire found among the Yoruba people of Nigeria and the Republic of Benin, West Africa. It consists of a large, free-flowing outer robe, an undervest, a pair of long trousers, and a hat. The outer robe, the agbada, means ‘voluminous attire’ – described after its big, loose-fitting, ankle-length construction. This ensemble is mostly worn during special ceremonies and occasions.
A handwoven textile originating in Akwete, Nigeria, made from traditional Igbo weaving of sisal-hemp, raffia, and cotton. While the coarse raffia materials are used as costume, and in the past as headgear for warriors, the hemp material is used to weave towels, ropes, and handbags. The more comfortable and colorful spun cotton is used to weave cloth for everyday wearing.
A popular Vilsco wax ‘African Print’ textile designed by Dutch fabric designer, Toon van de Manakker. Based on the 19th century Ethiopian noblewoman’s tunic, the print is widely worn in West Africa, in countries like Nigeria, Togo, Benin, and Ghana. This is the prevalent print found on many dashikis worn today.
A general term for ‘African Print’ textiles from Dutch fabric manufacturing company, Vilsco. Since its ascent into the international fashion scene, ‘African Prints’ have been featured heavily in many famous brand collections. Known for its characteristics of bold, colourful and dynamic geometric aesthetics, ankara has become synonymous with common African fashion.
A traditional hand-loomed cloth woven by the Yoruba people of western Nigeria. Usually woven by men, the fabric is used to make Agbada attire, Iro wraps, and Fila hats. The textile is made into garments and worn by men and women on special occasions of chieftaincy, festivals, engagements, naming ceremonies, and other important events.
A traditional Ugandan royal cloth made from the inner bark of a fig-tree, locally known as Mutuba. The bark is harvested during the rainy season and is a renewable resource as it grows back again in three months. Traditionally the bark is beaten with grooved mallets to produce the look of corduroy, the texture of silk, and a color of terra cotta. Today the cloth is used for books, diaries, journal covers, purses, and hats. The cloth is worn mainly at coronation and healing ceremonies, funerals and cultural gatherings.
A textile made with a traditional technique originating in Egypt that involves stamping, brushing or combing of a design made of wax into cloth, also known as wax-resist dying. Batik patterns are symbolic and play a central role in wedding ceremonies, childbirth, and important cultural rituals in Africa.
A traditional and sustainable weaving technique native to the town of Bolgatanga in Northern Ghana in which veta vera straw, known locally as kinkahe, is collected from the tops of grass stalks, split in half, then hand-dyed and woven into baskets and other items.
A women’s blouse, a part of the Yoruba traditional full wrapper ensemble. It is fitted with a curved bottom, or baggy with a V shaped bottom and can be worn informally with pants in daily wear or with a fancy print wrapper for ceremonies and special occasions.
A vine grown for its fruit, which can either be harvested young and used as a vegetable, or harvested mature, dried, hollowed and used for other household needs across West Africa. From drinking vessels to instruments, the calabash is highly used as motorcycle helmets in Nigeria and as hats amongst the Erobe tribe children in Ethiopia as protection from the sun. In accessories the shape of the clay ‘Calabash bead’ takes inspiration from its silhouette.
A recycled cement bag that is popularly used for its durable and sturdy material in Africa for handbags, messenger bags, totes, wallets, and duffel bags.
The simplest woven cloth in West Africa. Traditionally country cloth is handspun, hand-dyed and hand-woven cotton. The cloth is made in strips, which are then sewn together to make clothing. Often the cloth is plain white, but natural dyes like indigo and kola are used to dye the warp to create linear stripes.
A West African shirt, widely known for its colorful Angelina print and simple loose-fitting aesthetic. It features an ornate V or U-shape collar, tailored embroidery neckline, and short or long sleeves. It is usually worn with a kufi cap and pants in Islamic communities in Africa and the African diaspora for formal ceremonies and can even be seen worn as informal daily attire.
Raffia cloth made by the Dida tribe of the Ivory Coast. The weaving process includes separating and combing of palm fibers, weaving with both hands and feet, then a several-step dye process to achieve a shading, geometric pattern design. Often used as clothing and as a textile, the cloth is worn during ceremonial dances or similar ritual events.
An approach to business and development based on dialogue, transparency, and respect that seeks to create greater equity in the international trading system. Fair trade supports farmers and craftsmen in developing countries who are socially and economically marginalized. The term ‘fair trade’ can often be seen on clothing and goods in the U.S. to ensure it is giving back to the maker.
A handspun cotton cloth originating in the Ivory Coast of West Africa decorated with painted stripes as its primary motif and a zig-zag design symbolic of the leopard print. To hold on to the traditional character of fila, artisans continue to use handspun cotton strips woven by neighboring Djula people, and still use the natural vegetal and mud-based pigments for painting it. The Senufo people wore, and still wear, this cloth for spiritual protection.
A luxuriant, exotic black hardwood, native to West Africa. It is an extremely hard, dense, and heavy wood, with a very fine texture. The sapwood is pink to pale red-brown in color, while the heartwood is a uniform jet-black or black-brown streaked. Due to rarity, modern uses are largely restricted to small items like accessories, musical instruments, chess sets, and handgun grips.
An African head wrap or head tie that is worn in many parts of Southern and Western Africa. The starched flat piece of fabric usually features brocade, African print, or damask and is wrapped by hand to form a head wrap. It is most often worn as an accessory amongst African women at special occasions with traditional dress and is usually the highlight of ones attire. In other parts of the continent, terms like ‘duku’ (Malawi, Ghana), ‘dhuku’ (Zimbabwe), ‘tukwi’ (Botswana), and ‘doek’ (Namibia) are used in reference to the head wrap as well.
A bright colorful floor-length dress tied with a sash around the waist, also called a Busuuti, worn by the women of Buganda and Busoga of Uganda. The dress can be worn for any occasion; in rural areas it’s the form of daily dress.
A West African wide sleeved flowing robe or gown paired with a long-sleeved shirt and drawstring pants worn by men. It features intricate embroidery, is worn on special religious or ceremonial occasions, and in some families are heirlooms passed on from father to son, worn as a symbol of status.
One of the most popular Adinkra symbols meaning ‘except god’ originating in Ghana. It is largely used on textiles, accessories, and artifacts as a reflection of the deeply religious character of the Ghanaian people.
An ivory and sometimes black covering of keratin and other protein surrounding a core of live bone permanently projected on the head of various animals. The horns of African Buffalo and Ankole Cow are widely used in Africa as material for accessories, instruments, finishings, and symbolic aesthetic.
A traditional and sustainable weaving technique native to Rwanda in which natural fibers from sweetgrass, palm leaf, and banana leaf are hand-dyed and woven into accessories, baskets, clutches, hats, boxes, and more.
A vibrant deep-blue natural dye, derived from a plant family called indigofera tinctoria, native to Asia and some parts of Africa. It is widely used in Africa for traditional hand-dying processes for garments that requires boiling or steeping the leaves of the Indigo plants and then a fermentation of the brew. Each African region has its own recipes and techniques to attain the intense blue color, thus setting a variant of the color across the continent.
A hard, white material traditionally from the tusks of African elephants and the teeth of animals, that was used in accessories, art, and manufacturing. Ivory has been valued since ancient times for making a range of items, from ivory carvings to piano keys, fans, and dominoes. Due to the rapid decline in the elephant population, many countries now ban the importation and sale of ivory.
A traditional fiber-reactive Nigerian dye used for batik fabrics, also known as Procion dye. It is most effective on cellulose fibers such as cotton, hemp, rayon, and linen. In the U.S., it is most affiliated with tie-dyed garments and identified with hippie fashion.
A variant of a lightweight, loose-fitting robe or tunic, versions of which have been worn by men and women of several cultures around the world for thousands of years. The kaftan is often worn as a coat or overdress, usually reaching to the ankles, with long sleeves. It serves as a symbol of royalty in many cultures.
A well-known multicolored and geometric patterned silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips that is native to the Ashanti and Bonoman kingdoms of South Ghana. It is an Akan royal and sacred cloth worn only in times of extreme importance and was once the cloth of kings.
A traditional bright and colorful lightweight cotton, 3-piece rectangular cloth worn and native to the women of Tanzania, Zanzibar, and Kenya. Modern designs have a proverb or riddle written on them, which is called “jina”. These sayings can range from messages of love and prosperity to religion. The cloth is usually gifted and used throughout a child’s life through adulthood until death.
A traditional batik wax print fabric native to Kenya. Often worn by women, the sarong-like textile can be seen wrapped around the chest or waist, over the head as a headscarf, or as a baby sling. They serve as an inexpensive, informal piece of clothing that is often decorated with different colors, patterns, and even political slogans.
Kofar Mata Dye
An ancient dyeing technique native to Kano, Nigeria. Water, ash, potassium, and dried indigo twigs are mixed in a 6-meter deep pits in the ground where it is left to ferment for up to 4 weeks and then dip dyed by hand for up to 6 hours. The pits are famous amongst local designers as their plain white garments are sent there and transformed with custom mixtures into batches of colors, patterns and designs.
A dye produced from the nut of kola fruit from the tropical rainforest kola tree in Africa. This caffeinated nut is traditionally used in combination with indigo by first dying a cloth with kola, bound with resist stitching and tying techniques, and then dipping it in indigo. It most often reveals a variation of vibrant browns.
A colorful and intricately decorated West African powder glass bead made in Ghana by Ashanti and Krobo craftsmen and women. The beads play important roles in Krobo society, be it in rituals of birth, coming of age, marriage, or death.
A tightly woven cut pile cloth of raffia palm leaves resembling velvet, indigenous to the Kuba people of the Congo. The cloth is known for its elaboration and complexity of design and surface decoration. The cloth is used in forms of textiles, including ceremonial skirts, ‘velvet’ tribute cloths, headdresses, and basketry.
A traditional brimless cloth hat worn by men throughout the African diaspora. It is most worn by older wise men, religious groups, and family patriarchs as a symbol of culture, historical, and religious pride.
A traditional all white handmade double-layered chiffon cloth trimmed with colorful striped patterns made by Eritrean and Ethiopan people. The men use this cloth to cover their head and shoulders when attending church.
The Maasai people are a nomadic tribe of East African people known for their distinctive customs and way of dress. Most wear the color red to symbolize their culture with the belief that it will scare away lions. The men are known to wear a red robe called the shuka, and the women can be seen wearing symbolic colorful, decorated beadwork necklaces, earrings, bracelets, printed capes, and cloths.
Also known as, bogolanfini cloth is a handmade cotton fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud native to Mali. In traditional Malian culture, mud cloth was worn by hunters as ritual protection, and as a badge of status. Female initiation wraps and childbirth cloths made in patterns rich in cultural significance were also prominent uses for mud cloth.
Nsu Bura Fabric
A popular unnamed Vilsco wax ‘African print’ textile designed by Dutch fabric designer, Mr. Piet Snel. The pattern is widely used throughout Africa with different coined nicknames to what the print resembles. In Ghana, the design is named ‘Nsu Bura’ as it is said to resemble the ripple effect of water when a stone is thrown into it.
A recycled rice bag that is popularly used for its sturdy and functional material and brightly colored burlap aesthetic in Cambodia and Africa for handbags, totes, and wallets.
A popular West African Adinkra symbol of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back, or as a stylized heart shape. Highly imprinted on African garments, accessories, and cloths, it means, “return and get it” and is a symbol of importance of learning from the past.
A unique African stone mined from surrounding great pits in Kiisi, Kenya. Colors range from cream, pink, brown, yellow, and black to a marbling of all of them put together. Once carved and smoothed, the stone is usually high glossed or painted with African motifs in bright colors with etched accents and made into accessories, chess sets, and sculptures.
An African technique in which textiles are processed by hand in a mixture of water and potato starch, then softened with a wooden stick until it shines. This is known to create that unique crease-less shimmer and feel on formal traditional attire that is widely used in Africa.
The Venda people are a South African ethnic group of Bantustan who are known for their unique ceremonies, such as the rainmaking dance. For this ceremony, a male rain dancer wears a skirt made of grass, as well as a feathered headdress and armbands. Females wear traditional loincloths and performers wear animal skins and feathers in their hair, to indicate their maturity.
Vlisco or ‘African Print’ Fabric
A Dutch commercial fashion fabric originating in Helmond, The Netherlands in 1846 that is widely used and now made in Africa and around the world in place of the traditional African wax handmade textile. Inspired by the traditional African batik wax technique, the Vlisco company is widely known and sometimes criticized for its manufactured ‘Dutch wax’ or ‘wax hollandais’ designs mimicked after the original African technique and designs. Some Africans widely accept the appropriation and now use the fabric to promote their own culture, continent, and way of dress.
The Xhosa people are a South African ethnic group who are known for their distinct traditional practices and rites of passage. Traditionally, their life stages are reflected through simple to elaborate headpieces, face and body paint, brass bangles, and intricate beadwork adorning their necks, arms and legs.