Pop Cultured: Clothing as a symbol of power

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People celebrate in traditional African clothing, including Dashiki. Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

The make-up of our culture can include — but is not limited to — the things we eat, do and wear. For many Africans and African Americans, African textiles have been around for as long as they can remember. According to Afro Legends, African clothing can date back as far as 5,000 years ago.  

African textiles served as a way for communication, according to Contemporary African Art. The different colors, materials and patterns on African clothing have the ability to tell different stories. African textiles can have a variety of political, social or celebratory meanings. Painting, weaving and dyeing clothing were common ways Africans created their unique textiles. Materials like wool, cotton, silk, mud and bark are just some examples of what was used to produce their clothing, according to the site.  

Since Africa is so vast, different regions of Africa have unique ways of creating their clothing, according to Contemporary African Art. “Adire” is clothing made from indigo-dyed cloth from the Yoruba culture in South-Western Nigeria. “Bogolan” is a cloth made from cotton and mud that is native to Mali. “Kente” is woven cloth, usually bright-colored from the Ewe and Asante cultures in Ghana. “Kente” is worn usually by royalty. “Kuba” cloth originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they were traditionally used for costumes and mats for royalty, according to Google Arts and Culture in an exhibition titled, “The Fabric of Africa.” It also stated how African textiles were greatly appreciated by western artists like Picasso and Matisse.  

According to Contemporary African Art, African clothing, particularly robes and body wraps, were a symbol of prestige for both men and women. Examples include “Mabu,” a feathered cape from the Bamileke tribe in Cameroon. Or the “Ibhayi,” a blanket body wrap from the Mfengu tribe in South Africa.  

Contemporary African Art also mentions Nike Davies Okundaye, a famous Nigerian textile artist. She is known for her traditional color dyeing and weaving practices, along with her modern and abstract take on traditional African clothing. Okundaye is a highly recognized artist today and has led many workshops about African art, according to a site titled Nike Center for Art and Culture. 

Today, many people of African descent have become more curious about their heritage, spreading to countries like America, according to Constance C.R. White, who wrote the Times article titled, “How African Americans Have Influenced Style and Culture.” Modern renditions of African clothing can be seen throughout Black culture in the U.S. In an article titled, “Black Celebrities in Traditional Clothes,” Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Michael Jackson and Rihanna are just some examples of celebrities who reflect on their heritage by wearing African style clothing. African clothing and culture were also brought to light in  mainstream movies like “Black Panther.”  

According to “The Dashiki – African Fashion and a Cultural Symbol for African Americans,” African fashion has also been linked to the Civil Rights Movement. Protestors in the late 1970s wore Dashiki to protest mainstream fashion and racism. As we welcome Black History Month this February, it is important to recognize how African clothing is a strong proponent of African American culture today. 

Check out this Google Art and Culture Exhibit about African Clothing

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