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What to Know About African Traditional Dresses

There’s something about African traditional dresses. Despite how long they’ve existed and how far westernization has eaten deep into our society, you’ll always recognize an African piece whenever you see it.

A man dressed in native wear and holding a walking stick

One reason for this is the distinct patterns of the fabric and the styles in which these outfits come in. If you’re an African whether in the diaspora or at home looking to preserve your cultural heritage, investing in African traditional pieces is one way to go about it.

A beautiful lady wearing African traditional dress

And to help you sieve through the many options available, we’ve compiled a list of must-have African clothes for men and women. These attire span through West and South Africa. Keep reading as we dive in.

Why Wear African Traditional Dresses?

Two women wearing Swazi African traditional dresses

These are a combination of garments and accessories deeply rooted in African culture. Though they may experience slight changes over time in color, form, style, and fabric composition, they still retain the same originality from the past.

They’re made with African textiles such Aso Oke, Ankara, Kente, Adire, Atiku,  Barkcloth, Isi Agu, lace asoebi, etc. They stand to represent the diversity of African cultures and our identity as the black race.

RMD in an African traditional outfit with fila

What better way to visit the time of your great grandfathers than to wear a piece that reminds you of them? Wearing any of these African traditional attire takes you back to your roots. They give you a feel of what fashion felt like in Africa when civilization hadn’t become rampant. And now that modernity has taken over, you can only expect to see better versions of these indigenous attires.

A lady dressed in kente fabric with beads, carrying a clay pot

Let’s look at some of them.

Types of African Traditional Dresses

A couple wearing African traitional dresses

These African traditional dresses listed below are for both genders. Looking to spice your wardrobe with clothes woven with Afrocentric fabrics? Pick from any of these options:

Swazi

Three ladies dressed in Swazi trafitional attire

This is the traditional attire of the Swazi people of Southern Africa. This cultural attire features colorful fabrics with different patterns on them accessorized with beads, cowries, and other traditional accessories.

We published a guide on Swazi traditional attire. If it interests you, check it out right away. Of better still, let’s proceed. 

Iro and Buba

Two beautiful women dressed in green iro and buba as African traditional dresses

This African attire belongs to the Yoruba women of Western Nigeria. Back in the day, the outfit was a five-piece attire that comprised Iro, Buba, Gele, Ipele, and Iborun. But it’s evolved to mostly include Iro, Buba, and gele.

Iro is a long, rectangular skirt wrapped around the waist and tuck the edges inside at the waist. Buba is a loose-fitting blouse with long sleeves. Gele is the popular head tie Nigerian women wear to traditional ceremonies. Ipele is a short wrapper tied around the waist on the Iro. Iborun is a scarf placed on the shoulder to add more details to the outfit.

Iro and buba African traditional attires have evolved to feature different styles and fabrics. For instance, you can have it with a short wrapper as in Oleku or make yours with any fabric besides Asooke.

Sotho Traditional Attire

Five people dressed in Sotho African traditional dresses

This is the African traditional dress of the people of Lesotho and South Africa. It’s a blanket made with factory-woven textiles.

Sotho traditional attire also comes in different types ranging from Moholobela to Lekhokolo, Lingoetsi, etc. We detailed all about this cultural outfit in our guide on Sotho traditional attire. If this is your choice, feel free to check it out.

Kanzu 

An actor wearing Kanzu traditional attire to Black Panther premiere

Kanzu is a white or cream-colored ankle or floor-length robe East African men wear. In English, it’s called a tunic while Arabians call it Thawb. The Kanzu is the national costume of Tanzania and the Comoros.

Agbada

A man wearing Agbada as African traditional dresses

Agbada is a three-piece Nigerian traditional attire peculiar to the Yorubas.  It features an open-stitched flowing robe with wide sleeves, a long-sleeved shirt, and a pair of trousers (called Sokoto in Yoruba).

Agbada is usually decorated with embroidery. It’s known by various names in different languages. For instance,  in Hausa, it’s called Babban Riga, Darra’a in Arabic, and Mbubb in Wolof. We have a guide on the lastest Agbada styles. If this is your choice, feel free to check it out

Venda Traditional Attire

A lady wearing Venda African traditional dresses

This is the cultural clothing of the Venda people of Northern South Africa. Their men and women wear these clothes to commemorate different events. Initially, Venda traditional clothes were made from animal skin. But since sustainable fashion has become more rampant, the attire has moved from animal skin to other fabrics.

Senator

A man and his son wearing senator

This is a two-piece ensemble comprising a long shirt that almost reaches the knees. Though this outfit is common among the Igbo and Niger Delta people of Nigeria, it was made popular by former Nigerian senate president Anyim Pius Anyim (2000-2003). Senator Pius was known for wearing this outfit to events during President Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure. Little wonder the garment won the name ‘Senator’. 

Senator wears resembles the Igbo traditional attire made with lion head (Isi Agu) fabric. But unlike Isi Agu, you make senators with plain suit fabrics of your preferred color.

Woko Suit

A man wearing woko suit as African traditional dresses

Woko is the Niger Delta version of the English suit. The sleeves can be long or short depending on what you want. What distinguishes this suit from other types is the four-chained brooch or buttons you pin to it.

You can also add a pocket filler, or cufflinks, and wear a hat to complete your Niger Delta look.

Dashiki

A lady in a dashiki short dress

Dashiki stems from the Yoruba word Dàńṣíkí. It refers to a colorful loose-fitting pullover with an ornate V-shaped collar and embroidered neck and sleeve lines.  It’s also a borrowed word from Hausa meaning ‘shirt’ or ‘inner garment’.

Dashiki mostly covers the top half of the body. Like other African traditional dresses, it’s now popular all over the world as dresses or tops paired with skirts or pants. We have a guide on the latest dashiki styles to try out.

Isi Agu

A man and woman dressed in isi agu

Isi Agu literally means Lion’s head in Igbo. It’s s a long or short-sleeved shirt made with a fabric with lion’s head prints. The difference between this outfit and the Dashiki is the round neckline, gold buttons, and breast pocket.

Etibo

Timi Dakolo wearing Etibo as African traditional dresses

Etibo is the Ijaw version of the English shirt. Some call it Chieftaincy shirt while the Efik and Ibibio people of Nigeria call it Mbem ntie. Meaning that if a man who wears Etibo wants to sit on a chair, the shirt will sit first before him because it has a long tail at the front and back. 

The Ijaw people often wear it with a single brooch that falls to the pocket of the shirt while Ibibio and Efik men wear it like a corporate shirt, buttoning it up to the neck without the brooch.

Kaftan

A man wearing kaftan with a nose mask to match

Kaftan is a collarless long loose shirt prevalent among the Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri tribes of Nigeria. Before now, it used to be a long robe or tunic. Nowadays, it’s evolved to look like a senator.

A woman wearing lace iro and buba with gele

African traditional dresses aren’t limited to these. As I earlier mentioned, you can make any attire with your chosen African fabric. That’s what makes them Afrocentric. So, feel free to go for everything ankara from dresses to two-pieces, jumpsuits, dungarees, shorts, etc., or try any other fabric you want.

A man and woman rocking ankara fabric as African traditional dresses

African cultural dresses have become a blend of modernism and tradition. It’s left for you to do what suits your style. Now, would you stick to the original or blend it with a touch of contemporary fashion?

A couple wearing a modern form of sotho blanket

Let me know in the comments.

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Victoria B. Willie

Writing has always been a part of me. From writing stories as a young child to studying Communication Arts in the university, it has always been more than a medium of expression to me.

And then one day, I found myself toeing the path of an entrepreneur and becoming a fashion enthusiast. This made me develop an interest in content marketing and copywriting which I've been chasing alongside my fashion career.

That aside, when I'm not sharing style articles, selling with stories, or creating fashion-forward pieces for Ria Kosher, you'll find me telling wild stories that always come with a twist.

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