Body Adornment and Clothing

People communicate information about themselves by the clothes they wear and the way that they adorn their bodies. In Africa body decoration and dress may offer clues to a person's age, ethnic group, region, social position, and even political opinions. As Western-style attire becomes more common in Africa, some traditional types of adornment and dress are fading from everyday use—especially in the cities. However, many Africans still wear traditional clothing and decoration for special occasions or as a form of self-expression.

Body Adornment

Africans have been decorating themselves with paint or pigment since at least 4000 B.C., when people in SUDAN used ocher as a cosmetic. Ancient Egyptians used cosmetics as well, enhancing their lips and cheeks with red coloring. Men, women, and children in EGYPT wore eye paint, or kohl, on both their upper and lower eyelids. In addition to being considered beautiful, kohl helped protect the eyes from insects and the glare of the sun.

Body paint also functions as a sign of social status and ethnic background and as part of many African rituals. Turkana men in KENYA cake their hair with clay and red coloring to celebrate a successful hunt or the end of planting. In many parts of the continent, decorating the body with white clay represents spirituality. Ceremonies marking a new stage in life often involve body painting. Young Dan women from IVORY COAST, for example, paint themselves with bold geometric patterns during rituals that mark the passage from girlhood to womanhood.

Body Adornment and Clothing

For many years, people throughout Africa have created permanent body decorations by scarification, or making small cuts in the skin. As they heal, these minor wounds form scars. The procedure is usually performed during childhood, and the patterns and designs of the scarification are often similar to those used in a group's pottery and sculpture. Both men and women bear these scars, usually on the face, torso, thigh, or upper arm.

Some types of scarification carry special meanings. Certain scars on the foreheads of men in the IGBO region of Nigeria, for example, indicate high social rank. In some cultures, scarification is believed to make a person more beautiful or to provide magical or protective benefits. Because various peoples have developed distinctive styles of scarification, scars may also identify the wearer as a member of a particular ethnic group.

Other types of body decoration practiced in Africa are also permanent. In North Africa, some Bedouin and BERBER tribes mark their faces with tattoos. Berber tattoos often indicate membership in a particular group and are modeled after ancient Libyan script. Some East African peoples beautify themselves by extracting certain teeth or by filing or chipping their teeth into sharp points. Other groups pierce holes in their lips and earlobes and then gradually stretch them by inserting larger and larger plugs or plates.


Long ago Africans dressed in skins, woven grass and raffia, leaves, and cloth made of tree bark. Today such items are used only in a few places or during certain ceremonies. The Kuba people of CONGO (KINSHASA) still produce the embroidered raffia shirts with geometric patterns that both men and women used to wear for rituals and public events. However, today the main function of these shirts is to dress the dead at funerals.

Most Africans wear garments of woven cotton cloth. Men appear in a wide variety of smocks and robes. Rural men in Egypt and Sudan may wear the jellaba, an ankle-length robe with sleeves and side pockets, made to be worn over a shirt. A similar long, loose robe is the dishdasha, used by both men and women in ALGERIA.

A number of African garments consist of a single piece of cloth. Women frequently wear wrappers—large rectangles of cloth they wrap around their bodies. Often a woman dresses at home in a single wrapper tucked and twisted under her arms, and she adds additional items when appearing in public. The typical outfit of YORUBA women consists of a wrapper tied at the waist, a smaller cloth worn over the first wrapper or over the left shoulder, and a long-sleeved blouse. Nomadic men in Mali wear patterned wool blankets during the cold nights of the dry season. In parts of GHANA and Ivory Coast, men wrap themselves in a large, rectangular piece of cloth that is draped over the left shoulder.

Some African attire has special significance. A man's social position may be proclaimed by the size and shape of his smock or by the decoration of his robe. Among the BAMBARA people of MALI, hunters display their skill by wearing white smocks adorned with leather-covered amulets and hunting trophies. An expert hunter's shirt may be almost invisible under the horns, claws, and bits of fur or hide the wearer has attached to it. Sometimes a particular pattern of cloth has a name that refers to a proverb, local event, or political issue. People wear these cloths because of the messages communicated by the patterns.

Accessories and Hairstyles

Jewelry and other accessories may express even more about their wearer than clothing does. Various styles of brass, stone, bone, or iron bracelets and armlets may declare an African's success, gender, or religion. In some cases, much of a person's wealth is worn in the form of gold jewelry. Belts, caps, and jewelry may be decorated with beadwork in designs that represent a certain idea or message.

Accessories often indicate a person's authority. In some societies, only leaders or members of special groups may wear items made of precious materials, such as ivory or gold. The pharaohs who ruled ancient Egypt wore a type of beaded necklace reserved only for gods. In ancient Benin, the traditional costume of the king consisted of a coral-beaded crown and smock, and jewelry of ivory and coral. The red of the coral represented power, while the white of the ivory stood for spiritual purity. Among the ZULU of SOUTH AFRICA, the king wears a necklace of leopard claws, while lesser chiefs wear ornaments of bone carved in the shape of leopard claws. Fly whisks—animal hair attached to handles and used to wave away flies—are symbols of leadership used by men throughout Africa. Both traditional and modern rulers often carry them during public appearances.

In North Africa the head covering is perhaps the most common accessory. Some men wear the traditional Arab head cloth, or kafiyya, held in place with a coil of cord. Others may wear the fez, a cylindershaped hat that originated in the region. Among the TUAREG people of the Sahara region, men cover their heads and faces with long veils dyed blue with indigo, while women wear headcloths. Women in Muslim countries or communities have traditionally covered their heads and faces with a veil.

Hairstyles are also used in parts of Africa to express symbolic meaning as well as personal style. Common styling techniques include shaving, braiding, stringing beads on the hair, interweaving fibers with the hair, and shaping the hair with mud or clay. Some peoples use hairstyles to mark stages in life. Young men of the MAASAI shave their heads when they become adult warriors. Then they let their hair grow long, spending hours styling each other's hair into elaborate arrangements of many twisted strands coated with red mud. (See also Art, Crafts, Initiation Rites.)