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It would be erroneous to generalize African clothing, even in the context of African cultures and traditions. The continent has fifty four nations, as recognized by the United Nations and the African Union. Each of these nations has multiple subcultures. There are scores of tribes and ethnicities with dozens of languages. Hence, it is unfair to club such fascinating diversity into one simplified classification such as African clothing. However, it is also true that most people will find the traditional, ethnic, cultural and social diversity on the continent rather overwhelming, so simplification is a quintessential need.
African clothing, like the traditional attires across most civilizations that have been around for centuries or millennia in some cases, has specific meanings and symbolisms. Right from the choice of color to the type of symbol on the pattern or print, everything conveys a message.
The meaning is not always confined to the obvious designs or what is visible. The way a piece of cloth or garment is cut and sewn also has significance. The elderly, chiefs of tribes and healers have a tradition of wearing clothes that highlight their status in their society. Festive patterns and colors are used on clothes to be worn on special occasions or during celebrations.
Women wear clothes that signify their marital status and age. For instance, long skirts that are wrapped around and head wraps are worn by young women who are yet to marry. Adding a piece of cloth to the same long skirt to carry a baby implies the woman is married.
With the exception of some regions in Nigeria and Ghana, where people still make and wear their own traditional clothes, and some remote areas across the continent, most countries in Africa are now a market for manufacturers stretching from America to China. West African clothing is quite visibly different from South African clothing.
East and Northeast African clothing is more influenced by the Middle East than the African elements of design. While symbols of lion and elephant still signify leadership or chieftainship and symbols of snake or bird signify the trade, such as that of a healer, and these are still prevalent, most people are only retaining their popular colors for their clothes. The old order is less relevant today. For instance, gold or blue no longer signifies royalty.
The most common colors found in African clothing are gold, red, blue, green and white. Black is also a common color but it is confined to its significance during mourning and funerals. The color black implies maturity and spiritual energy.
Gold is one of the most popular colors. It signifies fertility and wealth. It is needless to mention that gold was the default choice for royalty and the rich. White signifies purity and spirituality. The significance and meaning of white is pretty much universal. One can even say that the root of this universal sensibility lays in Africa. A distinction should be drawn between spirituality as implied by the color white and spiritual energy as implied by the color black. Spirituality is a personality trait, a persons choice and how one goes about their life. Spiritual energy is not a choice. It is there in everyone, whether or not one chooses to harness it.
The color blue implies peace and love. It represents the sky and stands for togetherness. It is regarded as a color of harmony in almost all African cultures and subcultures. The color green signifies life and prosperity. It is also regarded as a color representing any cure or medicine, basically any type of treatment. Green is also significant for its association with harvest.
The color maroon implies healing. It is the color of the soil or Mother Earth. The color purple signifies femininity, so does the color pink. The color red represents death, bloodshed, sacrificial rituals, political moods and spiritual quests. The color yellow represents beauty. It also signifies preciousness. The color grey, which is essentially the color of ash, is representative of cleansing. It is widely used in rituals related to healing. The color silver symbolizes the moon and signifies purity, joy and peace.