Cloth as a Marker of Identity: The Historical Search For The Symbolic Meaning of Nigerian Clothing – Mal. Abdulbasit Kassim

. Have you ever reflected on the historical symbolism and meanings of the clothing we wear? What has changed in the pattern and style of our clothing from the pre-colonial, colonial to the post-colonial periods? Why are specific types of clothing unique to specific historical periods and regions of Nigeria?

On 15th October 2019, I arrived at Geidam in Yobe State for field research. I started my preparation for this specific field research three months in advance. As part of my preparation, I consulted people in Yobe state including Dr. Kagu Abubakar who advised me on the appropriate time to travel and when not to travel. Thank you, Dr., for the support you gave me during my fieldwork. I felt prepared for this round of fieldwork and the items I thought I needed were all in my research bag – my wallet, university ID, Nigerian passport (in case of military checks), digital voice recorder, power bank for my laptop and phone, notebook and writing pad, pen and pencil, Sony Camera, USB drive, and of course, my Ben Franklin glasses. I was set to go until a friend told me something was missing in my bag. Guess what? He said I could not travel to Geidam to interview Islamic scholars with my Kampala/Danshiki which has become my African signature attire in the US. “Abdulbasit, you have to dress in the proper Northern Nigerian Kaftan with your cap. As a northerner, do you even need to be told?”

This conversation spurred a moment of silence in me and I immediately started reflecting on the symbolic meaning of clothing as a marker of identity and social status. Clothing is an important aspect of material culture. As humans, we wear cloth to protect our bodies from heat, cold, rain and for the purposes of modesty. However, the cloth we wear also makes a bold statement on our behalf “This is the sort of person I want you to think that I am.” Our clothes make statements about economic status, occupational roles, affiliations with other people, differentiation from others, individual expression, history, and memory. In my moment of reflection, I recalled the twin cases of Melania Trump and how her choice of clothing sparked a political outrage in America. First, Melania Trump wore the “I don’t really care, do u?” jacket during her visit to a Texas holding center where undocumented children were temporarily placed after being separated from their parents. She later claimed that the jacket was actually meant to send a message to the “left-wing media.” Second, on the penultimate day of her tour of Africa, Melania Trump wore a pith helmet – a symbol of colonial rule and oppression worn by European explorers and imperial administrators in Africa – as headwear for a brief safari in Kenya.

Several books have been published on the history of clothing and African textile production including the books “Cloth as Metaphor: Nigerian Textiles from the Museum of Cultural History” published in 1983 by Jean Borg; “History, Design, and Craft in West African Strip-Woven Cloth” edited in 1992 by Peggy Stoltz Gilfoy; “Cloth in West African History” published in 2006 by Colleen Kriger; and more recently “Veils, Turbans and Islamic Reform in Northern Nigeria” published in 2018 by Elisha P. Renne. Although the contents of these books are rich, the authors and editors barely gave a thorough explanation of the symbolism and meanings of Nigerian clothing.

Let’s take an astern step and ask some questions:

1. Have you ever reflected on the historical symbolism and meanings of the clothing we wear? What has changed in the pattern and style of our clothing from the pre-colonial, colonial to the post-colonial periods? Why are specific types of clothing unique to specific historical periods and regions of Nigeria?

2. Why was loincloth the most common form of clothing among the Igbo men in pre-colonial Nigeria?

3. Why do the Tivs wear black and white stripes “Zebra Skin”? Why is this dress tagged the “Anger Dress”?

4. What is the symbolic meaning of the “Red and Green Garb” of Dogari in Hausaland? Is this symbolic meaning related to jihad and warfare?

5. At what stage in the history of Islam in Nigeria did the prohibition of Isbāl became a marker of clothing identity? Does that mean that In the entirety of Borno and Hausaland since the 11th century none of the scholars read the hadith of Ibn Sa’d until the 1970s

إِزَارَة الْمُؤْمِن إِلَى أَنْصَاف سَاقَيْهِ , لَا جُنَاح عَلَيْهِ فِيمَا بَيْنه وَبَيْن الْكَعْبَيْنِ , مَا أَسْفَل مِنْ ذَلِكَ فَهُوَ فِي النَّار

6. Why did the advent of suit and tie in the 19th and 20th centuries became a marker of conversion from Islam and African Religions to Christianity?

7. What is the symbolism of the black, blue and white striped material in the clothing of the Igede people?

8. What is the symbolism of the Tengaade hat worn by Fulani men? What’s the origin of the hat?

9. Why do the followers of the Olumba Olumba Brotherhood of the Cross and Star wear red clothing? What is the symbolism of the red color for the Olumba Olumba?

10. Why was it fashionable for men to wear wrappers and skirts in the pre-colonial and colonial periods? And why is it no longer fashionable for men to wear wrappers and skirts today without being looked upon as a “cross-dresser or gay”? By the way, Somali men still wear wrappers.

11. Why do the members of Makondoro (Zumrat al-Mu‘mīnin) wear a huge and hefty turban? What is the symbolism of their turban as a marker of identity?

12. What is the ritual symbolism of black and green clothing in Shiism?

13. What is the symbolism of the coral beads in the clothing of Edo women?

14. What is the symbolism of Apa and Edema (the black and red) in Idoma clothing?

15. What is the symbolism of the yellow and black striped material for the Igalas?

What, what, what, why, why, why, how, how, how…..


One Response

  1. Avery good write up and thought provoking as Ibraheem Waziri pen it down. The wrappers wearing men, I believe is an old civilization which span from the west to the east and north to the south, globally. The Vikings through the Malaysians/Indonesians, the Scottish, Indians, Chinese/Japanese, Kenyans, Somalia, Mali, Igbo, Tiv, idoma, Edo, Yoruba traditionalist and to crown it all, during hajj, which is the highest form of Islamic religion and rituals.
    Thank you once again, it’s a thought provoking.

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