African Clothing – Early History of Clothing

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Brown leather cape with decorations

Early African clothing: Masai leather cape with glass trade beads from India, from north-eastern Africa (ca. 1000 AD)

Africa‘s a big place, so people had very different styles of clothing in different parts of Africa. And this page covers a lot of time, from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, so there were also a lot of changes in clothing during that time.

When did people start to wear clothing?

People in Africa seem to have started wearing clothing around 180,000 years ago, soon after homo sapiens evolved – at least, that’s about the time that the first body lice got started, and lice need clothing to live in.

African people probably started to wear clothes because of an Ice Age about that time: it got too cold in many parts of Africa to be comfortable naked. People first made clothing out of animal skins – leather and fur shawls and loincloths. They made the first jewelry out of seashells, ostrich egg shells, and feathers.

Bark cloth

A brown strip with black patterns: African clothing

Early African clothing: Bark cloth from the Congo, in central Africa

After many thousands of years, people began to make lighter, less sweaty kinds of clothes. Probably the first kind of cloth made in Africa was pounded bark fibers.

You peel the bark off trees and pound it with a rock until the fibers get soft and the hard part breaks off. This makes small pieces of bark cloth which can be pounded or sewn together.

In Uganda in Central Africa, for instance, people used the bark of fig trees. This kind of bark fabric may be related to the development of Egyptian papyrus.

(More about fig trees)

Raffia cloth

Cream cloth with dark blue patterns

Early African clothing: Indigo dye on cotton cloth

African people also pounded cloth from the raffia palm. The Greek historian Herodotus describes people who wore raffia cloth in the story of the Persian explorer Sataspes.

Linen cloth

By about 5000 BC – still in the Stone Age – people in Egypt, North Africa, and East Africa were starting to spin and weave their clothing out of a plant called flax. We call that kind of cloth linen.

(More about the history of linen)

Linen was harder to make, and took longer, but it was more flexible and more beautiful. By 3000 BC, Egyptian workshops made super-fine linen to sell to people in other places.

Cotton cloth

People in Egypt were also producing some cotton cloth by around 2500 BC. But they never grew very much cotton. Egypt really specialized in linen.

(More about the history of cotton)

Indigo dye

People dyed this bark cloth to make all kinds of patterns. The most important dye was indigo, which is the dye we use today to make blue jeans blue. There were no indigo plants in Africa. Africans bought indigo dye from Indian traders.

(More about African trade with India)

Tie-dyeing and African clothing

Africans used tie-dyeing to make patterns on their cloth. In some parts of Africa, women did most of the fabric work, and in other parts of Africa, men did most of the pounding, spinning, and weaving.

(More about spinning)

But early Africans also kept on wearing fur, and leather, and feather hats and headdresses, and jewelry made of ostrich shells, gold, feathers, and braided grass.

Clothing in ancient Egypt
Shoes in ancient Egypt
More about African clothing

Bibliography and further reading about African cloth and clothing:

More about African clothing
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By |2018-06-13T16:48:38+00:00May 18th, 2017|Africa, Clothing, History|2 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. African Clothing – Early History of Clothing. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 18, 2017. Web. December 19, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

2 Comments

  1. Hazel Rader June 12, 2018 at 3:07 pm - Reply

    in the part called bark cloth you didn’t put a space between trees and the next word

    • Karen Carr June 12, 2018 at 3:25 pm

      Thanks, Hazel! It’s a problem with the coding, not with my typing, but I’ve fixed it now.

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