John Powell - Books on Ghana

Grassroots economic development in the Third World - How a university of science and technology can help.

Ghana Life: Women’s Dress

The influx of Western culture has changed women's dress in Ghana as it has changed men's, but in a subtly different way. In pre-colonial times, women and men wore the same traditional cloth that resembled the toga of the ancient Greeks and Romans. However, while men have kept their traditional cloth unchanged, their womenfolk adapted theirs in the nineteenth century to a more modest Victorian style of dress. The result has been that while the modern Ghanaian man wears his glorious Kente cloth only at funerals and festivals, his wife and sisters can be seen in their cloths, albeit in less costly fabrics, at work in their offices or even on a shopping trip.

Pictures of Africans from before the colonial era suggest that for everyday life both men and women wore very little clothes, and this is still the practice in more remote rural areas. This is reasonable in a hot humid climate provided that one is protected from the sun by appropriate skin pigmentation. No doubt both genders kept their precious Kente cloths for special occasions such as funerals and festivals. However, with the instability of the traditional cloth and its tendency to repeatedly fall from the left shoulder it could hardly be described as modest attire for women. To the Christian missionaries who accompanied the colonisers the clothes of women called for radical reform.

Before the end of the nineteenth century, the traditional women's cloth had been transformed into an elegant full length dress in the style of that era. Once established, its basic form proved remarkably resistant to change. Fashion found expression in the use of a wide variety of materials and in elaborate embroidery but in the second half of the twentieth century a 'woman's cloth' still meant a Victorian style dress. In its most precious and status enhancing form the woman's cloth was still made from the same narrow loom Kente cloth used to make the traditional man's cloth.

The women's cloths worn to funerals all tended to be of the same red and black colour combination. The highest status cloths were still sewn from the narrow strips of Kente cloth but the increasing cost of this laboriously hand crafted material forced many less affluent women to substitute cheaper imported fabrics. Women's cloths made from colourful Java prints became everyday wear for many urban dwellers including even market mammies who strode the city streets with their large round smiles and large round trays and high-piled wares elegantly balanced on their heads.

Off to the Funeral

Ladies in funeral cloths waiting in Kumasi for transport to the event. Usually held on Saturdays, funerals bring the extended family together and confirm its identity. Note also the dress of the two petty traders with their wares on their heads. They appear to be both selling oboroni wawu (dead man's clothes). (Photo by courtesy of David Preece, 1997)
 
The woman's cloth made from cheap imported fabric might have become universal dress for urban women were it not for the heightened poverty of the 1970s and early 1980s which forced both men and women to wear imported dead people's clothes. Oboroni wawu (the white person has died) is imported by the wealthiest traders from Europe in enormous bales of mixed used clothing. The bales are opened and women traders scramble for the best preserved items in their line of business: trousers, shirts, dresses, etc. By providing by far the cheapest clothes in the market, Oboroni wawu forced most people to wear modern Western dress and this affected women's attire more than men's.

In the age of Oboroni wawu, women, especially young women, could be seen in every style of Western dress. Jeans and T-shirts were widely worn by many of those who retained a youthful figure, while the more mature tended to opt for loose-fitting cotton dresses of various lengths or blouses with long skirts. Needless to say, styles changed from time-to-time, tracking trends in Europe by the few years taken for the clothes to be cast off and sent to the charity shop. There was no chance of these clothes being passed on a second time because most of them seemed to be worn until they were faded, threadbare and torn. Whatever the condition, they remained remarkably stain free, probably due to repeated hand washing.

Lady's Dresses at a Party in Accra, 2010

Most dresses are still based on the Victorian style introduced in the 1800s but in recent years many variations have appeared. However, the brightly coloured traditional narrow loom 'Kente' cloth is still much in favour, as can be seen in at least three of the dresses in the picture. 

In the field of fashion it is quite impossible for the lay person to predict future trends. By the start of the new millennium, with the introduction of broadloom weaving, tie-dye and Batik, small craft industries were beginning to produce creative new designs that could seed a local fashion industry. For the foreseeable future, however, it is likely that it will remain the aspiration of every Ghanaian, man and woman, to be seen at the Saturday funeral in the best Kente cloth that they can afford.

Wenchi Ohemaa - Queen Mother of Wenchi, Brong-Ahafo Region 

Nana Wenchihemaa is seen in a traditional cloth. On important ceremonial occasions the cloth will be made of narrow loom 'Kente' cloth, but it is often made of imported/modern cloth for everyday wear.

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