Author: Susan Brown

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Woman's Head Wrap (Nigeria), early to mid-20th century
Yoruba Complete
A married woman must wear a head wrap, or gèlè, in order to feel fully and properly dressed. The manner in which she wraps her gèlè is a personal creative expression. With each wearing, the seven-foot length of cloth is folded, pleated, pinched, tucked, and spread into a new form. Re-tying the wrap each time...
Bogolanfini Woman's Wrapper (Mali), mid-20th century
Magic Mud
The simple name “mud cloth” scarcely does justice to the mastery of chemistry needed for the multi-step production of these dyed cloths. The deep brown color is created using iron-rich mud, fermented for over a year. But the fabric must be pre-treated before to allow the mud to function as a dye, and the motifs...
Man's Hat (ashetu) (Cameroon), mid- to late 20th century
Hat Hair
The spiky projections on each side of the ashetu hat reflect the tufted hairstyles once worn by high-ranking men, frequently represented in sculpture. They can also be interpreted as physical manifestations of the inner head, considered to be the center of intelligence and spirituality. The ashetu hat is worn by the Fon or king, at...
Pelete Bite Wrapper, 1930s
Making is Un-doing
The island group occupied by the Kalabari people is located in the Niger River delta. This strategic position brought them into contact with traders and travelers from many African and non-African cultures over a period of centuries. Their dress traditions are marked by an eclectic and cosmopolitan combination of cultural references. [1] Kalabari cut-thread cloth...
Adinkra Ceremonial Wrapper (Ghana), mid-20th century
Symbol and Meaning
Adinkra wrappers are traditionally worn for funerals. Their many symbols are printed from individually carved stamps, and the selection of symbols and their placement on the gridded cloth are considered a sort of communication from the living to the ancestors. Hundreds of unique symbols have been identified, but their meanings are not easily de-coded. Some...
Man's Cap (laket) (Democratic Republic of the Congo), late 19th–early 20th century
Full Dress Uniform
If you think pompoms are whimsical, think again. This photograph, from the remarkable Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art, shows titled soldiers known as iyol, who have earned the exclusive right to wear pompoms on their hats. [1] Elisofon, the famously colorful American photojournalist and filmmaker, traveled extensively around Africa...
Kente Prestige Cloth (Ghana), early to mid-20th century
Juneteenth (Emancipation Day)
Kente cloth is recognized around the world as a symbol of African identity and pride. But these colorful and majestic cloths were originally worn exclusively by members of the powerful ruling court of the Asante. A large community of artisans work in the village of Bonwire in the service of the royals to create the...
Placket sampler, cotton embroidered in cross, buttonhole, looping, and running stitches, Germany, 1871
Practical Sewing
Decorative embroidered samplers were made by daughters of the well-to-do for display in their homes, and were symbols of gentility as much as of skill. For daughters of the poor, instruction in needlework, while equally important, often had a more practical purpose: to prepare them for work as domestic servants. Going into service for a...
Silk kasuri kimono fabric by Junichi Arai (Japanese, b. 1932)
From Gray to Black
This extraordinary kimono length transitions over its forty-five foot span from gray at one end to black at the other, creating a striking diagonal composition. The flawless line of the diagonal and the evenness of the gray color, the result of crossing white warps with black wefts, is a testament to the skill of the...