Kanga dressNational Museums of Kenya
We wear culture
In Africa an individual’s clothing will not only serve as protection from the elements of weather but also gives information about the wearer, which includes their community, gender, marital status and age. Contemporary African clothing has foreign influence but maintains a lot of traditional style and meaning.
Tugen elder by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
The symbolism behind traditional attire
This old Tugen man wears an elder's gown and headdress, clearly showing his social status in his community. Traditionally, the Tugen lived in the Rift Valley, Kenya.
Kikuyu Old Man by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
This is an old Kikuyu man wearing an outfit symbolizing his wealth. Traditionally the Kikuyu community lived in Central Kenya.
Pokomo Elder by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
This Pokomo chief's traditional regalia signifies his social status as a leader.
Imenti Married Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
This is a married woman from the Imenti sub-community of the Meru, Eastern Kenya. She is dressed in a ceremonial dress and ornaments.
Borana Married Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
This is a married woman from the Borana community, North-Eastern Kenya, in ceremonial wear.
Samburu Man's attire by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
This Samburu man is dressed in a skin bark cloth and headdress. He is holding a shield and spear.
Animal skin was the most common traditional African cloth. Different communities wore different animals' skin, and processed them in various ways. The most common was cow hide, which was used to make cloaks, aprons and skirts.
Maasai Warrior by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
Clothing as a statement of bravery
The most outstanding was lion skin, which was mostly worn by warriors as a sign of bravery. This is an illustration of a Maasai warrior, commonly referred to as Moran, in ceremonial regalia and traditional weaponry.
Maasai Warrior Headdress by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
A crown to show bravery
The lion’s mane was worn as head gear among the Maasai to identify a warrior who had killed a lion in their lifetime.
SkirtNational Museums of Kenya
Evolution of traditional clothing
Humanity has used animal hides for clothing since the Paleolithic period. Between the 5th and 15th centuries, leather craft was developed, and various innovations have been applied through the centuries.
Front Apron by Mrs. LekarsintaNational Museums of Kenya
Traditional communities used sophisticated tanning techniques of raw hides and skins. These traditional methods are still practiced by various communities – among them, the Turkana, Pokot, Samburu and Somali ethnic groups in Kenya.
Front ApronsNational Museums of Kenya
The techniques used for tanning are unique to each ethnic group. In some cases, it involves using the bark of trees, ash, lemon, or fermented bran. Leather tanners are specialized and respected members of the community as the craft has cultural importance amongst these ethnic groups. Leather tanned by these methods is used for a variety of activities and items, ranging from belts, bead works, wallets, traditional skirts, prayer mats, sword holders, beds, and covering material for traditional housing, amongst other uses.
Tigania Woman's Dressing by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya
Tigania women wearing leather attire
This is an illustration of a Tigania woman wearing a leather beaded dress, cowrie shell belt, and metallic leg and arm ornaments.
Kamba (1995) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya
Contemporary dressing with a traditional touch
This is an image of an elderly Kamba man in contemporary clothing but influenced by traditional designs. Kamba men traditionally pierced and elongated their earlobes in a similar style.
KangaNational Museums of Kenya
The Kanga: the talking cloth worn by all
The Kanga (Leso) has deep cultural, historical and economic significance throughout the Indian Ocean region and, for more than 100 years, it has remained one of the most popular cultural items across East Africa.
Within Kenya, the Kanga is a common thread that links and unites cultures, the young and older people, men and women, rich and poor, and locals and foreigners in the colourful, dynamic world of its design.
Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.
Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography
Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei.