Clothing in Kenya: Dressing With a Purpose

By National Museums of Kenya

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

Symbolizing wealth

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

Symbolizing leadership

This Pokomo chief's traditional regalia signifies his social status as a leader.

Imenti Married Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Ceremonial dress

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

Animal skins

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

Tanning techniques

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.

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curators: Immelda Kithuka, and Mercy Gakii,Cultural Expert, Cultural Heritage Department.

Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini. Gibs Photography

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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