What Are the Meanings of the Symbols on African Clothing?

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A distinctive feature of traditional African dress is its use of festive colors, intricate patterns and figurative symbols to communicate meaning. These garments are much more than mere adornment. According to Dr. Kwesi Yankah, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Ghana, they are used "not just to praise political heroes, to commemorate historical events, and to assert social identities, but also as a form of rhetoric--a channel for the silent projection of argument."

1 Adinkra Cloth

Adinkra cloth is an embroidered and dyed cotton cloth that is native to Ghana. Using stamps carved from a gourd or calabash, the cloth is decorated with Adinkra symbols. These symbols, of which there are more than 700, represent historical events, regional proverbs and ideology, and aspects of daily life. Some common Adinkra symbols are the Adwo, which represents peace, the Dua Afe, a symbol of love and beauty and the Abe Dua, a treelike emblem that represents self-sufficiency and wealth.

2 Kente Cloth

Kente cloth is typically woven into long 3- to 4-inch-wide panels. Several panels can be sewn together to make clothing for both men and women. The patterns created by the brightly colored threads often represent common motifs, religious beliefs and political commentary. The colors are of particular significance as they interpret the meaning of the pattern, with red symbolizing death, green meaning fertility, white expressing purity and blue signifying love.

3 Garment Shape

In addition to pictorial symbols, colors and writing on the surface of the cloth, often the cut of a particular African garment can convey meaning. Traditional dress for the women of Akan includes various pieces that signify age and marital status. A woman wearing a Kaba, or top, and a long wrap-around skirt called an Asee Ntoma is likely young and unmarried. If she adds an Abosoo, a stretch of cloth around her midsection that is often used to carry small children, she indicates that she is married.

Based in Los Angeles, Claire McAdams has been writing professionally since 2006. Her work has appeared in "The Tennessean" and also online at MaestroCompany.com and SoCal.com. She holds a Bachelor of Music Degree from Belmont University and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from King College.