How to Make African Costumes

Traditional dress in Swaziland will differ from costumes in Ethiopia or Ghana.
Suazi man in traditional attire during Reed Dance 2007 image by Elzbieta Sekowska from

Accurately and respectfully representing African dress and culture can be challenging to costume designers. A diverse and culturally rich continent, African dress varies by region, nation, time period and socio-economic class. It can seem easy to rely on stereotypes to design the costumes necessary for your play or production. However, research and specificity is the only way to produce thoughtful, appropriate African costumes. While this requires time and effort, accurate and well thought-out African costumes will enhance the quality of your theatrical production.

Research costume and dress specific to your selected African region. Africa is a diverse continent, and the native dress of its citizens will vary from region to region. Resist the urge to classify "Africa" as one homogeneous entity, and research your specific African nation to respectfully and accurately begin your designs.

Source materials that will complement the designs of your chosen African region. Kente cloth is an instantly recognizable fabric, made of intricately woven strips that have been sewn together to form a large bolt of material. Aso oke, Adire, Kitenge, Mudcloth, Barkcloth and Kanga are other common African fabrics, many of which can be purchased online. Each originates in particular regions of Africa, and the colors and motifs used in each piece come with specific meanings. Be careful to use materials and patterns indigenous to the region you are representing.

Choose patterns that are loose-fitting and simply constructed. In general, African costumes are made of simple tunics, pants, dresses and head wraps in bright and earthy colors. Companies such as Dupsies, an online African clothing store, offer traditional African garments and include many images that can serve as a starting point for your pattern search.