News / Africa

Kenyan 'National Dress' a Work in Progress

Kenyan designers are increasingly drawing on their heritage to create clothing that fuses Kenyan and western styles.
Kenyan designers are increasingly drawing on their heritage to create clothing that fuses Kenyan and western styles.

Multimedia

Is there a distinctive Kenyan "look"?  Perhaps not yet.  A country-wide competition held six years ago to come up with a Kenyan "national dress" failed to take off. But in Kenya's burgeoning fashion industry, designers are increasingly drawing upon their heritage to create clothing that fuses Kenyan and western styles. Some hold out hope that there can yet be a Kenyan "national dress."

The Nigerians have their buba dress, and the Ugandans, their gomesi. But Kenyan designers like Patricia Mbela bemoan the lack of a distinctive outfit in this conservatively-dressed country.

"You have to wear a tie, a nice skirt suit when you go to work. If you go with a tie-dye shirt to the office, you are most likely to get your boss call you in and telling you, 'That is not something you wear to the office unless it is a dress-down Friday.' It is sad - it does not make sense," she said.

Mbela was one of nine designers selected to create a Kenyan "national dress" in a competition six years ago, an idea that did not catch on.

In a country with more than 40 ethnic groups, most having a distinctive dress of their own, designers say it is a challenge to come up with an outfit that everyone will see themselves in.

Olivia Ambani, design and marketing manager with the Kenyan fashion house KikoRomeo, says she thinks a national dress is possible with a bit of flexibility. "I think it will take people being more open to cohesion and accepting that, if it is slightly more Maasai or more Kikuyu or more Luo or more coastal, it is okay because it still is part of the country and it will still represent us," she said.

Kenya does have its distinctive fabrics, most notably the checkered or striped shukas worn by the Maasai, the lessos, or khangas, which originated on the coast, and the kikoy.

But designer Wambui Njogu says these were typically used as shawls or wraps rather than as material to make into garments.

"We did not have fabric traditionally in Kenya, so everything was based in skins and leathers. Our skills are in things like beadwork, the leather handling, and the embellishment, but the actual garment and the stitching culture was never there. All you needed was something to wrap around you to keep the cold out, which is why we had the shuka -- the cloth was always on top of the leather loincloth," she said.

Njogu says a national dress would probably consist of a western-style garment that would be embellished with beadwork, coils and other symbols of Kenyan cultures.

She follows this type of trend in her clothing line, Moo Cow. One of her outfits incorporates a long leather apron similar to that worn by the Turkana people of northern Kenya.

For its part, KikoRomeo's designs draw upon cultures from all over Africa.

Design and marketing manager Olivia Ambani said "For instance, one of the collections that we have is Afro-punk collection. There is a lot of imagery on it, embellishment that is taken from scarification, which is something that is quite big in the continent. We give it the punk style, which is obviously something that is very British and taken from that era."

Ambani says more than 20 designers have come up with their own labels, which are beginning to be recognized locally and internationally, and that more and more designers are entering the industry.

Patricia Mbela also mixes Kenyan and western influences in her designs.

She says she has not given up on the goal of having a distinctive Kenyan national dress..

And to boost the Kenyan fashion industry, designer Wambui Njogu urges female politicians and other women frequently in the public eye to purchase and wear Kenyan-made clothing.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs