Saturday, September 24, 2011

Why I Started Wearing African Dresses

Written by Azizi Powell

This is an essay I wrote in January 2006 (with minor revisions).

I've a confession to make. The real reason why I started wearing African dresses was to impress a certain man. Yeah I know-wrong reason. But my excuse was that I was only 20 years old.

I had just started going out with an African American man who had given himself the Arabic name of "Zayd". A little later in our relationship, Zayd would give me the Swahili name "Azizi", and that's the name most people know me by.

Zayd owned & operated an African book, jewelry, and clothing shop in northern New Jersey not too far from the college that I attended. He impressed me as a handsome, intelligent, somewhat older man who had traveled to Africa a couple of times. Perhaps because of that travel, Zayd knew an African man who was affiliated with the United Nations. As a result of this contact, Zayd received an invitation to a United Nations reception for some African dignitary, and he invited me to attend this reception with him.

Well, I didn't have the faintest idea what to wear to a United Nations reception, and being a poor college student, I had no money to go out and buy a dress.

I shared my dilemma with a college classmate who I had recently met. That Black girl lived with a White family as a foster child or in some such arrangement. When she heard about my dilemma, she convinced me that my best bet was to buy a sewing machine pattern and make my own dress. So we went out and bought a pattern, and then we took the pattern back home to her house, and enlisted the help of her White foster sister. That girl was around our same age, and had the sewing machine skills that we lacked. With their considerable help, I ended up with a long, light green "African dress" that looked quite good on me -if I do say so myself. So my aura was shining brightly at that reception.

I don't remember what the other women wore that evening, but I do remember pretending not to notice the looks of admiration that I received from the men. Yeah, I had it goin on that night. After that success, I bought a couple of long dresses from Zayd's store (or did he give them to me? Probably both). And that's how I started to wear African long dresses in my daily life.

A year or so after I started wearing African clothing, I joined a cultural nationalist organization that was based in Newark, New Jersey. Zayd was one of the leaders of that organization. Poet, playwright, activist Amiri Baraka (formerly kn own as LeRoi Jones) was another one of that group's leaders. Through that organization I met several women who were members of New York's Grandassa models*, and I even modeled with them one time. These women and a few other African American women who were members of that Newark organization taught me how to wrap fabric on my head. I would sometimes wrap those geles in the shape of a rounded crown. But I preferred wrapping them the Nigeria way with pieces of fabric sticking out. During this time and for a long while afterwards, my entire outdoor wardrobe consisted of long "African" dresses or tops & long wraparound or sewed skirts.

A few years after I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania I met a Yoruba woman named Olabisi (Bisi) Ogunleye. Bisi's husband was attending the University of Pittsburgh. She was a wonderful seamstress & she made some African dresses for me from authentic Nigerian material. Bisi also shared some Yoruba stories and songs with me that I adapted for my school & community presentations as an "African storyteller". And one Thanksgiving Bisi invited me and my then husband over for dinner. That was our first time eating fu fu. And even though Bisi said that she hadn't made that traditional Nigerian dish with a lot of hot spices because she knew most African American weren't used eating food that was too hot, I quickly reached for a glass of water because that food was burning my mouth.

Bisi joined me in some of the community cultural presentations that I did. And when I stopped working at Carnegie Library as an African storyteller, she was hired to fill this position. About a year later, Bisi and her husband and children returned to Nigeria and we lost touch with each other. Blessings on you, Bisi, wherever you are. Thanks for helping your African American sister.

Time passed. Time passed. Time passed and around about 1987 I stopped wearing African clothing all the time. But I still wear authentic African wraparound skirts and matching tops, or 'real' African dresses, and I still wear African geles for cultural presentations or just because I want to. And if somebody asks me why I started to wear African clothing, I say it's to celebrate my African culture. But I know the real reason I started wearing those clothes. And now so do you. :o)

*The Grandassa models were a Harlem (New York City) based group of afro-centric Black female models.

Click for more information about that group of models.

Here are two videos that demonstrate how to wrap Nigerian headwraps (geles) and Nigerian wrap around skirts (lapas)

How to tie Gele, Aso Oke, Head wrap, Head tie, Scarf, Damask, Single

Uploaded by DupsiesAfricanAttire on Jan 19, 2010
How to tie Gele (Paper-like material used in West Africa and other parts of Africa as a head wrap, Headtie or stole/shawl)

How to Tie a Wrapper, Lapa, Iro, Wrap Skirt

Uploaded by DupsiesAfricanAttire on Jan 19, 2010
How to tie a wrapper, Lapa, Iro (Worn in Africa. Usually worn with a matching top. Can also be worn with other tops). Can also be worn around the neck...

Here is a video of a traditional Yoruba (Nigerian) wedding that showcases traditional Nigerian female & male fashions:

[This video was added on October 8, 2016 to replace the former video which is no longer available.

Folayemi and Olusanmi -- A Traditional Union

KauriFilms's channel, Uploaded on Sep 10, 2011
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  1. I love the irony that my first "African" dress was made for me by a White American woman.

    When I started wearing geles, I tied them from the back to the front as shown in that video. But for the last five years or so, for some reason, I prefer to start in the front and tie my cotton headwraps on the side in a figure eight shape and/or leave one piece at the top and one at the bottom or more pieces hanging out.

    The more expensive Nigerian fabric that I have (I don't know its name but it's shiny and silk-like), I again start from the front of my head and go back, twirling it around the front and then tieing it with a piece hanging out up the top and one piece hanging down on the side. It's always the left side too. I don't know what-if anything-that means, but it doesn't feel right to me if the pieces are on the right side of my head. Also, I usually wear the headwrap covering my ears. I think that this is just out of habit.

    Sorry. I don't upload videos but if I find a video which demonstrates this style, I'll post it.

  2. The video of Sam & Abiola's engagement is one of a series of 41 YouTube videos that was posted by that uploader.

    I selected #22 video in part because it is part 2 of that series and thus includes the couples' names & the location of that ceremony (in Houston, Texas of all places!). I also selected that particular video because of the women's processional (I assume that these women who accompany the bride to be play a role similar to or the same as bridesmaids). It's interesting to see that the bride's face is covered with a cloth, and also with an umbrella for portions of this procession and the subsequent dance. I've noticed this processional and the bride’s face being covered by cloth in other videos of Yoruba engagements. Both those customs are similar to Western marriage traditions. I wonder if those customs predate Nigerian colonization or not?

    There is also a processional for the men in another video from this series.

    Unfortunately, the video uploader didn't provide any other information about those videos (or that couple) in those video summaries. Also, (besides my comment in the #22 video) there are no other comments about these videos. I wonder how the couple is doing. I couldn’t find either name on facebook. I’ve written the video uploader on YouTube and hopefully will be in contact with him or her.

  3. In a related note, I posted a chapter of on names from an unpublished manuscript from Fela Sowande. In particular the last name Taiwo (of the bride to be in that video) interests me as I recognize it as a Yoruba twin name.

    Visitors to this page may be interested in a page that I published on my Cocojams website of a chapter on Yoruba names from an unnpublished book by noted Nigerian musician & scholar Fela Sowande. The link to that page is