The dashiki is a colorful men's garment widely worn in West Africa that covers the top half of the body. It has formal and informal versions and varies from simple draped clothing to fully tailored suits. Traditional female attire is called a caftan, or kaftan. A common form is a loose-fitting pullover garment, with an ornate V-shaped collar, and tailored and embroidered neck and sleeve lines.
Dashiki is a Yoruba word that means shirt. The cap worn with a dashiki is call a kufi, and is named after the city of Kufi, Nigeria. The word means crown. Sokoto are the pants worn with a dashiki, and are named after the city of Sokoto, in Nigeria.
The dashiki found a market in America during the Black cultural and political struggles in the 1960s. A prototype was developed in 1967 by Jason Benning, Milton Clarke, Howard Davis, and William Smith. These young professionals formed a company called New Breed to produce dashikis. It was located in a 2-room clothing store at 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in the Harlem section of Manhattan. Articles on New Breed appeared in Ebony Magazine and the New York Times (4/20/69).
The dashiki was featured in the movies Uptight (1968), Putney Swope (1969), and the weekly television series Soul Train (1971). Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain, Sammy Davis Jr., and Bill Russell were among the well-known Black athletes and entertainers who wore the dashiki on talk shows.
The term dashiki begins appearing in print at least as early as mid-1968: an article by Faith Berry in the New York Times Magazine includes it on July 7, 1968. Reporting on the 1967 Newark riots in the Amsterdam News on July 22, 1967, George Barner refers to a new African garment called a "danshiki." "Dashiki" first appeared in the Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1st College Edition 1970/72.
Former District of Columbia mayor and current councilmember Marion Barry is famous for wearing the dashiki at various times, particularly in the time period leading up to elections. More recently he has donned a modified dashiki that combines the traditional form with a Western-style button-down shirt.
The informal version is a traditional print or embroidered dashiki. Three formal versions exist. The first type, consists of a dashiki, sokoto (drawstring pants), and a matching kufi. This style is called a dashiki suit or dashiki pant set and it is the attire worn by most grooms during wedding ceremonies. The second version consists of an ankle length shirt, matching kufi, and sokoto. The second style is called a robe or Senegalese kaftan. The third type, is usually only worn by Tribal chiefs, Nigerians, or Muslims, and it consists of a dashiki, and matching pants. A flowing gown is worn over these. This type is called a Grand boubou in various Francophone countries. In the English speaking world, it is called an Agbada, see the Grand boubou article for further information.
There are several different styles of dashiki suits available from African clothing stores. The type of shirt included in the set determines the name. The traditional dashiki suit includes a thigh length shirt. The short sleeve, traditional style is preferred by purists. A long dashiki suit includes a shirt that is knee length or longer. However, if the shirt reaches the ankles, it is called a robe or Senegalese kaftan. Finally, the lace dashiki suit includes a shirt made of lace. A hybrid of the dashiki and caftan worn by females is a traditional male dashiki with a western skirt.
The following chart gives a type of formal wear on the left and lists the African equivalent on the right. Some merchants distribute similar charts to their customers with equivalent men's and women's styles listed. In the trade, they are referred to as African Attire Equivalency Charts. This type of chart is only used in the Caribbean, Europe, Canada, and the United States of America. In West Africa, a man's tribal affiliation governs his mode of dress. When wearing African attire to a formal event, any color is acceptable. However, many men prefer to wear black with gold embroidery, or dark blue with gold embroidery, to blend in with the dark tuxedos. In Afro-Latin American communities, white is the norm, see Abadá.
The London suit is a style of attire worn in the United Kingdom, named after the city of London. The suit consists of a pair of black dress pants, men's dress shirt, and tie. The Agbada gown (also called a Grand boubou, which means big robe in French) is worn on top of the shirt and tie in place of the Western suit jacket. A kufi cap that matches the gown completes the suit. The suit originated among members of the Black British community who wanted to wear heirloom gowns for christenings, weddings, funerals, and Easter or Christmas dinners in the home. The dashiki suit worn under the Agbada (gown) wears out quickly, but a well maintained Agbada will last a lifetime. Old gowns do not have the corresponding dashiki suit. Use of the London suit has spread throughout the African diaspora. In some families, it is a tradition for a son to wear his father's or grandfather's Agbada gown for wedding ceremonies with a shirt and tie, or tuxedo shirt and bow tie. Although it is a tradition, the London suit is not true African attire but a blend of Africa and the West.
A traditional Agbada or Grand boubou consists of a dashiki (shirt), sokoto (drawstring pants), and the Agbada or Grand boubou (gown) is worn on top of these with a kufi (cap). Men who wish to wear heirloom gowns should invest in a long sleeve, white, dashiki suit. A white dashiki suit can be worn under an Agbada of any colour.
White is the traditional color for West African weddings. Most grooms wear white dashiki suits during wedding ceremonies. For Christians, white represents purity and salvation. For Muslims, white represents purity and equality among believers or ummah. The bride's attire is a woman's kaftan or a blouse and skirt set that is the same color as the groom's dashiki. A traditional African-American wedding was shown in the blaxploitation film Five on the Black Hand Side. Some couples wear non-traditional colors. The most common non-traditional colors are purple and blue.
European style is a colloquial term for a wedding in which the bride and groom wear light and dark shades of the same color. In Europe the bride wears a white wedding dress and the groom wears a black tuxedo. Some African and African-American couples prefer this light and dark color scheme. Popular European style wedding schemes include:
Formal and festival dashiki styles are often seen on special occasions in West Africa. Perhaps due to immigration, the formal dashiki is also in common use in large Western cities. Many dashikis can be seen at houses of worship including, mosques, and churches and the dashiki is frequently worn at weddings, graduations, and other special occasions.