In Summary
  • This is not to suggest that fabrics alone can create a national arts movement; neither is it to say that the textiles industry alone is capable of bringing about political change in Africa.

  • But they are part of the subset that builds unity.

  • Let’s consider fabrics as essential components of the road to peace, giving vital possibilities for engagement, participation and cooperation among the generations of Africans.

The xenophobic attacks in South Africa have philosophers and academics thinking. Just as the dashiki united Africa after the Black Panther (‘Wakanda’) movie, the kaftan, too, can bring our increasingly fragmented world together.


The events unfolding Down South have sparked an interest in African historical cultures — if for nothing, to create Pan-African unity. Meanwhile, Europe is battling it out with immigrants and their supposed intrusion.

All these in a year when we commemorate slavery, which began 400 years ago. Immigration, assimilation of cultures and even people is, therefore, not new.

Culture offers solutions through which we can channel our resources, energy and hopes. We can use it to flick off the doubts that, somehow, some parts of our world are exclusive to others. Geography says we are all one in a huge macro continent — Pangaea. Indeed, all mankind is supposed to have emanated from Kenya’s Olorgesaile Gorge.

The heritage of our Bantu languages, spoken since some 3,000 - 4,000 years ago in West and Central Africa, confirms that Bantus (many South Africans are Bantu) hail from this selfsame core; hence, this xenophobia madness is just that. We are all one by colour, language and heritage.

But we digress. Rather than deliver a monotonous dialogue on unity of life, why not look at textiles in an attempt to locate markers of unity? We choose the kaftan because it is the product we are most conversant with.


The kaftan offers some answers about the unity of cultures. From Russia, where it refers to a style of men’s long suit with tight sleeves, to ancient Mesopotamia, where kaftans were made from cotton or silk, it is clear the kaftan has been on one long endless journey across the world.

Fashion renaissance

In the 1890s, Alexandra Feodorovna (June 6, 1872-July 17, 1918), Empress of Russia, wore traditional Russian kaftan at her coronation. This resembled the kaftans worn by the Ottoman sultans and was in contrast to the tight-fitting corset dresses common in England at the time.

In the 20th Century, Paul Poiret started off a fashion renaissance that introduced free-flowing dresses, replaced tight corsets with brassieres and added a new standard of artistic value to his fashion plate.

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