By Nii B. Andrews

Classic formal wear for men in the West is divided into ensembles for day and night.

Daytime options are the morning coat or the stroller (aka Stresemann).

Evening options are the tuxedo (aka dinner jacket) or white tie; the latter is rarely seen these days and often poorly executed when it appears.

Of course, either a navy blue or charcoal lounge suit (with black oxfords; black or navy grenadine flying tie during the day; black satin flying tie at night) is always a correct option.

GIRKE SAKI/KWAKWATANSAKI: early 20th century. Dyed indigo saki fabric with white silk thread embroidery. Aska Biyu (Two knives) motif.

When considering classic indigenous West African clothing, the best option for formal wear is the full “Hausa robe”; it is worn in every country in the region.

It’s construction takes care of all climactic, mobility and exposure issues; we need not elaborate on those here and now.

A modern ensemble is easily commissioned or purchased off the rack.

These modern versions utilize imported machine made cloth and are decorated with machine done embroidery- often done in a stiff, sloppy and simplistic manner, thus rendering it like an ill-fitted breastplate.

A single cloth pattern is used for the several pieces of the modern ensemble.

Brown and white striped TSAMIYA GOWN: Early 20th century. Tan silk embroidery. Aska Biyu (Two knives) motif.

But the debonair option is an antique robe made from indigenous hand spun and woven cloth with tight layers of intricate hand done embroidery, (following the venerated patterns of houses, knives etc) utilizing wild indigenous forest silk.

These high end gowns usually span 8 feet (2.5m) or more across and are 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5m) long; they are family heirlooms and hang from the shoulder to the feet when worn.

DETAIL OF BLUE GIRKE SAKI EMBROIDERY. Early 20th century. Private collection. It shows aska takwa (eight knives motif) with spirals and chevrons The elongated triangles are the aska (knife or razor).

It is almost certain that a diligent search could unearth skilled craftsmen who are still able to execute such gowns – possibly from Nupe.

The gown will not come cheap but is certainly well worth it.

Such gowns are worn over one or two smaller multi color hand spun, woven and made smocks with wide sleeves that reach below the elbows.

TSAMIYA GOWN- Early 20th century. Embroidery of tan silk thread over white cotton fabric. Aska Biyu (Two knives) motif.

The cascading array of colors along the wearer’s arm- starting from the shoulders, together with the embroidery in front of the gown that extends over the shoulder to the back, all add to the opulence of the ensemble which also signals the high prestige and aesthetic taste of the wearer.

There is the option of adding accessories such as knee high decorated leather boots, a fly whisk or a walking cane.

This should be resisted for surely we can agree that adding those pieces will move things into the realm of costume – certainly a bridge too far.

Moderation and balance are the hallmark of a true gentleman.

DETAIL OF KWAKWATA GOWN/GIRKE SAKI. Early 20th century. Private collection. The gown is made of dyed indigo saki fabric elaborately hand embroidered with white thread. Aska Biyu (Two knives) motif.

A bracelet or two of patinated Dogon sacred bronze makes for an excellent accent, though.

The whole ensemble (without the costumey embellishments) is a majestic “moving art installation” steeped in over 150 years of West African history and symbolism thus exposing how a modern tailored Agbada ensemble is a pale shadow of the real deal.

TWO DOGON SACRED BRONZE BRACELETS: Early 20th century. Private collection.

In 1981, according to Alhaji Abubakar Bayero (the junior brother of the then reigning Emir, and District head of the Bichi section of Kano), a scion of the Sullabawa clan that has controlled the emirship of Kano since 1819, “To wear these gowns is to be different from other people……”

Yes, indeed!

We should raise the bar.

DETAIL OF BROWN STRIPED TSAMIYA GOWN. Early 20th century. Private collection. The gown is made with wild silk (tsamiya) fibre using a traditional loom to weave the fabric strips. It is joined from start to finish by hand using top stitching to attach the strips together to form the fabric. It is hand embroidered with wild silk thread with Aska Biyu (two knives) motif.


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