Welcome to Nigeria! This is a beautiful country, which is rich in natural resources and home to approximately 152 million people and is the continent’s most populous nation.
Over 200 tribes (ethnic groups) make up Nigeria, which borders Chad and Niger to its north, and sandwiched between Benin and Cameroon, there are three major ones. These tribes are Yoruba, Hausa and Fuluni (two tribes that merged) and Ibo. It gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, and as such, English is the national language. Each tribe, however, has its own very specific written and spoken language as well as culture and customs.
In the eyes of a Westerner, while it might seem that each ethnic group’s culture, customs and style of clothing are the same, they are quite different and distinct from one another. While not the most populous tribe, the Yoruba people tend to be most often found in positions within the national government and in jobs of distinction and power. Based on exposure, when Westerners identify with people or refer to someone from Nigeria, whether they realize it or not, in their mind’s eye, images of Yoruba people and their clothing are what often pops up.
Nigeria has three climates: equatorial, tropical and arid. As a result, the clothes, regardless which ethnic group is making them, tend to be loose fitting, and, more often than not, made from cotton. While a man may wear a Western style suit one day – usually gray, black, navy or tan, the next day he may opt to wear something Yoruba. Women for the most part dress in their ethnic garb or may do something rather clever. They’ll take the cloth used to make their apparel, and create a Western style skirt suit. The higher up a person is in his or her profession and the amount of business dealings he or she has with England, Europe and the United States will often determine the size and variation of their wardrobe.
A typical Yoruba 4-piece suit consists of the following:
• Buba – Blouse or shirt – may be one color or several and come in varying lengths; either just shy of his hips or it may come to his knees.
• Pants – Slightly baggy to allow for breathing, rarely are they tight. Again, may be one or several colors. The pants will have at least one color in common with his Buba, and unless they were purchased specifically for that suit, may be worn with another suit.
• Agabada – Flowing robe with wide sleeves. The more important the event, the more ornate the embroidery becomes. Agabadas are generally reserved for special occasions.
• Hat – Often two or more colors, it completes the ensemble. It is usually one that fits snuggly about the head and may or may not touch his ears.
Similar to a man’s outfit, sans the pants:
• Buba – Blouse – may be one color or several. May have embroidery or not and this largely depends upon the location where her outfit is being worn.
• Wrapper – This is a meant to be similar to a Western-style wrap skirt that was popular in the 1970s or likened to a sarong. It’s a large piece of square cloth that may or may not be the same color scheme and pattern as the Buba. It may come to just past her knees or to the floor. It may be fairly form fitting or extremely loose and flowing.
• Gele – Her head scarf or gear. Generally speaking, this is fashioned from the same piece of material as either her Wrap or her Buba or both (assuming the two were cut from the same bolt of cloth).
For a woman who rarely leaves her house without a Gele, what matches her work outfit, when going out will be nothing short of stunning. At minimum her Gele will be rich in color and often contort to an elaborate shape.
As with Westerners, the pieces worn are the same in the office as they are for social events, however, the materials, patterns and adornments used will differ. Dressing up is relative because in general, if a Nigerian leaves his or her house, whether rich or poor, he or she is always presentable. Casual is not a word that enters their fashion dictionary. There are just varying degrees of formal. What someone in the US might label dressed up, that’s usual attire for a Nigerian. Socializing, whether in a restaurant, a party, an office party, a wedding, etc., is a spectacle to behold!