The Yorubas are well known for a lot of things, food, culture, tradition, parties and not least of all fashion. From gele to aso oke to Ankara to iro and buba, the Yorubas have been a leading powerhouse of fashion for a long time. Today’s article will be focusing on the Agbada. An undeniable staple in a well respected Yoruba man’s wardrobe. Though popularly associated with the Yoruba tribe, it is not exclusive to us, Agbada is worn all over Africa and is known by different names to the different people who wear it.
The origin of the Agbada
The Wolof people of Senegal call it Boubou, the Hausa’s call it Babban Riga, the Tuaregs call it Gandora, and several Francophone West African countries call it Grand boubou. It is a general consensus amongst scholars that it originated in the Middle East and was introduced to Africa by the Berber and Arab merchants during the trans-Saharan trade that began in the pre-Christian era and lasted until the late nineteenth century. When worn with a turban, the agbada identified an individual as an Arab or a Muslim. Because of its costly fabrics and elaborate embroidery, the attire was once symbolic of wealth and high status, as a result, by the early nineteenth century, the attire had been adopted by many non-Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, most especially kings, chiefs, and elites, who not only modified it to reflect local dress aesthetics, but also replaced the turban with indigenous headgears. The bigger the robe and the more elaborate its embroidery, the higher the prestige and authority associated with it.
Types of Agbada
There are two major types of agbada among the Yoruba, namely the casual (agbada iwole) and ceremonial (agbada amurode). The casual agbada is also called Sapara, it is smaller, less voluminous, and often made of light, plain cotton. The Sapara came into being in the 1920s and is named after a Yoruba medical practitioner, Dr. Oguntola Sapara, who felt uncomfortable in the traditional agbada. He therefore asked his tailor not only to reduce the volume and length of his agbada, but also to make it from imported, lightweight cotton. The ceremonial agbada, on the other hand, is bigger, more ornate, and frequently fashioned from expensive and heavier materials.The most valued fabric for the ceremonial agbada is the traditionally woven cloth popularly called aso ofi (narrow-band weave) or aso oke (northern weave).
The 4 pieces of the Agbada
The agbada consists of 4 pieces;
- Awosoke (Upper vest): This is the large free flowing outer robe from which the entire robe derived it’s name agbada meaning ‘voluminous attire’
This piece happens to be the largest of all pieces, a big, loose-fitting, ankle-length garment with three sections: a rectangular centerpiece, flanked by wide sleeves on both ends. The centerpiece covers front and back with elaborate embroidery from the neck region downwards. It has a neck hole (orun) and big pocket (apo) on the left side.
2. Awotele (Undervest): This is the vest worn just before the awosoke. There are two types of undervest: the buba– a loose, round-neck shirt with elbow-length sleeves; and dansiki– a loose, round-neck, sleeveless smock. There is also a version where the awotele comes in long sleeves, while the awosoke comes with much shorter sleeves than the normal Agbada giving it an entirely different look (modern design)
3. Sokoto (Trousers) : This is simply the pant worn with the Awotele just before the awosoke . For the Yoruba’s, sokoto have a drawstring for securing them around the waist and come in a variety of shapes and lengths. The two most popular trousers for the agbada are sooro -a close-fitting, ankle-length, and narrow-bottomed piece (what we know as pencil or straight cut trousers) ; and kembe– a loose, wide-bottomed one that reaches slightly below the knee, but not necessarily as far as the ankle
4. Fila (head gear/cap): This is the last piece worn to compliment the agbada and could also be left out.
Wearing Your Agbada
When wearing your agbada, it is not enough for it to be just expensive, it must be well tailored and fitted to your body perfectly. It can be jokingly said that an oversized agbada will blow the wearer away whilst the undersize agbada will make you look like a heron whose long legs make the feathers seem too small for the bird’s height. Tall and well-built men are said to look more attractive in a well-tailored agbada. Yoruba women admiringly tease such men with nicknames such as agunlejika (the square-shouldered one) and agunt’asoolo (tall enough to display a robe to full advantage). That the Yoruba place as much of a premium on the quality of material as on how well a dress fits resonates in the popular saying, Gele o dun, bii ka mo o we, ka mo o we, ko da bi ko yeni (It is not enough to put on a head-gear, it is appreciated only when it fits well).
Of course, it is important to accessorize the agbada well as poor accessorizing may cheapen your look and not do the agbada justice. It is suggested that;
- You wear a simple yet beautiful watch
- A quality shoe that complements the dominating colour on the material, embroidery or cap but you don’t want your shoe to be too overbearing
- Red or white beads around your neck and wrist if you’re going for the traditional look
- A simple gold necklace if you’re going for a more modern look
I hope you enjoyed this piece about the agbada, feel free to comment below what other parts of Yoruba culture, language or fashion you would like us to write about next.