Cotton is said to have been imported to Ethiopia in earliest times. At the Red sea port of Adulis in the first century. During the heyday ethiopian-coffee-costumeof the Axumite Empire, cotton was the chief import.

We do not know, however, just when local cultivation of cotton began, or when the practices of weaving and spinning became widespread.

It has been suggested by various writers that only gradually did cotton replace animal skins and vegetable fibers as the basis for clothing, and that the use of cotton garments was for centuries restricted to members of the aristocracy.

Today in southern Ethiopia women still wear garments made of skins, as do shepherds and workers in many rural areas of the country; and now that the national leather processing industry is producing a large variety of skins suitable for high – fashion wear, leather garments in the modern mode are seen widely among city dwellers.

Nevertheless, cotton remains the fabric of choice among the bulk of the population, which clings to traditional costumes.

The costumes of the Ethiopian people are as varied and interesting as the population itself, reflecting ancient and modern trends in decoration, the fanciful as well as the practical.

Broadly speaking, the basic garment of the highland Ethiopian is the shemma, a length of cotton that doubles as a body and head covering and is often worn in addition to items of modern dress such as a skirt or trousers.

In the streets of Addis Ababa the traveler will see the shemma in all its permutations. Other common items of apparel include the netela, a light cotton showl; the kutta, a heavier version of the netela; the gabi, a coarse blanket- like cloth worn for warmth; and the barnos or cape.

The kemis is a dress of varying length worn by women and decorated with embroidery and a coloured woven border. Children, depending on the family’s income, sometimes wear hand-me-downs from the parents or short dresses, trousers, and shirts. The very young often make do with a single garment, sometimes of animal skin.

A love of ornamentation ruled by a natural affinity for beauty leads the Ethiopians to adorn themselves in memorably dramatic Fashion.

Timeless symbols such as the cross and the lion’s mane have long been used in decoration. Tattooing of the face, neck, and hands, and elaborate traditional coiffures, though no longer the rule with sophisticated city dwellers, are still seen everywhere among country folk.

A profusion of jewelry, whether crafted by skilful smiths of gold and silver or made in the villages of cowrie shells and leather, base metals and colorful beads, is an integral part of the national dress. And rain or shine, above the heads of priests and deacons.

Briefly, in dress as in poltical, cultural, and religious traditions, the Ethiopians follow a heritage that is vital, colorful, and unique. One of the great treats awaiting the visitor is the ever changing pageant of costume that will pass before him as he walks through the cities or drives about the countryside, witnesses a religious ceremony or takes part in a public celebration.

To know something of the history and significance of the garments that will catch his eye should add immeasurably to the tourist’s enjoyment and understanding of Ethiopian society.

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

Eskinder Hailu
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