In Ethiopia’s ancient times, dress was an important sign of class. None but the aristocracy wear allowed to wear ornate clothing.

Even under the progressive nineteenth century monarch, Tewordos, cotton clothing was ordained for the masses, and only aristocrats might dress in silk and brocade. Until the early years of the twentieth century such prohibitions were general throughout Ethiopia.

In the northern regions, only ladies of quality might wear embroidered cloaks and red-bordered shammas; while in southern Ethiopia the color green was reserved for the king, as was the use of golden jewelry.

No more colorful and imaginative costumes could be conceived than those traditionally worn by the Ethiopian warrior. Teworos allowed his soldiers to wear shirts of silk, and the use of animal pelts as part of the military uniform has long been a custom.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, soldiers were wearing specially cut trousers and shirts, with cartridge belt, sword belt and shield of toughened animal hide often the shirt was silk, and the shoulders might be covered with a sheep, goat, or wild animal pelt. Status was indicated by the amount of gold decoration on scabbard, sword, and saddle mountings.

Prowess in battle, indicated elsewhere in the world by medals, might be conceived in Ethiopia in a number of ways. Bracelets, earrings, and neck chains often were worn to show that the warrior had rescued a companion, killed many men, or shown unusual bravely as a hunter.

In the 1930’s an effort was made to popularize the use of khaki cloth among soldiers, instead of the traditional white shirt and trousers that made them an easy mark of enemy rifles. It was not until very recently, however, that the Ethiopian solder wore boots or shoes with his uniform.

Toughened by long marches over rough terrain and a lifetime of barefoot activity, he was able as no Westerner would be, to walk for miles without harm or difficulty. Barefoot cavalrymen secured the stirrups between big and middle toe.

Highland Costumes
In central and northern Ethiopia the Amhara and Tigrean women are usually seen wearing the kemis. A long, full-sleeved cotton dress coffee ceremonygown that is often embroidered at the neck, cuffs and hem.

Some kemis styles are very simple, with a fitted bodice and full skirt; others are more elaborate with overall pleats and gathering about the waist.

According to the area, the kemis may be adorned with cotton thread embroidery in the cross symbol, or studded about the neck and cuffs with small silver beads.

Over the kemis goes a shemma, or light cotton length, usually with a boarder that matches the trimming on the dress.

The shemma is draped over the head and shoulders in a graceful fashion and sometimes held by the wearer over nose and mouth. In cold weather a heavier shemma, or kutta, may be worn, or a concial cape called a bernos.

The border of the shemma and kemis may be richly woven with vivid silk or cotton threads to form a border called a tibeb, which lends richness and dignity to the humblest costume.

The tibeb design may contain geometrical figures, purely fanciful forms, or class symbols such as star and cross; and the width of the border varies from a few centimeters in one case to a quarter of a metre or more in another.

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

Eskinder Hailu
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