by Mewded Yelewosen

In a world where fashion is continuously growing, Ethiopia, one of Africa’s oldest nations, is Addis Ababa viewworking on staying up to date; of course without abandoning its popular traditional made cotton fabrics.

Since before hundreds of years clothing has been made of cotton, the production of cotton textile was carried out in all parts of the country.

The process of making an Ethiopian traditional outfit can take up to three weeks because machinery isn’t used, thus making the production of cloths environmental friendly.

Cotton is firstly woven, then sewn together to finally come up with a piece of quality cloth as the weavers “Shemane” spend a great deal of time as well as attention to produce fine cloth.

As far as Addis Ababa and other major towns are concerned, the people tend to wear imported garments, thus following the western fashion trends except on holidays and special events they wear traditional cloths.  But it is common to see people in the country side following the Ethiopian traditional dress code even in normal days and events.

Church holidayIf you were to witness the ceremony of any Ethiopian holiday or festival, you will be sure to observe a show of remarkable traditional Ethiopian clothing depending on the region, religion and other factors.

The white cloths worn on holidays and special occasions stand for the cultures of the Orthodox religion.

Ethiopian men wear cotton-made pants and sweaters that can go down to the knee and add on top, a traditional piece of cloth.

Women on the other hand, wear white dresses also made of cotton, with a piece of cloth called ‘netela’. On the dresses called ‘habesha’ or ‘hager lebs’, designs such as crosses can be sewn on the upper and lower borders and also the two opposite borders of the Netela.

The color white for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church symbolizes happiness, beauty and purity. While some women wear Netela on a daily basis, others only put it on while going to church. Other products such as Gabi and Kuta, lighter versions of blankets, are white fabrics also decorated on their borders to keep one warm during unfavorable weathers.

On another hand, the beauty of a selection of colors is hard to miss where the Ethiopian Harar cultural dress Muslims of Harer are. The women are dressed in marvelous colorful dresses and the men in shorts and a large colorful piece of cloth wrapped around their bodies.

Ethiopian tribes of the Oromo and Bale people also look wonderful in leather garments, most likely resulting from their main activity, livestock.

Ethiopian hair styles vary from one region to another for both men and women. The most famous traditional hair styles though are braids and bobbed hair. To complete the dresses and hair styles, Ethiopian women have also been known to accessorize by any means available.

Necklaces, earrings, anklets and bracelets are traditionally made using ivory, copper, brass, leather, amber, silver and gold. Especially along with Ethiopian traditional dresses will come a variety of hand made designs of crosses, in gold and silver with a specific pattern and design. These different kinds of crosses look great in sets.

Even though Addis Ababa, as the main city, has welcomed foreign fashion wear in the daily life of its people, our parents and grand parents complain Ethiopian cultural way of dressing is fading away.

Our designers, though, are playing an important role in attracting many by adding a foreign touch to the strong and organic Ethiopian fabric. Thus, rejuvenating the fashion which might have seemed old fashioned to the youth.

Especially, since a couple of years, designers have concentrated on transforming the older styles, while creating a fashionable and modernized wardrobe.

Ethiopian designers have, at times, simply and creatively changed the styles of traditional cloth, in order to make it rhyme with the words of today’s fashion.

For instance, Ethiopian women were not to wear trousers in the past, but today, cotton made tops coats and trousers decorated with awesome traditional designs are the perfect choices when it comes to traditional clothing.

Mostly though, for a fancier look, designers have particularly focused on reducing the amount of white cotton, in fact replacing it with a similar kind of hand made silk which was then only used for the border designs.

The new trend of modernizing Ethiopian traditional cloth has saved many from spending fortunes on ready-made gowns from western countries. Emerging designers in Addis allow every woman to create her signature outfit with high quality and hand made fabrics.

You can pick a dress from Ethiopian designer magazines or better yet take your own design and transform thoughts into reality. They have also come to produce traditional bags, purses, wallets and now shoes. Upon order, your dress can also come with a matching purse and shoes.

Otherwise these accessories mixed and matched with western cloth are also great. Whether it’s a specially ordered bag, simple cotton bags for ordinary days or straw grass bags for the weekend, hand made traditional bags are also getting famous by the day.

Although fashion is more of an attraction for women than men, a variety of traditional shirts and ti-shirts are obtainable. Leather wallets, with different Ethiopian representations are designed to comfortably fit in any man’s pocket.

The traditional all-white menswear is also a nice way to blend in with a crowd celebrating Ethiopian holidays. Ethiopian traditional clothing styles go further because as known, Emperor Haile Selassie was leader of the Rastafarians. This culture has been slightly incorporated into Ethiopian culture.

The clothing style of the ‘Rastafarians’ consists of added Ethiopian flag (Green, yellow, red horizontally) and the famous representation of the lion of Judah onto casual cloth along with beautiful dreadlocks.

A process which has already began; great possibilities await Ethiopia in the fashion and garment industry.


Mewded Yelewosen, previously Communications Officer at Lelena Global PLC,  is now a Programme Assistant at IFRC. She contributes guest posts on our site; interesting articles on Ethiopian people and culture.

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