Clothing styles in The Gambia are an amalgam of traditional African, Arab, and Western forms. What one wears, however, is influenced largely by religion, gender, class, age, ethnicity, or a combination of these. Partly because of the shifting social identities and roles that individuals play in society be it at work, a naming ceremony, or a funeral, Gambians will dress appropriately to fit these specific occasions. Among the professional class and office workers, Western-style clothing would be the attire to wear from Monday through Thursday. On Friday, most Gambian Muslim men wear kaftans or gowns made from the locally produced tie-dye, with a skullcap made from the same material. These gowns typically cover down to the heels or extend a little below the knee to expose baggy trousers made of the same material.

Other young Muslim men may wear imported silky-white kaftans and pants and may or may not wear a skullcap. Oder, middle-aged, and sometime more prosperous middle-class Muslim men may be outfitted with flowing gowns of expensive mbassen cloth with elaborate embroidery that makes the tie-dye version seem very plain by comparison. Boys will generally dress like their fathers with sandals or Moroccan moccasins, while the less well-to-do wear plastic sandals or slippers. Muslim men in general who have performed the hajj often dress in expensive silk, muslin, or cotton gowns accompanied by the traditional headdress of a golden rectangular rim resting on a white head scarf. Moroccan moccasins are the preferred footwear for the Friday (Jumma) prayer. Well-to-do individuals are also distinguished by their use of expensive cologne for the main Friday prayers at 2pm. Dress is this case may also reflect a more somber, albeit colourful, atmosphere. One will also find the occasional person of means who dresses down but, as at Sunday church services in the United States, most are smartly dresses for the occasion. At a naming ceremony or wedding ceremony many elders might dress down by wearing less rich cloth or embroidery. Funerals, on the other hand, are the occasion for the long-sleeved, sometimes collared white kaftans and skullcap.

Women, depending on their age and class, dress more conservatively, with flowing gowns that cover the entire body down to the heels and sleeves that cover to the wrist along with a head scarf – tiko (Mandinka) or mussor (Wolof). The grand’ mboba (flowing grown) does the trick even for middle-aged and younger women, but of late the kaba, an oversized gown often worn with a head scarf, is more fashionable for weddings, naming ceremonies, and house parties. The kaba was preceded by the marineer and before it the kamissol – both similarly oversized gowns worn by middle-aged and pregnant women. At work, most women wear Western clothing and like the men revert to African/Islamic clothing on Friday. Younger women also wear the daggit ack mallan, a wrapper with a tight-fitting blouse, sometimes with a head scarf. The mallan (wrapper) is often accompanied by another lighters, sometimes decorative mallan, or becho (Wolof), especially when the top mallan does not have a lining. Urban Senegambian women are renowned for their excellent taste in dress and fashion, blending with seamless ease African, European, and Islamic dress. A growing fashion industry headed by Gambian women has seen many innovative designs suited to all the categories outlined earlier. These designs target a growing international market as well as a local clientele.

In The Gambia and in Senegal, it is still the practice that both women and men have their clothes sewn by a favourite tailor, who takes precise measurements and in a few days produces a beautiful and well-fitting dress.
Photo: Milan Njenjic

When you come to Gambia, we really recommend visiting local market to buy fabric and have your traditional African dress done in your favorite colors and style. You can wear it on Fridays, different ceremonies and festivals or just any day you choose to.

Tailors do their job excellent and Gambians will always be happy to see you in traditional clothing. It is also a great way to learn and know more about culture and tradition
Cottons printed with African designs (known as wax) and plain or patterned damask are to be seen everywhere, and can be both high-quality and good value. You will also see plenty of tie-dye and batik, used for clothing and furnishing – fabulous creations are worn by both women and men, particularly at festivals or celebrations, or just because it’s Friday, and Gambian tailors are adept at copying items or creating originals. Cotton is generally sold in six-yard dress lengths. Bespoke items of all sorts, not just clothing but also leather bags and shoes, silver jewellry, or items forged from steel or carved from wood, are often the best bargains in The Gambia.
If you think choosing colors, designs and fabric is an easy job to do, then you are wrong. There are plenty options and you can easily get confused in shops with really great offer.
There is also a wide choice of tailors on every corner. In every tailoring workshop you can find catalogs with different styles of traditional clothing, so you can choose the most comfortable and likable 🙂 If you will choose two-piece dress, you can combine it with your own style when back home.
Are you ready for your cultural exchange?
Photo: Milan Njenjic

Part of the text from Culture and Customs of Gambia by Abdoulaye S. Saine Ph.D



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