Animal hides have been a traditional clothing material used by many cultures in Africa, likely since the dawn of human history. Animal hide clothing was made most often from the skins of domesticated animals. Both farming and nomadic societies prized livestock, and they cared for their animals carefully. Their cattle, goats, sheep, and camels were sources of food and clothing, as well as great symbols of wealth. Other groups hunted wild animals for their meat and hides.
To prepare an animal skin, Africans would scrape off all the fur or hair, beat the cleaned skin to soften it, and tan it, a process that softened the hide and turned it into leather. Finally, they would coat it with red ocher, a type of iron-rich clay pigment, and oil. Leather clothing could be as simple as a small apron or as elaborate as a large cloak made of several hides sewn together. Some garments were left unadorned, while others were decorated with shells, beads, or metal ornaments. Leather was also used to make useful items such as shields and slings to carry babies.
As more and more Africans abandon their traditional lifestyles, animal skin clothing is worn less and less frequently. In many places Africans have adopted store-bought clothing made in Western styles. However, animal skins continue to be worn by the oldest members of some rural tribes in Kenya. Likewise, the peoples living in the remotest regions of the continent, such as the San, or Bushmen, of South Africa, who are the oldest surviving culture on the continent, continue to wear animal skins.
Blauer, Ettagale. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.
Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.