Lip plugs, also known as labrets, have been worn for thousands of years by the women of several different African social groups. Lip plugs are considered essential to the beauty of some African women and are viewed as having protective value to others. To prepare for marriage, young women in Ethiopia insert a flat, circular plug or disk into a slit in their lower lip. The women make their lip plugs out of clay and color it with charcoal or red ocher, a reddish type of clay. Clay lip plugs are hardened in a fire in much the same way as pottery. Women in northern Kenya wear coiled brass wire lip plugs decorated with red beads. Others wear wooden lip plugs. Makololo women of Malawi slit their upper lip and insert plates called pelele as a mark of beauty.
To accommodate a large lip plug, women insert successively larger disks to stretch the slit in their lip over the course of about six months. The larger the lip plug a woman's lip can hold, the larger the dowry, or traditional gifts, her family expects to receive for her hand in marriage. Because lip plugs make talking difficult, women only wear their lip plugs in the company of men, but they remove them to eat and sleep or when they are only in the company of women.
Blauer, Ettagale. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.
Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.