Ghana shares with many developing countries a situation in which its indigenous culture has been overwhelmed by a flood of practices and lifestyles that were once called Western and are now international. Ghanaian culture is very rich, and in many areas it continues to hold its own, but in the second half of the twentieth century it was fighting to survive in the area of apparel in general, and especially in men’s dress. In this situation one has to look beyond the cities and beyond the everyday activities of work and routine home life, to find places and occasions where the glories of the past are still revealed.
In government ministries and business offices in Accra and Kumasi well-tailored Western-style suits are standard dress. Neckties persist even where they have been abandoned in cooler climes. This mode of dress has survived the era of the electric fan and prospered in the age of the air conditioner. When this suited class ventures out of its temperature-controlled environment it is often observed in light cotton tropical suits such as worn by the former colonial masters. Men of lower rank, who populate the offices, serving as secretaries, typists and accounts clerks, uniformly wear slacks and cotton shirts with open necks, while those who work outside as petty traders, craftsmen and labourers have universally adopted the T- shirt to complement their long trousers and rubber sandals (kyale wate).
In spite of the tropical climate, short trousers are comparatively rare. Although shorts are part of the standard school uniform they are abandoned on graduation. A few businessmen wear a version of the tropical suit with bare knees and this is a fashion that it seems might grow in popularity. Some farmers and labourers expose not only bare knees but also bare backs, in a situation induced by sun and poverty; clothes that are not worn tend to stay fresh and clean longer. The torn trousers and faded T- shirt were almost certainly bought as used clothing from overseas, Oboroni wawu (the white person has died or dead men’s clothes), but they are still costly for most people to buy.
Men’s traditional dress in southern and central Ghana consists of a large cloth wrapped around the body and draped over the left shoulder in the manner of an ancient Greek or Roman toga. In the towns, this dress is worn only at funerals and special ceremonies. It is not practical for energetic pursuits as it has no fixing devices and constantly falls from the shoulder. Even when seated for long periods at a funeral the wearers often grow tired of replacing the cloth and leave it folded in their laps. No doubt this was the reason why the cloth has been abandoned for everyday wear, in favour of shirt and trousers.
Men’s cloths are made of a wide variety of different materials but the real traditional wear, the famous Kente cloth, is still the most highly prized, and most men aspire to own one. Woven in 4 inch (10 cm) strips on a narrow loom by the nimble fingers of young weavers the finished cloth is 12 to 13 feet (3 metres) in length. It is made up of 23 or 24 strips sewn together, giving a width of about 8 feet (2.4 metres) and a weight of about 7 pounds (3Kg). The original Ashanti Kenti is woven most commonly in bright primary colours such as red, yellow, green and blue in complex geometrical patterns, each with a name and meaning. For example, one design was specially woven for the first Prime Minister and President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and another was created to celebrate a visit to Ghana by Queen Elizabeth II. Kente cloth is also produced by Ewe weavers in the Volta Region and Ewe Kente is distinguished by its more subdued colours and the use of pale greens, browns and fauns.
The quality of a man’s cloth denotes his social status. The highest quality Kente cloth is called ‘double pick, double weave,’ and is still the most sought after status symbol with a cost far beyond the reach of the average man. In an attempt to provide a more affordable cloth, some of the simpler single weave patterns are produced on broad looms in 3 feet (1 metre) wide strips. Requiring only three strips to be sewn together for a man’s cloth, the lower cost is keeping the traditional dress in wider use. Much of the high cost narrow loom Kente cloth is sold to tourists in a variety of forms, such as made up into bow ties and handbags.
The tribes of northern Ghana also have their traditional dress. In many cases this consists of a long smock, called Batakari, worn with long trousers, all made from narrow loom cloth of simple striped patterns in subdued pale greys and black. This dress is worn with a matching small round hat that folds over, and knee length leather boots. Other northern tribes have adopted the Arab dress of long white robes and leather sandals. This mode of dress has proved more resistant to change and is seen worn by higher status northerners in all parts of Ghana. Those of lower status who must toil for their daily bread have adopted trousers and T-shirts even in the remote northern towns and villages.
The sartorial situation described above relates mostly to the late twentieth century but the new century and millennium has so far brought little change. Fashion, especially in apparel, can be subject to rapid change as restless youth strives to differentiate itself from its forebears. By the 1990s there were signs of a serious fashion industry developing in Accra, at first in women’s clothing, but in an age in which boys join in the girls’ games, no doubt new male fashions will follow. Hopefully the changes will affect everyday and recreational clothing and leave the magnificent Kente cloth to dominate the scene at every funeral.