The African Boubou: Every Wardrode Must Have

Boubou is a classic Senegalese robe worn by men and women throughout West Africa and West African communities of Europe and in the United States. The boubou is sewn from a single piece of fabric; it is typically 150 inches wide and of varying lengths. The most elegant style, The Grand Boubou, usually uses a piece of fabric 117 inches (300 cm) long and up to the ankles. Traditionally, custom-made in workshops by sewing, the boubou is made by folding the fabric in half, forming an opening in the neck, and sewing the sides in half to make flowing sleeves. In women, the neck is broad and rounded; For men, it has a long V-shape, usually with large five-sided pockets that intersect the top of the “V.”

When made of solid starch and worn on a body, the boubou creates a magnificent sleek cart with majestic height and presence for its wearer. Men wear a classic boubou with a matching shirt and pants underneath. Women wear it with a matching wrapper or pagne and headwrap.

The Boubou fabric, embroidery, and dyeing

Tailors that specialize in making boubous invest their skills in the art of embroidery. The material of these embroidered boubous is the cotton damask, called basin in the French-speaking countries of West Africa. Although the fabric can be purchased in color, connoisseurs prefer to buy white fabric and dye it by hand in rich tones by women who work at home. Available on market stalls in various quality types, damask in its most expensive form comes from Europe, while the cheapest knockoffs come from Asia or Nigeria.

After dyeing the fabric, the tailor creates an embroidery pattern with a small sewing machine, electric or pedal-driven. Traditionally, the embroidery was white or beige, but in 1970, tailors in Dakar, Senegal, introduced colored embroidery, and, in the early 2000s, they clashed to create intricate and colorful patterns in bright tones for the women. Men always wear white or beige embroidery; otherwise, they use threads of the same color as damask, often dyed in dark purple or green.

The exception for men is the voluminous white boubou with golden embroidery. It is a unique costume of the Muslim El Hage who made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Thus, it signifies wealth, prestige, and loyalty. As for the fabric, the precious embroidery threads are made of silk and come from France. The imitation polyester is imported from Asia.

The un-embroidered invention includes basin resist-dye in attractive designs. For stitch-resist or tie-dyes, the patterns can be large enough to use a single design for an entire boubou, or small enough to require thousands of tiny stitches in a beautiful replication pattern. It takes three months for a group of women to sew stitches before dyeing and three months to cut them with a razor afterward. Techniques include starch resistance or wax resistance. One method, called indigo palmann, uses indigo in a way that dyes fabric a deep, rich bronze hue. Although solid in color, the indigo palmann boubou is so brilliant in its simplicity that it forgoes embroidery. Women have boubous made with a Holland wax print or an imitation of a wax print called legos for less elegant occasions.

Historical and geographic changes

The word “boubou” comes from the Wolof mbubbe. (Wolof is the main African language in Senegal.) This linguistic origin suggests that, unlike the borrowed clothing styles, such as the Arabic caftan and the European suit, the boubou, as the Senegalese say, has always been Senegalese. In the English-speaking countries of West Africa, cognate, the Buba, has a slightly different meaning. Especially in Nigeria and Ghana, the Buba is a hip-length shirt, with sleeves made of separate pieces of fabric and sewn to the body. It is used under the long boubou, which in these countries is called Agbada. The male wears the Buba with fit pants called a Sokoto. Women wear their Buba with a wrapper.

This linguistic connection suggests historical changes in the style that the boubou went through. In the 19th century, the Senegalese boubou, made of bulky, hand-woven fabric, was often as short as the modern Nigerian Buba, but sleeveless. In the 19th century, the increased use of imported factory woven cloth and the spread of Islam combined fashionable Muslim men for a longer and more voluminous Grand boubou, which resembled an Arab caftan. At the beginning of the 20th century, when urban Christian men began to wear suits, and urban middle-class men had to wear suits for work, Muslim men adopted grand boubou for fun, ceremonies, and religious occasions. The peasant and working-class women wore a grand boubou of plain, imported factory-woven cloth. But the wealthier urban Muslim women wore a hip-length boubou that showed their pagnes (wrapper) of hand-woven strip cloth or finely imported French fabric. Young Christian women adopted a loose, high-waisted dress called boubou à la française (in Wolof ndoket).

The elegant grand boubou for women did not become fashionable until after World War II. At the end of the 20th century, young women sometimes accepted the knee or thigh-length as a fashionable alternative and for casual wear. Boubou à la française has also returned as a high-fashion item, recently called mame boye (Wolof for “dear grandmother”).

Cultural meanings

The centerpiece of classic clothing in Senegal and neighboring French-speaking countries, the grand boubou occupies the symbolic position of the most basic garment in other cultures, comparable in this respect to blue jeans in American culture. Like the blue jeans, the great Senegalese boubou accumulates a multitude of contradictory uses and meanings. It can evoke sexiness or modesty. It can achieve elegance or serve a useful purpose. A stiffly starch embroidered boubou that falls off one shoulder and perfumed with incense can be worn with high heels, gold jewelry, a starchy headscarf tied with a rakish knot, and dramatic makeup. These are the clothes that young women wear for weddings, children’s naming ceremonies, and Muslim feast day. It is also the outfit of Dirriankha, a woman who achieves the Senegalese ideal of seductive beauty. She is large, sensual, and conveys the mystique of independence and wealth. She masters the art of wearing boubou. However, boubou is also a necessary outfit for respectable Muslim matrons, who are considered too old and too modest to wear tight pants and skirts that reveal the legs of young, slim women. For Muslim men, an embroidered damask boubou can be the pinnacle of elegant prestige and a praying dress in a mosque.