The word ‘fashion’ immediately makes me think of New York or Milan— and more, how I don’t have very good fashion or measure up to people that do. Fashion seems to be divisive in its very nature. I am as guilty as anyone of perpetuating the division as I try to one-up friends and find worth walking around in new pair of boots. Interestingly, I have had a very different experience with the fashion culture here in Ethiopia. Fashion has actually been an incredible tool for me to find community and friendship with Ethiopian women that don’t speak the same language as me. With women that I have absolutely nothing in common, fashion has been our common ground.
From living here in Ethiopia and taking part in the cultural fashion in this country I have found that fashion doesn’t always have to divide us—it can also bind us. Over two and half years ago, when we first moved from America to Mekelle in Northern Ethiopia, I didn’t know a soul and I didn’t speak a word of the local language. I was newly married and trying to adjust to a new culture and home. One of our only friends in Mekelle threw us a party to welcome us as a newly married couple—in traditional Ethiopian culture this party is called a Meles. I didn’t know what to wear and what would even take place at this Meles, but I was assured it was all taken care of.
A few hours before the event, two ladies showed up with a traditional Ethiopian dress and scarf for me to wear. They made my hair, showed me how to wear the scarf and draped my neck and arms with traditional jewelry. As they adorned me in their culture, for one of the first times I felt that there was hope for community and friendship in this town because of the love and care these women showed me. That night, in my traditional Ethiopian dress, I felt like I was home.
This was just the first of many binding experiences revolving around Ethiopian traditional fashion—hours late into the night at the salon getting my hair braided, shopping for dresses in the market with new friends, and then celebrating together in carefully adorned attire. With every holiday and celebration that passes, I seem to be more and more at home here because of women that have welcomed me into their traditions.
In an increasingly modern culture, the women of Ethiopia have maintained strong ties to traditional dress, jewelry, and hair. On a day-to-day basis the fashion of the young people in Ethiopia appears like most western cultures—especially in the capital, Addis Ababa. Girls wear pants and trending kicks; Guys wear skinny jeans and trucker hats at a slant. But even as Ethiopia globalizes there is still a formidable link to tradition and culture during holidays, church services, and celebrations.
In a world where many cultures have forsaken their traditions, how has Ethiopia maintained ties to their ancient culture and traditional—particularly in the area of fashion? In considering this question, community—particularly church community— appears to be the link that hold Ethiopians to their traditions.
Ethiopia has been a Christian nation since the 4thCentury. Until 1974, the Emperor of Ethiopia was also the head of the Church—Church and State were one and the same. Even though the Ethiopian Government and Orthodox Church are not one any longer, the influence of the church is still very strong in the culture. Faith is the apex of culture as well as the apex of fashion. The traditional dresses worn to church are also the fashionable clothes worn to weddings, holidays and even some work celebrations.
Ethiopia can boast of having over 80 ethnic groups that all have different languages, cultures, traditions and fashion. Traditionally, the people of Afar bead their hair and adore their bodies in intricately designed fabrics. Culturally, the Oromo people wear brown leather decorated in white beads. What most people think of as the iconic traditional garment of Ethiopia is historically the traditional wear of the people of Amhara and Tigray.
The dress, called a habesha kemis, is made from grey, white or beige woven cloth. The fabric is usually embroidered in rich colors with variations of the Ethiopian Orthodox cross—which derives its origins from the Coptic tradition. The habesha kemis is usually paired with woven scarf called a netela or gabi that depicts similar patterns of the Coptic cross along the fringe. Just as important as the dress is the hair and jewelry. Typical Ethiopian style hair, called Albaso, is done with many small braids in the front and hair worn long in the back.
In the West, fashion is mostly a personal statement of “this is who I am.” In many cultures in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, fashion is a cultural statement of “this is where I come from”. Here in Ethiopia the traditional dress says proudly, “I am Ethiopian.” Of course, embedded into the national pride of fashion is still has a sense of personal identity. Every dress has its own flair and each hair style is just bit different. The shoe and accessory pairings reflect each woman’s preferences while being adorned in a fashion that has been alive for thousands of years. The trends in colors, designs, and hairstyles can change from year-to-year but there is a consistency that never fades—a tradition that is always honored in a camaraderie with culture.
It has been remarkable to watch a culture put aside personal fashion and modern styles to continue to embrace ancient traditions of nation and church. In doing so, they are also embracing community and honoring what binds over what divides us. Bonding over fashion is only a symbolic tradition of what really binds us—God’s love for us.
The way that women of this culture have welcomed me into their traditions of fashion has encouraged me to do the same in my culture. How can I make my life—not just fashion—more about connection and less about competition. How can I make my home and my Instagram feed more about welcoming people to the table than making people feel like they don’t measure up? How can I honor the common ground I have with women in my life near and far?