Tunic, mens, cotton, made by a Yoruba man, Nigeria, mid 1900s
This man's indigo-dyed tunic is a typical example of traditional dress worn by the Yoruba people of Nigeria in the early 20th century. The outfit formed part of a farewell gift from his father to Abiola Buhari, a young Yoruba man, when he married Australian Clare Maguire at the Registry Office in Lagos, Nigeria, in August 1997. The gift was made when the couple left Nigeria for Australia. Its significance relates to the Yoruba belief that the possession of gowns and valuable cloth equates to endeavour and subsequent success in life.
Clothing and cloth are extremely important to the Yoruba as social indicators, in rather the same way that westerners regard good manners. The way a person dresses is a significant indicator of age, status, occupation, training and wealth. Whole families will dress in matching outfits for important occasions as an expression of each individual's participation in the activities of the larger group. Children are often compared to cloth in value, while nakedness is equated with insanity; many Yoruba proverbs, sayings and songs are about the values inherent in owning, or not owning, the proper clothes.
The tunic is part of a collection of Yoruba clothing donated to the Museum by Claire Maguire. The collection also includes an embroidered yellow tunic and trousers, matching embroidered bridal outfits for Claire and Abiola, matching resist dyed outfits for them, a man's pleated and stitched cap, and a sample of gold-striped men's weave cloth.
This striped, indigo dyed man's tunic has been made out of narrow 'asa-oke' (literally 'top cloth'). Each of the narrow stripes consists of bright blue alternating with the natural colour of the cotton, outlined in pale blue. The material for the tunic would have been bought in the local market and made up by a local tailor who would have added the selected embroidery by hand. The straight sewing around the neck and pocket openings is stem stitch, while the knot-like motifs (11 on the front and 1 on the back) are done in double chain stitch. The sleeves are as wide as the tunic is long and the bottom edge has gored inserts to give extra fullness, a variant of a northern-style robe developed by the Yoruba in which the two slit-like openings in the front originally enabled the wearer to hold the reins of a horse.
Asa-oke is made by Yoruba men who weave in communal groups of up to 20, using a narrow horizontal loom which has an extremely long, machine made cotton warp, stretching out as long as 12 meters in front of them. Two heddles are used with a reed for beating the cloth. The resulting material is usually a forty foot long piece which is just 4 inches (about 10cm) wide. When the long pieces of material have been completed, they are cut into strips which are either sewn into squares of cloth or sold as unsewn strips at local markets.
While the weaving asa-oke cloth is carried out by men, indigo resist-dyeing (adire) is done by women. The Yoruba use two methods: the first is tie-dyeing by tightly winding thread (cotton or raffia) around a bunched up area of material. while more elaborate designs are produced by stitching the material tightly into patterns. The second method (adire aleko) uses candle wax or cassava paste to draw on the material either using stencils or freehand, as in batik production. Cloth-tying is always done by women or young girls and the dyeing by women.
In Nigeria the traditional source of indigo is called 'elu' - vines which are cultivated by women around their houses. The plant is gathered and pounded in large vessels until it forms a pulp which is made into balls before being dried in the sun and finally wrapped in leaves for storage or sale. To release the indigo dye, the plant is first fermented and then mixed in an alkaline solution obtained from ash. Indigo dyeing of patterned material (adire) is done in large earthenware pots.
This voluminous Nigerian Yoruba man's tunic, indigo dyed and hand embroidered, was a farewell gift to Abiola Buhari, a Yoruba man, from his father. Abiola married an Australian woman, Clare Maguire, at the Registry Office in Lagos, Nigeria, in August 1997. The tunic is part of a collection of clothing which was brought to Australia by Ms Maguire (the donor) and her husband when they left Nigeria.
By the time of European contact, weaving was already firmly established in the Yoruba kingdoms of southwest Nigeria where the elaborate palaces provided patronage for a large range of sophisticated handicrafts including weaving and elaborate beading. Cloth was central to the social, religious, political economic and cultural life of these African communities and the Yoruba weaving was, and still remains, superior because of its variety of pattern, colour and technique.
The material for the tunic would have been purchased at the local cloth market and made up by a tailor who would have also added the embroidery.