THE AGBADA: The free flowing, loose fitting, Yoruba attire. A voluminous,ceremonial robe, known to be worn back in the day by Kings, highly placed chiefs, the rich and affluent generally. Would you be surprised to know that it isn’t originally a Yoruba attire? Well it actually originates from the Middle East.
During the trans-saharan trade that precedes the pre-Christian era which lasted till the late nineteenth century, the Arab merchants of the Mediterranean coast, introduced the Riga as it is called, their version of the agbada, to Africa. The Riga, when worn with a turban, identifies the wearer as an Arab or a Muslim. It was a symbol of wealth and prominence and purely for the rich because of its expensive, handwoven fabrics and elaborately designed embroidery.
Though it isn’t known when exactly it was introduced to West Africa, it however became a “hit” if we can call it that, and was adopted by most cultures in the sub-Saharan Africa. It still remained for the elite and the affluent but was then modified by the different cultures to reflect their traditional aesthetics, switching the turban for various head gears indigenous to them.
The Yoruba adaptation of the riga is what is known today as “Agbada.” The earlier versions were different from what its is now. They were made with hand woven cloth and embroidery that usually took weeks to finish, there by making it expensive and beyond the reach of the average Yoruba man. The amount of embroidery on each attire usually depends on how much the patron was willing to part with.
The Agbada has come a long way from its days as an attire for the Middle Eastern,opulent merchants, and has undergone a lot of transformations. It is still pretty much a free-flowing attire, but there are more compact versions now. With the compact variation, the awosoke as the free flowing robe is called by the Yorubas, comes in shorter sleeves than usual, so does the awotele,the undergarment.
There is also a version where the awotele comes in long sleeves, while the awosoke comes with much shorter sleeves than the normal Agbada,giving it an entirely different look.
The elaborate embroidery is still a key part of the whole ensemble, but has been modernized and is practically optional now. The material used has gone from being hand woven to almost any type of fabric. It has even recently morphed from its days as an attire strictly for the very masculine, African man of influence,to a cross gender attire. Women can now be seen wearing it, looking feminine and glamorous.
In all its transformation and modification, the Agbada never lost one key element that always went with it, and that is the fact that it is a ceremonial attire that leaves a hole in your pocket(depending on your pocket size though) when you order one, so it still maintains that illusion that the wearer is a person of influence. So when an #AgbadaGang shows up at an event, it almost always is a spectacle,” dem don show”,”the men dem”…