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History of African Indigenous Costumes and Textiles


The Maasai community located in central and south Kenya and Northern Tanzania is globally recognized. Their persistence in upholding traditional practices and proximity to the vast global game reserves make them an exciting community to study. This paper shall analyze the Maasai community and its culture and traditions. In the study, the colors of their dressings will also be discussed. The cultural significance of each color will also be elaborated to understand the Maasai community’s traditional practices better. Among the colors to be addressed include the color red, which symbolizes the communities’ bravery and a safety precaution against predators such as the lions from the reserves. The black attire is worn mainly by young men months before their circumcision date to show the adulthood struggles of life. White color, similar to milk color, indicated the nutritional value they obtain from the milk of their large herd of cattle. The color blue implies the sky from which the Enkai, their god, sent the cows and often rain to ensure their packs have enough grass and water to drink. Yellow and orange colors are indications of the community’s hospitality and generosity to the visitors.

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The Maasai Textile

The Maasai community is an African ethnic group with a nomadic lifestyle and is strictly patriarchal. Their way of living is confined to cattle rearing, which is also their main economic activity. They are residents of central and south Kenya and the northern part of Tanzania. They are warrior pastoralists known for herding, cattle rustling, and fighting skills (Oyange Ngando, 2018). Their popularity globally is related to their settlement near the Maasai Mara game reserve, the largest wild animal reserve in East Africa, and the Amboseli Park near the border of Tanzania. Their distinct traditions, conventions, and dressing code have given them international recognition. The Maasai people are monotheistic with a traditional God they call Enkai. They believe that their god is benevolent and manifests in different colors that they symbolize in their textile work. Over time, other communities have abandoned their ancient traditions and dressing mode, but the Maasai community has retained them.

As per the traditional Maasai dressing code, there were stipulated dressing codes at each age and title. The newly young ordained warriors were required to dress in a skirt form of cloth. The piece of material they used was a short crimson wrapped against the waist (Meguro, 2019). Their hairs were smeared using the red ochre, which is a unique soil in the community. The older adults considered the leaders to use a long red wrap-robe, a sash with a red Shuka. The female members have a bright dressing code of colorful clothing that is dominantly red.

The Maasai Dressing Code

The Maasai are also considered the most culturally specific tribe in the continent of Africa. Their bright red Shuka, traditional robe, and colorful jewelry form their replicable recognizable label. The tribe uses the locally available materials and indigenous technology to construct their unique dwelling structures, referred to as the Manyatta houses made from cow dung and plant branched (Wijngaarden, 2018). The buildings are either circular or loaf-shaped and are made by the females in the community. Per village, which comprises several homesteads, they elect around fence for protection against attacks from wild animals from the neighboring game parks.

Initially, the Maasai used animal skins and calf hides for clothing. With time they have advanced to using a commercial material piece of clothing called Shuka. The clothing style varies as per the age, gender, and location of an individual. The community uses either black, blue, checked, striped, or red pieces of clothes. However, the red color is the most common of all used by the elder member of the community.

The Black Color

The Maasai textile industry is dominated by the fabric Maasai Shuka commonly termed as the African blanket. Their jewelry is made of beads and metallic wires for both men and women. The young men wear black color clothing before their circumcision. Traditionally circumcision, according to the Maasai circumcision, was used to mark the transition phase from childhood to adulthood. When nearing the initiation months, the boys are dressed in black (Mastamet-Mason et al., 2017). The traditional dressing is used to indicate the preparedness of the process of the passage. Black is used to preparing the young men for the upcoming role and educating them on the hardships awaiting them as adults and enduring all challenges they face in their adult life.

The Red Color

The red color is the most paramount color in the Maasai community. It symbolizes their strength and bravely over time. The group is referred to as fierce warrior pastoralists with excellent fighting skills to protect their cattle and steal from neighboring communities. Their fighters are equipped with knowledge on appropriately using locally made weapons such as arrows and spears. They have a history of leading a strong resistance against the Kenyan colonial masters. The Maasai people also believe that the red color scares away enemies, both human and non-human. Due to their proximity to game reserves, they are prone to attacks from wild animals such as lions, even from a far distance (Spring, 2020). Herding is their main economic activity as a community, making meat and milk the hearty meal. During the celebration, the members bore down blood to indicate unity among the village. The red color of the blood during such rituals suggests the harmony of the community.

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The Green Color

The Maasai community entirely relies on pastoralism as the main economic activity. The green color in their cloth shows nourishment and production of their lands. Culturally, the color means that their vast grazing lands produced enough for their large herd of cattle to feed and produce delicate meat and milk for the children and community members. According to the group’s traditions, green signifies each individual’s obligation to protect the land and be rooted and patriotic to their grazing territories.

The Blue Color

Just like the ideal perspective of the universe, the Maasai people use the blue color to signify the sky. From their cultural and traditional practices, the members use the color in their clothing as a sign of respect to the Enkai, their god. They believe that the blessings of the large herds of cattle they own were sent down from the sky by the god. Blue also indicates the god sent rainfall that aids in vegetation growth for their cows to feed on and drinking water.

The White Color

Though the Maasai community are known to be fierce fighters with great cattle rustling skills, they are a community that promotes peace and harmony. The white color in the Maasai attire signifies their peace and purity (Spring, 2020). The health aspect is also demonstrated by the white color that resembles the milk they obtain from the cows. The milk provides nutritional nourishment for the members and helps them stay safe and pure. During circumcision, the white marking made shows purity at the time of healing.

Yellow and Orange

Though the two colors serve some specific cultural functions, they both serve to demonstrate hospitality. They are used in relation to the animal skin which guests sit on during visits. The color, therefore, means the community members are friendly, generous, and welcoming to all (Pachucki, 2021). The orange color on its own indicates the fire they use in preparing the meat and milk before consuming them. Women commonly use yellow attires to show fertility and growth in the community. Yellow also tells of the sunlight and its benefits on vegetation.


The Maasai community remains to be the outstanding community in Africa and globally for maintaining their traditional practices. It is a community that entirely relies on cattle keeping as the main economic activity. The proximity to wild animal reserves exposes them to attacks, and it is for that reason they have well-trained warriors for protection. Their dressing code remains an attractive tradition that they adapted after abandoning the use of animal skins. Shuka’s typical clothing has various colors, including red, white, black, blue, yellow, and orange. The colors symbolize multiple aspects of the community traditions.


Mastamet-Mason, A., Müller, K., & van der Merwe, N. (2017). History of African indigenous costumes and textiles: Towards decolonising a fashion design curriculum. DEFSA contact details, 143.

Meguro, T. (2019). The unchanged and unrepresented culture of respect in Maasai society. African Study Monographs, 40(2-3), 93-108. Web.

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Oyange Ngando, E. (2018). Fashion as property in traditional culture: a Maasai case study. Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice. Web.

Pachucki, A. (2021). MAASAI–and the story of In-between-ness of spatial livelihoods (Doctoral dissertation, Wien). Web.

Spring, C. (2020). Textiles of Eastern and Southern Africa. A Companion to Textile Culture, 145-163. Web.

Wijngaarden, V. (2018). Maasai beadwork has always been modern: An exploration of modernity through artifacts. Cultural Dynamics, 30(4), 235-252. Web.

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