Imbued with symbolic meaning, the boubou originated among West African indigenous groups in the eighth century, and most likely increased in use and popularity with the rise of Islamic empires  starting in the eleventh century. A boubou is  an over-the-head, draped garment with wide sleeves, historically worn by men. The cloth was strip woven and cut for the neck opening, dyed by professionals, and heavily embroidered by religious scholars and artisans as a sign of prestige.

With Islamic empires gaining control of the region especially after the fifteenth century, Muslim clothing, such as the kaftan, became synonymous with power and led to derivative styles now worn by men and women of various faiths. Historically, flowing boubous were commissioned for wealthy patrons, as their ability to afford excessive material and embroidery around the neck, chest, and back designated high rank in society. They are most often referred to as mbubb in Wolof, agbada in Yoruba, riga in Hausa, or boubou in Francophone African countries.

Traditionally, materials would consist of expensive imports and fibers, such as cotton, wool, and silk—commodities that traveled across the Sahara desert with Muslim and Asian merchants. In the late nineteenth century, Indonesian resist-dyed textiles (batik) and imitations were brought to West Africa by Dutch colonists, and are now known as ankara. Similar to established textiles in Africa, including adire and adinkra cloths, wax prints also became desirable avenues to hold social, economic, and political motifs. Generational oral tradition is valued in West African society, meaning symbols embedded in textiles are understood within different communities and ethnic groups.

Boubous are now industrially printed in manufacturing facilities, allowing for more accessibility and affordability. Juxtaposed against older, handmade examples, contemporary versions mimic the flowing quality but are much lighter and thinner. Similar textiles with different colors, motifs, and materials are now produced and worn throughout all of West Africa, but also around the world where specific knowledge about symbols are not known or misunderstood. 


Appropriation and Influence

An Instagram story screenshot of Kacey Musgraves in a yellow Ao Dai without pants

Stella McCartney x Vlisco, 2018

Stella McCartney released a number of looks in collaboration with Vlisco, the Netherlands-based company considered the creator of genuine “Dutch wax prints,” but received a lot of criticism for the exclusion of African models on the catwalk. Although designed with Vlisco, which has many offices in West Africa and is highly valued among local communities, there was backlash due to McCartney only using White models, despite the prints having overt connections to the African continent.

Image: One of McCartney’s looks for her 2018 show in Paris Fashion Week, on Vlisco’s websiteView Larger.

An image of a seated model in front of a black backdrop dressed in an elaborate light blue Ao Dai. To the right is a vertical timeline of Thuy Nguyen's achievements

Nordstrom Rack, ongoing

This dress by Papillon was sold at Nordstrom Rack, a discount retailer for designer goods. Whether the brand’s designers felt inspired by prints coming from communities in West Africa, the common and reductive notion of naming patterns “African” or “ethnic” draws attention away from their original meanings and contexts. The pattern here is called Angelina, and was created by Vlisco around the time a popular Ghanaian highlife band, The Sweet Talks, released a song of the same name in the 1970s.

Image: African Print Maxi Dress” by Papillon, on Nordstrom Rack’s website. View Larger.

Several models walking up and down the runway in different styles of Ao Dai

Della x Urban Outfitters, 2013

Los Angeles based brand Della works to produce socially responsible clothing by employing and training Ghanaian and West African women to make printed fashion and accessories. This pattern is labeled “Batik Circle Print” on the website, but more specifically references the Target or Nsu Bura (deep wells) pattern that represents stillness and marital stability. Some other recent design collaborations include Vans and Apple. 

Image: Batik Circle Print Short-Sleeve Button-Down Shirt” from Urban Outfitter’s website. View Larger.

Several models walking up and down the runway in different styles of Ao Dai

Grass-Fields, 2020

Grass-Fields is a fashion line started by twin Cameroonian sisters, Christelle and Michelle Nganhou, whose goal is to “put the love back into African print clothing again”. Grass-Fields sources and produces their line in Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, and Cote D’Ivoire, and employs about two thousand people within these communities. The style of this pattern is called Speed Bird or Money Flies—in reference to the ephemeral and volatile nature of money. 

Image: “African Print Alero Shorts” from Grass-Fields’.  View Larger.

Several models walking up and down the runway in different styles of Ao Dai

GAIA Vaccine Foundation, La Compagnie Malienne de Textiles (COMATEX), and Eliza Squibb, 2015

Collaboratively developed between a Malian community clinic, an American public health foundation, and a textile designer, this red, orange, yellow, and blue boubou raises awareness for women’s cervical health and preventive care in Mali. Following the practice of employing messages onto cloth, it portrays HPV molecules, interlocking uterine shapes, and ribbons of text. Lining the edges is a phrase based on the Bamana proverb, “BanakunbƐn ka fisa ni banafurakƐ ye,” which translates to “Meeting the illness is better than treating the illness,” and rounding the virus molecules in French the text reads, “I protect myself, I take care of myself, I vaccinate myself.” 

Image: Boubou of Grand Boubou Ensemble Worn by Mamoutou Niaré, 2015, Gift of Mamoutou Niaré and designer Eliza Squibb, 2017.68.1a, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. View Larger.


Abiodun, Rowland, Henry John. Drewal, and John Pemberton. The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

LaGamma, Alisa, and Christine Giuntini. The Essential Art of African Textiles: Design Without End. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008.

Gott, Suzanne, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie Ruth Rabine. African-Print Fashion Now!: A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style. Los Angeles, CA: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2017.

Spring, Chris. African Textiles Today. London, UK: The British Museum Press, 2012.

Museum tombstone information:

Eliza Squibb, textile designer, American (b. 1987), La Compagnie Malienne de Textiles (COMATEX), textile manufacturer, Malian, GAIA Vaccine Foundation, commissioner (est. 2001), and Sikoro Community Health Center, collaborator, Malian

Boubou of Grand Boubou Ensemble Worn by Mamoutou Niaré, 2015

Cotton plain weave with industrially printed pattern

Gift of Mamoutou Niaré and designer Eliza Squibb, 2017.68.1a

Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence