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Amhara-Tigrinya Clothing
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I am not an authority on Amhara clothing.  The topic came up when a correspondent was doing some research on this topic.  I have compiled here some interesting references that might be of interst on this aspect of Amhara culture.

Note that there are many different ethnic groups in the country, and they have various clothing traditions.  I note you have mentioned Amhara in your subject.  That is what I have focused on.  For some additional information that might help, I suggest searching on Oromo also, as they are the next biggest ethnic cluster of peoples.  There might be some comparative information about the Amhara.

I am including here links to serveral sources on this topic.

This article addresses the clothing styles of various ethnic groups.  Here is a pertinent excerpt:

The Amhara women wear dresses that are tight bodice and full skirted. The dresses are bright white with colored embroidery and woven borders. The men are resplendent in white jodhpurs and tunics. Although originally most of the border designs were based on the varied design of the Ethiopian cross, today you sometimes see more modern motifs - flowers, birds and even airplanes.

The Roman Connection
The following comment from an article gives some interesting information:

In northeastern Africa clothing typically consists of tunics and wrapped skirts. The Amhara people of Ethiopia practice a very ancient form of Christianity, and their clothing resembles that worn in the Roman Empire during the early Christian period: long tunics, togalike wraps, and, for men, white turbans.

In regard to this Roman connection for dress style, it is helpful to note that Christianity was introduced in the 200s by Syrian Christians (still part of the Roman empire until about the early 600s), and there was a long association of the new Ethiopian Orthodox Church with the Syrian Church (Nestorian), which also started the Church in southern India now called Mar Thoma (Saint Thomas, the patron saint of the Syrian Church).

This would perhaps explain the Roman style dress, if there is not some other general origin for the styles.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is commonly referred to, officially and unofficially, as the Coptic Orthodox Church.  This came about because of their later association with the Egyptian (Coptic) Church, after contacts with the Syrian Christians was hindered by the development of Islam in the late 600s.  (The word "Copt" is a form of the old word for Egypt, and "Coptic" means "Egyptian.")

The Amhara and related Tigrinya (Tigray) people commonly wear white, which is a symbol of faith, or Christianity.  In contrast, they change to black in times of mourning.  This is also common among Mediterranean peoples, even today, for instance, among the Greeks in Cyprus or Greece.  Note this section of an article addressing this practice:

Upon the death of a family member, "Haile's" family would express their grief openly by crying loudly and beating their chests. "Haile" suggests the pounding was "to hurt the heart"; to cause physical pain showing their grief at the loss. He mentioned that some tribes in northern Ethiopia go so far as to scrape a thorny fruit across their faces and foreheads, although that wasn't customary with his ethnic group. Relatives and close friends would visit the home of the deceased and share in the outward display of grief. They would bring food and drink, as the grieving family was not expected to cook or do household chores. The burial was conducted right away, with the burial site usually on a church compound. People would meet at the church where a priest would say a few words. As the group proceeded to the burial site, the crying and beating of the chest would intensify incredibly, with the most intense displays happening as the casket was covered with earth. Women and the elderly usually showed the greatest amount of sadness, although the men were also very open with their crying and pain. "Haile" suggests the men were probably more occupied with preparation of the burial site and carrying the casket, a source of great sense of pride for them to be able to help the deceased in this manner. Both women and men would usually shaved their heads and wore black clothing. Family members were so sad, they usually wouldn't eat for at least 24 hours.

The following comment from an article might be helpful:

The question: "How many times has your household bought clothes during the past three years? was included because of the fact that a minimum level of socio-economic respectability in rural Amhara is represented by buying clothes, at least for the children, at least once each year (at New Year). Conversely, inability to buy clothes even once a year indicates poverty or deprivation. In our sample, 46% of households purchased some clothing at least once a year for the previous three years, while 23% purchased clothes either once or not at all in this period.

The following selection addresses the clothing industry in Ethiopia:

In a recent policy document, the Ethiopian government has clearly realised the opportunities: one of the eight major policy tasks identified is:

Rapid export growth through production of high value agricultural products and increased support to export oriented manufacturing sectors particularly intensified processing of high quality skins/leather and textile garment

This in itself is sufficient to merit the study of clothing and footwear value chains. Moreover, it cannot be stressed enough that Ethiopia has a large competitive advantage in the leather industry because it ranks number 1 in Africa and 10th in the world with respect to livestock population. In addition, the textile sector although working mainly with backward technology has built up some advantages over time, such as skills, networks, infrastructure and institutions. Lastly, both sectors provide ample employment, and have the potential of increasing it substantially.

This paper investigates the position of the clothing and footwear sectors within the Ethiopian economy. It starts with background information on Ethiopia as a whole. The second section positions the investigation within the theoretical debate on Value Chain Analysis. Thereafter, the salient features of industrialisation and the policy environment in Ethiopia are discussed. The main body of the paper consists of an in-depth investigation of the clothing and footwear sectors. The last section summarizes the conclusions and provides research suggestions.

Here are two other sources with some good information:
Good General Cultural Summary with comment on clothing -- Every Culture
Muslim and Christian Clothing Styles in Ethiopia

Also related:
Amhara-Tigrinya Names
The Amhara
The Tigray-Tigrinya
Tigre, Tigray, Tigrinya -- Ethnicites, Languages and Politics


First written as an email response 1 November 2006
Prepared as an article and posted 6 November 2006

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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