Ethiopian Dress — Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dr. Senait Fisseha of the board of Hamlin Fistula USA and Helen at the St. Patrick's Day Party in Addis Ababa

Dr. Senait Fisseha of the board of Hamlin Fistula USA and Helen at the St. Patrick’s Day Party in Addis Ababa

When visiting a large city here in Ethiopia you will notice that most young men and women wear western clothing — denim jeans, tee-shirts and sweaters. Shorts are never worn, and shoes are often slipper-style or simple plastic sandals, but the jeans (on women) are tight.  This is not Niger.  Ethiopia is a Christian (Orthodox) country and women have great freedom to dress as they please.

For special occasions, such as New Year’s celebrations, weddings, Christmas and other religious holidays, women wear traditional clothing or habesha kemis. These are ankle-length dresses made out of shemma cloth, loosely-woven un-dyed cotton gauze with colorful weaving at each end.  The shemma cloth is traditionally woven by men, and it can take several days to weave enough material for a dress.  The dress is lined with more cotton fabric, or often with synthetic material in silver or gold.  Borders can be woven in a single color (or a multi-colored geometrical design) and placed along the hem of the dress. Ethiopian cross designs are hand-embroidered down the front of the dress.  More hand-embroidery goes along the neck and sleeve edge, using colors matching those in the border.  The chain-stitch hand-embroidery is traditionally done by men, and a layer of cotton stabilizer is used underneath to anchor it to the light-weight material.  A shawl, or netela, is worn around the back and shoulders. It is a single or double piece of shemma, wrapped in various ways depending on the occasion.  For church, the netela is worn over the head and draped over both shoulders.  For everyday wear, the border goes over the left shoulder. The netela can also used to wrap a baby so that it can be carried on its mother’s back. Silver or gold jewelry complete the outfit.

I own one of these beautiful habesha kemis!  My friend, Freweini (see the “Pads for Grads” entry in the blog) took me to a traditional cloth shop located in the textile district of Mekelle to be measured for a dress.

Helen gets measured for her Ethiopian dress

Helen gets measured for her Ethiopian dress

We selected a colorful shemma cloth, chose a delicate Ethiopian cross design to be embroidered down the front, and decided on a V- neckline and elbow-length sleeves.  The high waist is shirred with elastic around the back and we chose a gold metallic lining.   The dress was ready in 5 days!  It is as light as feather, and very comfortable.  I wore it at the St. Patrick’s Day Ball hosted by the Irish Embassy in Addis Ababa last weekend, wearing gold earrings and necklace borrowed from Freweini.  Ethiopian people were especially delighted to see a ‘farenji’ wearing their traditional clothing.

The Belle of the Ball and her escort

The Belle of the Ball and her escort

Men wear western clothing and often a thick shawl, or gabi. This is made of 4 layers of the shemma cloth. It’s rather like a blanket. Traditional clothing for men is not as interesting as women’s clothing. For special occasions, men wear white cotton pants, plain white shirt, often with a white pullover, and buckled white sandals (which Lewis says are extremely uncomfortable!)  The men also carry a special tasseled stick as a ceremonial baton.  Lewis was so impressed by the reaction that everyone had to my dress that he is planning his own visit to a tailor in the near future!

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