Man's prestige robe (riga or agbada)



Yoruba, Hausa, or Nupe
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General Description

Voluminous tailored "robes of honor" evoke traditional concepts of success, power, and influence. Traditionally, such robes are made of wild silk or cotton threads, woven in narrow strips on a hand loom, and extensively embroidered with silk, cotton, or wool threads. The robes have sleeves longer than the wearer's extended arms which are bunched or folded over the shoulder. Underneath the robe are one or more tunics and a pair of baggy embroidered drawstring trousers. Depending on the the man's social or political staus, he wore such an ensemble with a turban or an embroidered cap made of the same material as the robe or imported brocade, a flowing cloak, leather boots, and a prestige staff. Today such robes are made of imported luxury textiles as well as hand woven cloth. They are worn by high-ranking leaders and wealthy men throughout West Africa. Their cost and weight still make them prestige clothing which is worn on important occasions such as burial ceremonies, child namings, marriages, and the installations of chiefs, kings, and presidents.

Embroidered robes are historically associated with the Muslim Hausa of northern Nigeria. Islam was brought from North Africa during the 10th century by traders who established the faith among African rulers in the Western Sudan. In Nigeria, the Hausa were the first to convert to Islam and adopt the associated lifestyle and dress. For men, this meant wearing embroidered ringona (robes). In the early 19th century following the Fulani's conquest of Oyo in the south, non-Muslim Yoruba males, who then wore cloth draped toga-style over their bodies, converted to Islam and adopted the riga. Howver, not all who encountered Islam adopted the faith. Instead, they adopted only the elaborate, prestigious robe.

The process of making the robes is labor intensive and involves several specialists. If entirely handmade, the labor and expertise of a spinner, a dyer, a weaver, an embroiderer, and a tailor would be required to make a robe. It could take over a year to weave the fabric and several months to a year to sew and embroider the robes by hand. The source of the silk, which when woven the Yoruba call sanyan or alapo-apo, caterpillar cloth, is caterpillars which are not cultivated but found in the bush. During their life-cycle, caterpillars cluster together on tree trunks and cover themselves with a cocoon of brown silk. The cocoons are collected, processed, and spun into thread. The woven silk is heavy and thick and resembles cotton. Silk embroiderers, primarily Hausa or Nupe male teachers of Arabic script and Koranic scholars, usually copy time-honored designs that may be hundreds of years old using the chain stitch, couching, and buttonhole stitch in tradition-prescribed parts of the design. It has been suggested that the designs afforded protection from malevolent forces. It should be noted that current events such as the change over from driving on the left to driving on the right in 1972 and the introduction of paper money (niara) and coins (kobo), which replaced British sterling in 1973, caused the creation of new designs.

This man’s gown with a tapered body and flared sleeves is composed of handwoven narrow silk strips. There is a large oblong pocket on the front body panel. The patterns, embroidered with cotton thread, are geometric in shape and arranged asymmetrically. There is a large spiral on one side of the front panel and across the back, and a densely stitched complex design winds around the neck and covers the entire front pocket. The embroidered areas are faced with blue cotton cloth to provide support. The main design on the pocket is called two knives, as suggested by the pair of long triangular elements. Both the front and back of the garment feature a crossed circle with a spiral. This design is called either tambari (king’s drum) or “daughter of Ilorin,” in reference to a town. A plaited band (sharaba) is stitched to one side of the pocket.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, Add to, Take Away: Artistry and Innovation in African Textiles, 2014.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2013.

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