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The grand boubou/bubu is one of the names for a flowing wide sleeved robe worn by men in much of West Africa, and to a lesser extent in North Africa, related to the dashiki suit. The name boubou derives from the Wolof word mbubb. It is known by various names, depending on the ethnic group wearing them: agbada (Yoruba, Dagomba), babban riga (Hausa), mbubb (Wolof) , k'sa or gandora (Tuareg), darra'a Maghrebi Arabic, grand boubou (in various Francophone West African countries) and the English term of gown. The Senegalese boubou, a variation on the grand boubou described below, is also known as the Senegalese kaftan. The female version worn in some communities is also known as a m'boubou or kaftan.
Its origin lies with the clothing worn by the Islamic Tukulor, Mandé and Songhai peoples of the 8th-century Takrur and Ghana Empires, and 13th-century Mali and Songhai Empires. (See Bisht and kaftan for information on these.)
The use of the grand boubou as clothing became widespread throughout the West African region with the migration of semi-nomadic groups such as the Fulani, and traders such as the Dyula and Hausa. Comparing the grand boubou to the various styles of Arabic Thawb suggests the grand boubou follows an archaic template to the contemporary male clothing of the Middle East and North Africa.
The grand boubou is usually decorated with intricate embroidery, and is worn on special religious or ceremonial occasions, for example the two Islamic Eid festivals, weddings, funerals or for attending the Mosque for Friday prayer. It has become the formal attire of many countries in West Africa. Older robes have become family heirlooms passed on from father to son and are worn as status symbols.
The boubou has female versions in Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania and many other West African countries. There is also the alternative female formal version of the boubou called the wrapper.
The grand boubou as a full formal attire consists of 3 pieces of clothing: a pair of tie-up trousers that narrow towards the ankles (known as a sokoto pronounced "shokoto" in Yoruba) and a long-sleeved shirt and a wide, open-stitched sleeveless gown worn over these. They are generally of the same colour, and historically were made from silk, but increased understanding of Islamic restrictions on clothing meant the grand boubou is now mostly made from cotton and synthetic cloths made to resemble silk.
Method of wearing
There is a set etiquette to wearing the grand boubou, primarily in place to keep the over-gown above the ankles at any one time, in keeping with Islamic traditions of avoiding impurity (see Najis). This can include folding the open sleeves of the boubou over one's shoulders, normally done while walking or before sitting down, to ensure the over-gown does not rub against the ground, or by folding/wrapping each side over the other with the hand, narrowing the gowns space toward the ankles (as done by the Tuareg). Thus, it is rare to see the grand boubou's square shaped gown completely unwrapped.
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The grand boubou's use was historically limited to various Islamised Sahelian and Saharan peoples of West Africa, but through increased trade and the spread of Islam throughout the region, had historically gained use among Islamised peoples in the savanna and forested regions of West Africa. Through this, the grand boubou was historically worn by Chiefs of the Yoruba of Nigeria, Dagomba of Ghana, the Mandinka of the Gambia, the Susu of Guinea and the Temnes of Sierra Leone.
Even today, the grand boubou is mostly worn by Muslims, although it is gaining popularity as a fashionable form of attire by Christians in West Africa, the African diaspora, and very recently, even among Bantu people in East, Southern and Central Africa.
Although usually a form of men's clothing, women's traditional clothing in much of Sahelian West Africa is of similar construction, though usually worn differently. In some places these are called the m'boubou. In other regions of West Africa, the female formal clothing has been a boubou variant, called a kaftan, and in other places it is the wrapper and headscarf.
- Agbada. Adire African textiles.
- Le Boubou—C'est Chic: Les boubous du Mali et d'autres pays de l'Afrique de l'Ouest - Book Review. Kristyne Loughran. African Arts, Summer 2002.
- Ettagale Blauer. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.
- Frances Kennett and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.