Appearing everywhere from Wakanda to the U.S. Capitol, kente cloth is the best-known of all African textiles. It may have even helped garner Ruth Carter the Oscar for Best Costume Design for "Black Panther" in 2019.
Recognized by its bright colors and rows of bold, woven patterns, kente cloth is more than a piece of fabric. With historical roots dating back hundreds of years — and deep meaning connected to identity, family and the creation of wealth — kente cloth is often little understood even if it is consistently recognized.
The Origins of Kente
Kente cloth is historically associated with the Asante Empire (also spelled Ashanti), a political state that began in the late 17th century in what is today the West African country of Ghana. In the capital city Kumasi, artisans of Asante and other ethnic groups converged and received royal patronage, according to "Adinkra and Kente Cloth in History, Law, and Life," by Boatema Boateng, Ph.D., published in the journal Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings.
Legend has it that a spider taught the skill of weaving designs from a single thread to two young men. When the special cloth was presented to the first ruler of the Asante Empire, Asantehene Osei Tutu, he named it kente, which means basket. But the roots of kente cloth may go back as far as 1000 B.C.E. to textile production of the Akan people of the Ivory Coast and the Ewe people of southeastern Ghana.
Initially, kente cloth was associated with the Asantehene — the ruler — who was the only one permitted to wear it. Over time, lesser rulers gained permission, and eventually, anyone with enough money could purchase even the best cloth, although they wouldn't wear the same design as the Asantehene in his presence. Despite kente cloth's wider accessibility, it continued to be associated with "wealth, high social status and cultural sophistication."
With British colonization in the late 19th century, the Asante's political power decreased. However, the independence movement of the next century relied on support from the indigenous rulers, and the cultural importance of the Asante remained.
Kente Cloth in the 20th Century and Beyond
In the mid-20th century, independence leaders helped popularize kente cloth, explained Dr. Patrick Mbajekwe, associate professor of history at Norfolk State University. For example, Kwame Nkrumah, who would become Ghana's first president, wore a Mmeeda kente cloth in 1951 when he was released from prison after he had served a one-year term for sedition against the colonial government. Mmeeda patterns are said to convey "'something unheard of, unprecedented, extraordinary,'" according to the Seattle Art Museum. "Wearing an Mmeeda was an omen for the next decade of Nkrumah's career as he led Ghana to independence," the website said.
Thanks to Nkrumah, kente cloth became recognized globally. Current Ghanaian leaders wear it too, Mbajekwe says. Once only associated with Asante royalty, it has become a symbol of national pride.
This type of national pride has continued into the 21st century — and outside of Africa. As Swarthmore College assistant professor of religion James Padilioni Jr. explained in a piece for "Black Perspectives," many Black American college students wear a kente stole as they receive their diplomas. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore stoles to the 2018 State of the Union address in response to President Donald Trump's description of some African nations "sh--hole countries."
Padilioni wrote that he sees the wearing of kente cloth by Black Americans as weaving "together the wisdom of Africa before the Middle Passage with the persistent struggle to (re)attain knowledge of oneself that defines Black experience in the Diaspora."
Why Kente Cloth Is Special
- Gold – Royalty, wealth, high status, glory and spiritual purity
- Silver – Serenity, purity, joy; associated with the moon
- Grey – Healing and cleansing rituals
- Black – Maturation and intensified spiritual energy
- White – Purification, sanctification rites and festive occasions
- Yellow – Preciousness, royalty, wealth, fertility and beauty
- Red – Political and spiritual moods; bloodshed; sacrificial rites and death
- Pink – Female essence of life; a mild, gentle aspect of red
- Purple – Feminine aspects of life; usually worn by women
- Maroon – The color of Mother Earth; associated with healing
- Green – Vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth and spiritual renewal
- Blue – Peacefulness, harmony and love
In addition to the significance woven into each piece of kente, the cloth has been a method for storing and transferring wealth, especially among women. Kente is not always intended to be made into clothing. "Such cloth may be stored unsewn for years and passed on to a woman's heirs if she does not use it during her lifetime," Boateng wrote in her article.
If you walk the streets of Accra, Ghana's capital, today, you won't see many people wearing it as everyday fashion, Mbajekwe says. Instead, kente is worn with reverence for important occasions and celebrations. You wouldn't wake up in the morning and throw on some kente to go to the market.
"There is still that respect," Mbajekwe says. "There is a lot of artistic work that goes into it. It's a very beautiful piece of cloth with bright colors."
When it is worn, traditionally men wrap it over their shoulders like a toga, and women wear it in two pieces as a long dress and shawl.
Kente Cloth Copyright
Today, you can find both handmade (read: expensive) and printed (inexpensive) kente cloth on the market. Boateng explains in her article that the printed cloth has gained acceptance, even in Ghana, and an early distinction between the uses — when and where each is appropriate — is lessening. Ghana and other African countries produce these imitations, but so does China.
What's important to know is that all kente designs and processes are protected under Ghana's 2005 Copyright Act, explains Dr. Stephen Collins, lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland, whose research focuses on postcolonial identity.
"The Act protects Ghana's folklore and specifically names kente and Adinkra symbols as falling under its protection," Collins says via email. Both the designs and the weaving processes are protected, whether the author is known or unknown, and they are protected in perpetuity. Anyone who uses them out of context, for gain and without proper attribution is liable to a fine or custodial punishment under the law.
Unfortunately, Ghana's copyright laws only apply to goods sold in Ghana, which means anyone else can take the designs and print them — on a T-shirt, for example — and sell that outside Ghana without fear of the Ghanaian authorities.
"However, though it is technically legal to do so, it is morally problematic as copyright law protects the moral and economic rights of the maker," Collins says. "So someone might wear the design without ever knowing about Ghana or the centuries of artisanship that have gone into the design just because it looks 'cool' or 'African.'
"It's really difficult to police, and so there's some discussion around whether it's better to protect the process, the ways in which the cloth is made and woven, rather than the design, as the process is more difficult to replicate."
Should You Wear Kente Cloth?
As a non-expert, you may have difficulty determining whether a piece of kente cloth is authentic or imitation. So, should you buy it or wear it?
"It's one of the biggest debates," says Mbajekwe. "On the one hand, the mass production is what makes it popular." On the other hand, the meaning behind the cloth and what it represents calls that into question. One solution might be using kente as a tool for teaching history, African culture and African arts.
"People should try to understand what it means, try to understand the history behind it," Mbajekwe explains.
Collins offers similar advice. "What I'd like people outside Ghana to know is if they are choosing to wear it, then they've got great taste, but that it's as far away from fast fashion as it's possible to get and should be seen as an invitation to explore Ghana's rich cultural heritage and dynamic artistic present."
Collins would like for designers and/or producers to properly attribute the design to Ghana and even seek permission for use from the Ghana Folklore Board. "Even if they don't feel obligated to pay to support the crafts people that make it, at least this might lead consumers to learn more about it and learn more about Ghana and how great it is," Collins says.
Mbajekwe notes that the relationship created through kente between the African Diaspora and Africa is positive, and graduating students wear it with pride and reverence. It highlights the connection between America and the continent.
"That's the deeper meaning, which I think is cool," he says. "People can wear it. If they understand the history behind it, they can have more reverence for it."