The term aso ebi is coined from two Yoruba words: aso meaning ‘cloth’ and ebi, which means ‘family’. The tradition was developed as a means of identification for relatives at Nigerian weddings, funerals and other celebrations; however, aso ebi has come a long way from the days of its origin. The custom has grown from just family members of the celebrant(s) to friends, colleagues and acquaintances wearing it as a form of support and solidarity. Far from merely being a way to show relation to a celebrant, this tradition has a long and rich history.
The cultural practice of wearing aso ebi – which has now spread far beyond the shores of Nigeria, with neighbouring countries adopting the uniformed dress tradition – originated amongst the Yorubas of Western Nigeria.
The Yorubas have long been known for being industrious, even creating trade associations to support local craftsmanship. For instance, the Oje market in the historic city of Ibadan is so famous for its Aso Ebi designs, it attracts cloth traders from all over West Africa. Specialists in the art of Yoruba hand-woven textiles have often concluded that Yoruba women in rural settings wove merely for domestic purposes, while their male counterparts wove as professionals. However, eventually, these skills went on to satisfy needs outside the home, promoting the use and sale of the intricately designed textile forms they produce. Consequently, this, in itself, has its foundation in the popularised and commercialised use of aso ebi.
Due to the ever-changing face of social traditions, aso ebi evolved into a sign of solidarity, belonging and cultural identity amongst families and eventually, extended to friends, loved ones and well-wishers at festivities. Through this uniform dressing, individuals also establish their sense of belonging, as well as their place in society. But it goes beyond that for this traditional attire; it also ensures continuity in the use and production of other clothing, e.g. the aso oke (loosely translated to “top cloth” in English) material, also originating from Yoruba land.
The affordability of ankara fabric made it a popular choice for aso ebi in its earlier days. Nowadays, however, fabrics such as lace, organza, velvet etc. have become equally – if not more – in demand, which can be used to make all types of outfits and headgear.
Despite several customs and rituals being relegated or flat out abandoned over the course of time, this tradition has stood the test of time in Nigerian culture. It could be argued that this is due to our collectivist culture – the sense of responsibility to others and the need to identify as a group. It could also be said that the concept of this ‘traditional dress’ is a consequence of commodification and global capitalism and perhaps, these days, the use of aso ebi has less to do with culture and serves more as a ‘cash cow’ for celebrants and their relations.
Either side of the argument you tend to sway more on, the past decades have proven that the Aso Ebi tradition is a staple, deeply embedded in our culture and an indisputably pivotal part of our celebrations. And if history is anything to go by, this collective custom is here for the long haul.