The Umushanana has to be the one of most graceful garments you’ll ever come across. Traditionally, in the precolonial era, this garment was designed in two pieces and constructed from animal skin, locally known in Rwanda as impu. It was worn as a day to day fit, and done so by exclusively older women. When the colonialists came in, manufactured fabric was introduced to African communities and the construction of clothing switched to these as the primary material. Over the years, the fabric used for the Mushanana has evolved, but very little about its original design has been altered.
African Traditional Clothing: Umushanana (Mushanana)
The modern Mushanana is a Saree-like ceremonial dress worn by women in the East African region. Specifically, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. Alternatively, it comes in the form of a two-piece attire (a skirt and a drape), for which the wearer has to get a top to wear with. The skirt is a long wrap-around that is bunched at the hips and typically sweeps the ground. The drape is made from the exact fabric as the skirt, and is styled to loosely hang over one shoulder as well as fall slightly over the skirt. To complete the look, a bustier, tank top or fitting dress is worn underneath.
For an elegant and beautiful look, the pleats on the sash are usually evened out and neatly tucked. The wrap skirt is tailored with just enough gathers at the hips to create the ideal bunch.
The mushanana comes in either bold prints or plain cloth and is usually made from gossamer, silky, airy and polished fabric. Such include polished cotton and light or heavy silk, which are substantial in creating the soft flowy effect. The thin fabric is also ideal for the tropical weather, which is most of the time summery. Using stiff cotton fabric, on the other hand, is a recipe for disaster; because the result is an unpleasant heavy look.
To complement the attire, throwing on some beaded jewelry does magic. A ribbon is also often worn around the forehead, like a headband. The ribbon has to be of a specific shape and design for the bride, adorned with gems and pearls. The style of a headband depends on the occasion.
Speaking of weddings and occasions, the mushanana has become an indispensable attire for formal occasions such as funerals, national events and church services. They most notably are worn at traditional weddings, known as ugusaba in Kinyarwanda.
The ceremonial garment is also the standard costume for female dancers in Rwandese national dance troupes. Music and dance being an integral part of Rwandese culture and ceremonies, festivals, social gatherings and storytelling, incorporating the traditional dress code seems just about right. The women, during these events, perform a highly choreographed routine called umushagiriro (cow dance) as part of the routine.
Whatever the occasion it is worn to, the umushanana is proving to be a high-octane tale of modernization blending with culture.