Brief notes on Clothing, Textile and Fashion in Old Calabar between 1474 and the mid-19th century – Philip Nosa-Adam

Brief notes on Clothing, Textile and Fashion in Old Calabar between 1474 and the mid-19th century. – Philip Nosa-Adam

Before i go into the nitty gritties of this piece, i would briefly like to defend the use of 1474 as a starting date. It is believed that this was the year the Efik came in contact with the Portuguese who were ruled by King Afonso V.

The date is based on dates and events obtained from Halley’s comet and orally transmitted by the Efik Bard Adiaha Atiñ Anwa in 1910.[1]The earliest clothing worn by the Efik people was the raffia (Ikpaya). Ikpaya was a woven raffia attire comprising of a skirtlike wrapper and tunic. Several other Efik attires were fashioned out of tree bark such as Ofriyo (Mahogany tree).

With the inception of the Efik-Portuguese liasons and the triangular trade, several fabrics were imported into old Calabar. Unfortunately, many of these are very rare to find and a majority have gone extinct. I will go through a few that i’m familiar with and the few i’ve read about.Itu Ita: Oral tradition holds that this was the earliest fabric imported into Old Calabar by the Portuguese (Oboriki).

This material came in with the first masted ships that arrived Old Calabar in the late fifteenth century (a period still debated by foreign academics). The masts of the ship resembled the manatee known in Efik as Itu. Hence the name Itu Ita literally translates to three manatees.Nkisi:

This material was brought by the English. Nkisi is a corruption of Nkrisi which is the Efik translation of the word “English”. It was most likely the first fabric brought by the English as subsequent materials from Britain were given other names.Brutanya: A corruption of Brittania, this material was brought by the English. However, it had such little value that it was often used in adjectives to signify something worthless.Ekpañ: A cotton cloth woven in narrow strips and imported from Arochukwu and other parts of the Igbo interior. It was sometimes known as Ekpañ Inokon.

The women of Old Calabar were fond of several peculiar delights from the Igbo interior and would often wear clothing imported from the Igbo interior. Other igbo fashion imports included Mbọmọ (A type of cloth) and Ntuñ (Igbo brass anklets).

The latter went out of fashion by the first half of the 19th century.Other fabrics imported into Old Calabar during the period of 1474 and the 1850s would include, Ntañnsiọñ, Ukpo, Isadọhọ, Okosiri and Asantañ inim.Clothes and fabrics could be named after the people who first brought them such as Ukpọñ Asibọñ, named after a certain Asibọñ; Akaekpenyọñ, named after a certain Ekpenyong; Smit, named after a certain Captain Smith. Clothes could also be named after nations or nearby communities such as Nkisi, Ndam Okobo, Iban Obutọñ. Goldie’s dictionary reveals a minimum of 25 different fabrics that could be found at Old Calabar as at 1862.

Anklets of various kinds were also common in Old Calabar. Women wore a variety of anklets such as Ewọk – a heavy and uncomfortable brass anklets worn between the knee and ankle; Mme – Ivory Anklets which were particularly common among wealthy and influential women; Okpoho nyaña nyaña – worn by women during the fattening ceremony; Ndañ – Anklets used specially for a bride at her marriage ceremony. Necklaces of various kinds were popular among the female class such as Obukpe ñkwa, Ntọi ñkwa, Isanda, Mkpọrikpọ etc.

According to Captain Hugh Crow (1830),”The women of Calabar are, however, very grand in their own way on holidays, when they wear dresses of variegated colours, and have their hair tightly made up in the form of a cone, a foot or two above their crowns—a fashion which gives them a remarkable and somewhat dignified appearance.” [2]With the arrival of the missionaries in 1846, more foreign attire would be introduced to Efik women.

The Onyonyo (Victorian dress) would come with a lot of variants known by various names.


  1. Souvenir Programme of the Coronation of H.R.H Edidem Boco Ene Mkpang Cobham V Obong of Calabar and Paramount Ruler of the Efiks (December 22 1989)
  2. Memoirs of the late captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool (1830)

Recommended readingDictionary of the Efik language in two parts – Hugh Goldie (1862)A learner’s dictionary of the Efik Language – E. U. Aye (1991)Image Caption: A Three masted sailing shipImage source: Valejo Gallery


Tony Tokunbo Eteka Fernandez is an International Award Winner, Published Author & Poet, Broadcast Journalist, MC and Youth Empowerment Consultant . He is also The CEO of AFRICA4U and The Founder of Africans in The Diaspora People also see him as a Cultural and Social entrepreneur, which means he is skilled in working with many different communities, bringing people together in successful focused events. Tony has organised many cultural events …involving both BME and mainstream communities. He is skilled in hosting events that reinforce community cohesion and bringing different kinds of people together. He has organised events in The UK, The U.S.A, Holland, Germany, Romania, Malta and Nigeria and has visited over 22 European Countries. Tony has also organised The Black History Month Celebrations at The UK House of Parliament for over five years in a row He continues to promote the true life and success stories of Africans in Europe and Africans around the world and has organised several small scale literary and awards initiatives aimed at empowering young people. He has also spent time as an International broadcaster and was The Producer and Presenter for AFRICA4U International Radio Talk Show at Reading4u Radio Station for nearly three years. Tony has interviewed high profile Members of Parliament, Distinguished celebrities and some of Africas best musicians including Ivonne Chaka Chaka and Kanda Bongoman. He has also been a guest on BBC Radio on numerous occasions to discuss the community cohesion events he organises at UK House of Parliament and also to recite some of his published work in memory of Nelson Mandela, 50 Years Anniversary of The race relations act and major community issues. Tony has also a Guest on popular Radio stations in Nigeria and The States In the last few years he has been very passionate about Youth empowerment, community cohesion and cultural intelligence. Tony was born in South London and has lived in several parts of England and Nigeria . He started writing at the tender age of nine, a habit he expressed with creative enthusiasm. Tony writes Poetry, short stories and proverbs on personal development. He is currently working on his 4th book which will also be his first novel. He is also into Public Speaking at Special events and Social functions and is a Mentor for young people in the UK Community. He completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at The University of Lagos, Nigeria in English and World Literature. He later went on to attain a teaching qualification at The Frances King International Training Institute, South Kensington London, it was here he studied Teaching English as a Foreign Language. He also studied Web Design at The City University in London. He published his first book in June 1999 called “The Beauty in the Dark” (A Collection of Poetry which received critical acclamation in many circles around the world). .Tony’s aim in life is to inspire the young generation and to encourage the youth to make the very best of their dreams and aspirations,. He published a 2nd book in June 2009 called ” The Sound of Running Water” – A Family gift book of proverbs and quotations on Personal Development and Positive Thinking . In December 2009, he published his 3rd book called “One Moment of Peace”.- A collection of Poetry inspired by personal experiences and spiritual growth. Besides the fact that the Artist has won International online awards, he is mostly inspired by Life experience, love, music and cultural awareness. He was Resident Poet at the 5th London Poetry Festival in 2009 and has been a guest on BBC Radio on very many occassions including The famous Anne Diamond Show. He has also been a guest on a few SKY TV stations and several International Radio Stations around The World
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