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

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