Yesterday was mother’s day. After lunch with my mom, I went home to make some calls to a few other moms to wish them a happy mother’s day. As I was chatting with a friend’s mom, she started talking about how people were staring at her when she went out for mother’s day lunch because of her ichafu (Igbo version of headwrap/gele). It wasn’t bad staring or anything. On the contrary, she said people were giving her compliments. She said some people said they liked her “African garb” or that they liked her costume. She’s a dignified older woman, so she’s not going to make a stink about it, but she definitely didn’t like being told she was wearing a nice costume and African garb. She said that one of the reasons why she rarely wears her traditional clothing outside of Nigerian functions is that people bother her about the clothes. She said bother because even positive attention after a while can be a bother.
Here’s the thing, I know people mean well and compliments are awesome. By all means compliment someone or admire what they are wearing. That’s cool. I don’t expect non-Nigerians or non-Africans to know the names of traditional clothing. Outside of traditional Nigerian clothing and some other West African clothing, I myself don’t know much either. I’m certainly no expert on East African traditional clothing. So if you don’t know what an African person is wearing, but think they look great, a simple “You look nice” or “I love your outfit” would suffice.
What you shouldn’t do is call it a costume. A costume is something people wear on halloween. Also, do not use the reductive term “African garb”. It bunches everything from a tagelmust to kente cloth to the wrapper my mother wears under one umbrella. That’s a pretty damn big umbrella, and these are very different things. When you see Scottish men wearing kilts or German men wearing lederhosen, you don’t say “Those men are wearing European garb”.
Even if you don’t know what the attire a European might be wearing is called, their clothing is never lumped together into some reductive European garb umbrella. The reason for this is because it is socially understood that Europe is not a country. Differences in European cultures and traditions are recognized. No one confuses a German for a Brit. Africa on the other hand is viewed as a monolith, so things get lumped together despite them being very different. African garb is a reductive term that lumps everything together. It doesn’t acknowledge or respect the tradition or the culture of the specific article of clothing. It’s not a big deal to not know about cultures foreign to you. That doesn’t mean you should be reductive about them with your speech. I know most people saying it mean well and are usually being complimentary when they say it, but retire “African garb” from your vocabulary.