Yoruba Classic Aso Oke

September 1, 2011


by Tola Adenle



Just this past week, seven readers visited the Blog to check out “Cloth wears to shreds:  Yoruba textile photographs from the Beier Collection” while there is always a reader – just for pleasure, just for information or research – who is interested in“sanyan”, “alaari” or “etu” referred to the Blog via search engines.

I had wanted to lay out the clothes and have them photographed or have somebody wear them and then have him/her photographed. After I saw other search engine referrals for “alaari” and “sanyan” last week and this week, I decided to take the bull by the horns and start posting pictures from my personal collection. Hopefully, it would encourage others to contribute their pictures.

This picture of me wearing sanyan – pronounced something like ‘sun-yun’ – was taken earlier this year.


After a formal occasion, 2011. Credit: Depo Adenle



Like alaari or etu, sanyan may not be the most beautiful or even the most intricate of Yoruba’s aso oke but it is the first among three Yoruba’s hand-woven clothes. The design is a simple striped weave that intersperses a wider basic khaki color with a thinner white stripe, all woven in the same direction.

The woven pieces could vary in width from five (5) to six (6) inches, which are then packed in rolls that could vary from twenty-seven (27 pieces to thirty-five (35) of lengths of around 72 inches per piece.

Men’s wears for Sanyan and Alaari are similar consisting of an under-garment,awotele called gbariye “for those who can afford it” because it has more pieces than the danshiki as older people in the know describe it OR danshiki.  On top of either of these is worn an even bigger top known as agbada or the more dramatic dandogowith an appellation that shows its pedigree:  dandogo koja a b’inu da – it’s not for every Dick and Harry although that translation does no justice to the intended meaning!

Both outfits are intricately embroidered – by hand or with embroidery machines. Theetu – black – is a little different in the combination of the undergarment and the top but we will get to know the difference when etu comes up in a week or so; it will be the last of the three since it’s considered Number Three of the classics.

Generally, most women these days do not wear the complete outfits which, ages past, would be four pieces:  buba – blouse with big long sleeve and open boat neck – iro:  a big wrapper which would take from 15 to 20 of the pieces; iborun or ipele – a sort of shawl which, as the Yoruba name implies, was traditionally placed lengthwise on the shoulder AND gele – a headwrap.

What most women use of the complete aso oke, classic or igbalode (fads to purists) called “modern” these days are just two pieces:  gele and iborun which are used with the wrapper and blouse made of imported fabrics like laces, jacquard, etcetera.

At weddings, funerals, though, the complete outfits reign.  For men and women, they are quite cumbersome.  While the women would have to use a little more than the complete thirty-five, the men could require TWO SETS of complete!

At such formal occasions when women choose to wear the complete aso oke for the four pieces, they usually introduce twists to it, choosing the blouse from the same color family but with different weaves. I hope to convince a friend who made a wonderful one for her daughter’s wedding several years ago to release a picture showing her and her husband resplendent in such.

I have not seen such mix-and-match done, however, with classics.  Anyway, they would not belong to the three classics but as I mentioned earlier about the sanyan, the classics are not necessarily the prettiest aso oke.

As in the title of Ulli Beier’s Cloth Wears to Shreds…  [ See May 27, 2011 Post], Yoruba people do not throw out any of the classics – men or women – just as pearls or great brand name watches are passed down from one generation to another in the Western world.  While my father owned none of the classics, my mother owned a sanyan and so did my in-laws.  In fact, one of my brothers-in-law – now late – inherited Late Ataoja Adenle’s complete sanyan which reminds me I must find out who now owns that ancient outfit.

I’m in my mid-60s and had my first sanyan as aso ebi – family uniform to celebrate occasions – with my siblings in 1987 for my father’s funeral ceremony.  When our first child got married over a decade ago, I had another woven by the same weaver at Iseyin – home of aso oke although various designs are now woven all across the Southwest which is the home of Nigeria’s Yoruba.  They are both the same design and size but my husband, like other spouses, did not partake of the aso ebi when my father died and I wanted his and mine for our kid’s wedding to have the same hue.  Naturally, I have the pictures from the wedding but prefer the simpler one here, dressed down for somebody else’s occasion!



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