Maslow was the chap who told us about the “hierarchy” of human needs. He drew a pyramid that had at its base — food, clothing and shelter as basic human needs — while at the very top was self-actualisation as the ultimate pursuit of humans. I’m not quite sure he got the complete memo as he certainly couldn’t have visualised the fashion industry today where the pursuit of clothing and related activities exists at the level of self-actualisation. How else does one explain the expression “to slay” as referring to a very well dressed person who certainly isn’t armed with any kind of dangerous weapon apart from the sharp ensemble? I guess “dressed to kill” is just so yesterday… Seriously though, tailored clothing is now one of the ultimate expressions of human achievement as has been observed in this column before. The world of bespoke is certainly not unfamiliar to readers.
The only way to make Nigerian traditional clothing has always been bespoke albeit not with Savile Row or Neapolitan skill levels. This tailoring of ‘native’ clothing in Nigeria was at a time strictly dictated by cultural leanings. However, that has become more the exception than the rule. All bets are effectively off with regard to what a tailor or clothier can create for either male or female clients. The full Yoruba robes or agbada as properly known can easily be seen on an Igbo man. As a matter of fact or perception, a man with a full beard wearing an agbada, a lovely pair of velvet slip-ons and a cap that could be Yoruba or Hausa in origin is considered the swagger poster child for Nigerian men these days. The ubiquitous Ray-bans complete the picture. Yet the man donning this attire could easily be of Ijaw or Hausa origin.
The two piece ‘buba and sokoto’ or top and trousers that a Nigerian male wears is definitely a subject of this recent metamorphosis. The Yoruba version used to be a loose affair and looked as if the fabric for one outfit could make two for much smaller men. Nowadays the outfit could be tailored so closely that a strong cough by the wearer would blow the seams.
Part of the metamorphosis for the top and trousers came about when the ‘resource control’ style came into vogue a few years ago. Once the province of gentlemen from the South-South or Niger Delta region of Nigeria, every tailor worth their pay created a version or the other for their male clients regardless of tribal extraction. The results were adaptations of the original ensemble with the style elements of other tribes. The key feature was smartness as can be seen in the well made ones while the poorly tailored ones could be, well, less spoken about.
Common to the Niger Delta and Igbo traditional styling is the former-nightshirt-become-trad-wear-shirt. It is said that the source of this top or shirt is the nightshirt worn by former colonial masters but adapted to become part of traditional clothing in both regions. One key element also adopted along with this styling was the pocket square. The veracity of the adaptations of both items of clothing is subjective and depends on whom you ask. Suffice to say both items are firmly entrenched in the style lexicon of both regions.
The pocket square has become a style bridge of sorts among Nigerian fashionistas. Initially pocket squares came from the linen handkerchiefs used for personal hygiene. Handkerchiefs have been used for over 600 years. It is said that the handkerchief was invented by Richard II of England (1367-1400) “as a little piece of cloth for the lord king to wide and clean his nose”. The upper class in London used it to cover their noses when walking among the normal citizens. Initially only the upper class adopted the use of a linen handkerchief, but by the 17th century the handkerchief was quite common among all classes throughout western Europe.
Originally handkerchiefs were placed in trouser pockets since it was seen as un-clean to show a “used” handkerchief in the visible breast pocket of a man’s jacket. As 2 piece suits came into fashion in the 19th century, many men started to place their clean pocket square into the breast pocket of their jacket to protect it from dirt and other objects, such as coins, in their trousers’ pockets. After use the pocket square would move from the breast pocket to the trousers’ pockets.
The look of the pocket square in the breast pocket became more popular, especially after specific folding techniques came into use. By the 1920s the pocket square had become more of a fashion accessory than having any other purpose. Pocket squares are still today a very fashionable piece of accessory for any formal, casual or business attire.
The well attired Nigerian man is not a stranger to the pocket square as well and can be found sporting them in suit jacket or sport coat/blazer breast pockets. And what about this style bridge? A scant few years ago, a typical Yoruba man wouldn’t have imagined that a pocket square would become part of his traditional ensemble. However as soon as the resource control adaptations filtered into Yoruba tailoring, the pocket square made an appearance. Nowadays Yoruba men wearing two piece ‘buba and sokoto’ outfits could easily sport a pocket square for extra ‘swagger’ with or without the traditional cap. It also doesn’t matter if the outfit fabric is plain white cotton or print like Ankara, properly chosen pocket squares are helping to elevate the two piece outfits. One single accessory now has the capacity to upgrade a man’s wardrobe.
Now a serious style faux pas must be avoided. It is simply not done for a man to wear a tie and matching pocket square made from the same fabric. Neither should a man have a pocket square made to match his traditional cap. One might have both tie and pocket square or cap and pocket square with the same base colour but the patterns must not be the same.
From a man’s suit to his blazer and also his traditional attire, one accessory, the pocket square, to connect them all. Welcome to the bridge. For some of the best pocket squares on the planet, if you are in London, drop by Turnbull and Asser to pick up a few, and if in Paris, definitely stop by Simonot-Godard.