My Complicated Feelings Toward Traditional Ethiopian Wear
Habesha kemis is a part of my culture, but my identity should reflect all of my diasporic self
Whenever I have any special event, I normally consult my personal fashion police, the Ethiopian diaspora women in my life, about what to wear. But this time, anticipating the formal and informal events that I will attend to promote my debut novel, Daughters of Silence, I don’t consult with them just yet. My dilemma is a lot more specific.
As an immigrant Ethiopian author who’s written a novel set primarily in Ethiopia and featuring an Ethiopian family, I’m actually trying to shake off the feeling that I should wear one specific dress to an author event: habesha kemis. It’s a loose, white cotton dress with colorful embroidery and cross motifs around the neckline, hem, wrists, and down the front. Over the years, I’ve seen enough diaspora Ethiopian and Eritrean women authors wearing this dress to major events — even Tiffany Haddish wore one to the Oscars most recently and visibly — that I feel I should also represent.
Should — the bane of many a hyphenated person’s existence when it comes to negotiating their relationship to their origin culture. Although I have become better at resisting the “should” over 27 years living in Europe and North America at key life moments — baptisms, weddings, holidays, and now my literary events — I feel pressured to represent, which always means wearing habesha kemis.
The garment has long been associated with Ethiopian-ness — whether on the tourism commission’s postcards and posters, in iconic works by legendary painters, or as the uniform of senior Ethiopian Airlines flight attendants, even though it is the traditional dress of only a few of the 80-plus ethnic groups in the country. Being Amhara, one of the ethnic groups actually represented by the dress, wearing it should be an uncomplicated decision for me. I could even use the opportunity to educate Westerners about it representing a fraction, not all, of Ethiopians.
But I just don’t feel like myself in habesha kemis. I feel like some postcard Ethiopian lady, a museum display, not the hybrid, hyphenated being that I actually am. Locking my nuanced and fluctuating identity into an archaic, not to mention awkward-fitting garment, and my donning such a garment is what makes me really uncomfortable, especially when the philosophy underpinning my life and creative work is to contest tradition, status quo, and received history.
Even when they were interested in my background, I only wanted to distance myself from it. So that habesha kemis, along with everything else connected to my heritage, went into a deep freeze.
That’s not to say I have no appreciation or sense of ownership over habesha kemis. I agree they are beautiful garments that require a huge amount of time and skill. I feel proud and happy and try not to stare when I see older habesha women wearing it in public. I join online protests when there’s an appropriation brouhaha, and “omg” or “wtf” along with everybody else when a designer creates an amazing style or a fashion crime in an attempt to modernize it.
But the last time I remember wearing the dress by pure choice was when I was 12, in the early days of living abroad. One wintry morning, with stockings and turtleneck underneath, I wore it to my American school in Austria without a second thought, as if it was any other outfit. Back then I still had a natural, matter-of-fact relationship with habesha kemis. Inevitably though, all the energy of my teen and college years went toward fitting in with my classmates, who were from everywhere but Ethiopia. Even when they were interested in my background, I only wanted to distance myself from it. So that habesha kemis and everything else connected to my heritage went into a deep freeze.
Now, for all my reservations borne out of a revived, though cautiously proprietary engagement with my heritage, I still need backup or permission to let go of the “should” and wear whatever I feel actually represents me. So I consult my style crew for their input. Wanting to keep the interaction open-ended, I send a group text asking, “How do you feel about habesha kemis?”
Aside from a couple of comments about feeling “old and traditional,” and like they must behave “more grown-up” when wearing the dress, their answers are overwhelmingly positive, communicating that they feel good, even regal, in the dress. It’s their portal to feeling a stronger connection to the beauty and strength of their mothers, pride in their heritage, and an uncontrived femininity.
While I can relate to the sentiments, I still can’t connect them to habesha kemis. I feel like an outlier. Yes, I have these emotions too, but only in connection with my parents and grandparents when I think of the choices they made or had imposed on them and how they carried themselves through life. But underneath all the women’s comments, I sense an unspoken message that it is not a garment that complements our everyday diaspora selves. So a few weeks later, I probe deeper and come away with an admission from one of them that we almost never wear the dress by choice, but rather to represent and transmit culture, especially on culturally significant occasions. Sounds like a “should” to me. Otherwise, another tells me, she prefers the simple, loose, and cottony ones that she can throw on around the house to feel comfortable.
For the 15 years she lived abroad and throughout my life, my mother wore fancy habesha kemis — that she collected and maintained with the utmost care — only for special occasions and holidays, like most urban women. She had a bunch made for me too, which I would wear once then put in storage with the ones I had to wear for weddings. At home, and even then not regularly, my mother liked the unadorned style mentioned above: a floor-length, short-sleeved white cotton shift with one line of embroidery around the neck and sleeve, and subtle silver thread laced into the fringed hem. But toward what turned out to be the end of her life, she began to wear only that. I don’t know why; I never asked.
In the time since, I’ve given away almost all our habesha kemis, hers to an Ethiopian charity and mine to the women of the non-Ethiopian half of a wedding party. But I’ve kept all of my mother’s simple ones. They are comfortable, so I wear them a lot at home. But they also interest me on a symbolic level. I like to speculate that once my mother realized one can never really go back home again, she liked the blank slate quality of the dress—so plain it doesn’t even have a front or back. As if it was the true habesha kemis for the uncharted territory that was our diasporic lives.
I see this type of habesha kemis as the cultural garment reflective of our present moment, a template for what we are in the process of becoming from what we started with. One might look at it and think, “Is it or isn’t it habesha kemis?” The same way one might observe the mannerisms or hear the words of a diaspora Ethiopian woman or catch her wearing it in public and, at least momentarily, wonder, “Is she or isn’t she habesha?” This ambiguous quality makes it a perfect fit. It’s just the dress I would choose if I were to wear habesha kemis to represent my true culture.