The Maasai are famous and easily recognizable thanks to their traditional robe, the Shuka; it is a bright-colored cloth, predominantly red, wrapped around their lean and slender frames; red symbolizes Maasai culture and it is the color believed by these people to be able to scare off lions even from a great distance.
Maasai jewelry, created with beads and metal wire, are just as famous: men wear wrist or ankle bracelets, and sometimes belts and necklaces too, while women feature an explosion of color and jewelry: they wear tens of bracelets and big flat bead-decorated collars in various patterns and colors, that identify the clan they belong to and their social status.
However, they have not always dressed this way, in the past their customs were different.
In the past, Maasai clothes were obtained from animal hide, that were dyed using vegetable pigments, while jewelry was made of seeds and stones easily found in the surrounding environment, but when the first colonizers arrived, the Maasai started replacing calf or sheep hide with wool or cotton; it is thought that fabrics with checkered or striped patterns were inspired by the blankets English and Scottish soldiers used for their Kilts, that the
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Maasai started buying and using, thus changing their way of dressing.
A Maasai clothing style and its colors vary depending on age and social position; young men, for example, wear black during the months leading to their circumcision rite of passage, while old women prefer red, that is obtained by dying the fabric with natural pigments such as ochre.
The Maasai also have a long tradition of designing and making the ornaments and jewelry they wear daily; before coming into contact with Europeans, the materials used were derived from local raw materials, like white beads created with clay or shells, ivory or bone, blue and black beads were made of iron, coal, seeds or horn and red decorations were a product of seeds, woods, pumpkins, copper or brass.
After the arrival of the colonizers all of these natural materials were replaced with glass beads, brought there from Europe, more colorful and with a smoother and brighter appearance; these new materials made it possible for more elaborated decorations to be created.
In the past, warriors used to wear ivory bands on their upper arms; for the elephants’ sake, they now use simple wooden bracelets.
Jewelry plays an important role in the courting rituals and both men and women spend a lot of time on taking care of their looks.
Up until not too long ago the Maasai used to wear sandals made from bovine hide, but today these materials have left room for old pneumatic tires and plastic strips.
The different colors of Maasai garments and jewelry are important because they reflect several aspects of their culture:
Blue is the color of the sky providing water in the form of rain, which is fundamental for the cattle;
White is the purity of milk, a staple food and source of energy;
Red is the most important color to the Maasai, it represents blood and a sort of protection against wild animals, it also stands for courage, strength and the unity within the Masai nation;
Green means the land providing food and nourishment, in the form of plants and vegetables, for the cattle;
Yellow represents the sun, making life possible and orange means hospitality, friendship and the generosity of the Maasai people.