West African Fashion: Preparing a Wardrobe for Senegal

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Summer seems to be a popular time for newcomers (and out-goers…sniff) to Dakar. I love getting emails from soon-to-be Senegal’ers who’ve stumbled upon our blog! One of the most common things we’re asked: what the heck does one wear in Dakar?

Senegal is a Muslim country, but a pretty liberal one, making potential sartorial choices a bit confusing. Here’s some general tips for Dakar wear.

Big grain of salt: These tips are Dakar-centric since we live in the city. Others who have lived in villages probably have different advice. Villages are more conservative in dress, especially when it comes to women showing their legs, so if you’re heading outside the city, be more cautious.

General: People in Dakar are used to seeing Westerners and, in my experience, are accepting and open (though if you look very much like an outsider, you might get treated like one, i.e. get more catcalls from men or quoted higher prices for street goods). Below are some tips, but it may take a bit of time in the city before you find what makes you feel most comfortable.

On your head: You do not need to wear any sort of head/face covering in Dakar, in case you were wondering. Unless you want to wear a hat to keep the hot sun out of your eyes – then, by all means, go for it. OR, if you happened to be well known Senegalese designer Diouma Dieng Diakhaté (pictured left), then there are lots of options to choose from.

On your shoulders and arms: Showing arms is normal in Dakar. Young women wear tank tops – though you shouldn’t be ultra-revealing – and many traditional boubou dresses show the arms. Nine months out of the year, Dakar is f’ing hot (the “f’ing” was indeed necessary for emphasis). Embrace short-sleeved things.

On your legs: A little trickier. I’d liken wearing shorts in Dakar to showing copious amounts of cleavage in the United States. Is it “ok” to do it, from a safety standpoint? Yes. But keep in mind that showing plenty of leg might have the same connotations as showing plenty of boob. As one friend said, tourists wear short-shorts, long-term expats don’t. How much do you care about fitting in? If you’re on the fence, just go with pants or some cute skirts that hit at the knee (and do a good job keeping you cool at the same time). I take more liberties with running clothes and do wear regular-length shorts when I’m sweating it out on the streets.

On your feet: I once had a reader write, “I’m assuming flip-flops are a no-go.” Absolutely not the case! Wear whatever is comfortable. My feet are rarely in closed-toed shoes when I’m not at work (refer back to “f’ing hot”), except when I’m running. Forget heels, unless you won’t be doing much walking. I wear heels to work, knowing I’m just going from my car to my desk and back. Otherwise, the sidewalks are too sketchy to risk a face-plant in pumps.

At the beach: It’s ok to wear your two-piece. Senegalese and Western women do it (but if you feel uncomfortable, a one-piece is perfectly fine, too). Keep in mind some beaches have big waves, especially Yoff beach, so you might consider wearing something the sea won’t threaten to steal if you’re going in the water.

Photo credit: Africa Success Site. It is a shot of Diouma Dieng Diakhaté  who is a Senegalese designer.

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