Fashion Forward: Gambian Gowns

Appearance is everything to Gambian women the second they step foot outside their compound. I find it amusing because they dress up in fancy gowns even to walk to the market or travel in a gelly-gelly, activities most Americans would instead wear their comfiest clothes for.

While many Gambians opt for the two-piece complet, I personally prefer the African dresses because they are the breeziest in the heat. Traditional Gambian dresses are typically flowy and floor-length, and often have poofy, ruffled sleeves and flamboyant embroidery.

I’ve designed a number of dresses for my wardrobe, some sticking to the Gambian style and others with more of an American flare. I’m known in my group of Peace Corps friends for wearing Gambian prints more often than the clothes I brought from home. I’ve always loved shopping, and now that I can actually design my own clothes and afford it – it’s even more fun!

A meter of fabric costs anywhere between 50 cents and $2.50 USD, and I usually choose mid to higher-end prints because the quality is much better. My size dress needs about three to four meters depending on the length and whether I want an extra piece for a head tie. Without embroidery, a simple dress is about $3.00 USD for a tailor to custom sew what you want. The cost goes up with more complex work, but even my fanciest dress didn’t cost more than $10.00 USD at the tailor. So, in total with fabric and labor, my custom dresses usually cost between $7 and $15 USD.

Here’s a look at the dress section of my closet.

block dress

diamond dress

orange dress

purple dress

teal dress

tobaski dress

swear in dress