Imagination is an idea that has taken the shape of a reality countless times since the beginning of civilization. In fashion, designers use their vision to conceptualize and create either something brand new or to give the existing trends a different yet exciting dimension.
It takes more than just a sense of style to accurately tweak an existing attire to reinvent and create something unique while keeping its original essence intact.
The above statement can be best used to describe the designer who created the ‘Oleku’ out of the regular Nigerian attire named ‘Iro and Buba.’ The designer, to renovate the outfit, has pushed his boundaries to go beyond cultural constraints while still maintaining the essence of the desired neutral attire for the Nigerian women belonging to different age groups.
Traditionally, Iro (wrapper) and Buba (top) were worn by older women in the Southwestern part of Nigeria. With time, the outfit also became popular among the Yoruba women of the country. In modern-day Nigeria, however, the outfit has become one of the most popular attires among women, with its reach not just limited to the ladies of the Yoruba community. Even brides of non-Yoruba descent happily choose Iro and Buba as their traditional marriage attire.
Originally, the outfit consists of five pieces: the Iro (a large wraparound skirt wrapped around the waist and secured with a knot); the Buba (a long-sleeved, loose-fitted blouse. Buba is a Yoruba word which means the upper clothing); Gele (a head-tie popular among the Nigerian women); Ipele (a short fabric tied around the waist on top of Iro); and Iborun (a scarf that is placed on the shoulder in a particular fashion).
Although the attire was trendy among middle-aged and older women, up until recently, this much-celebrated outfit was not welcomed by the young ladies of Nigeria for a plethora of reasons. While some considered the dress uncomfortable, others rejected it because of its non-glamorous appeal. Another reason for its unpopularity among younger women was the association with age, as most women who wore this outfit were old.
Keeping these reasons in mind, the Nigerian fashion designers decided to reinvent Iro and Buba. The result was a brand-new outfit named “Oleku.” The difference between traditional Iro and Buba and Oleku was that it did not have Iborun (scarf) and Ipele (the short fabric tied around the waist while wearing traditional Iro and Buba). Consequentially, the new outfit became instantaneously popular among young Nigerian women because of its uniqueness in bringing the traditional outfit’s essence and at the same time having an utterly modern appeal. Currently, even little girls in Nigeria prefer wearing Oleku over other similar attires. Women mostly wear Oleku with matching footwear like sandals and complementing jewelry to accentuate the style and beauty of this outfit.
Usually, “Oleku” consists of a wrapper (Iro), tied to the waist, reaching just above the knees of the woman wearing it, and Buba, a short-sleeved blouse. However, the wrapper can also be easily maneuvered to achieve the desired length: long, three quarter. The required length is achieved by folding the wrapper in several pleats from above before tying.
Oleku is the most noteworthy Nigerian fashion trend from the ’70s. It is not just limited to Ashoke (Cloth made out of the two-heddled, narrow loom. It is primarily woven by men, and in some parts of Yoruba land by women) like the traditional Iro-Buba anymore. In fact, in recent times, various other fabrics such as chiffon, satin, and lace are also used to make Oleku. Additionally, several new colors and prints have also been introduced to make the outfit more appealing to the masses.
Moving forward, the introduction of Oleku did not stop younger women from wearing traditional Iro and Buba. For most women, Oleku is just a go-to attire, while Iro-Buba is still a special outfit worn during important occasions. Although the trend of wearing Oleku was at its peak between 2012 and 2018, it is still in vogue. And by looking at the inclination of Nigerian women toward wearing Oleku, the trend doesn’t seem to be dwindling any time soon.
About writer: Igbadi Blessing Chubiyojo, in short Chubie, is a Nigerian food and fashion blogger. Although she loves writing, her other interest areas include reading, listening to good music, and dancing. She loves her family and is committed profoundly toward each of her family members.
Editor: Rachana Gupta