The Fabric of Nigerian Weddings

The Fabric of Nigerian Weddings


Dola Fatunbi Olutoye, 25, was ecstatic after becoming engaged last November to Dr. Yinka Olutoye, 26. She knew she wanted a traditional Nigerian wedding, but needed help executing the cultural elements of the ceremony, which took place on May 25 in Houston.

Mrs. Olutoye, a pharmacy student from Houston, and Dr. Olutoye, a recent medical school graduate, are both Nigerian-Americans who are part of the Yoruba ethnic group, which is heavily concentrated in the Southwest region of Nigeria.

On the top of her to-do list, after graduating from pharmacy school and starting a residency program, was to shop for traditional fabrics, which have become emblematic of Nigerian weddings today.

“Nigerian weddings are full of color, vibrant, and are flashy,” said Mrs. Olutoye, who has attended many traditional Nigerian weddings in her hometown. “Without your fabrics, you’re not having a traditional Nigerian wedding.”

In Houston and throughout other Nigerian enclaves, like Atlanta, New York and Baltimore, Nigerian wedding ceremonies are especially opulent. Guest lists can number in the hundreds — a cultural holdover from Nigeria, where significant life events were typically community gatherings open to close relatives and loose acquaintances. With such a big audience, a bride aims to impart regality, vibrancy and thoughtfulness in each of her bridal looks.

With the help of her mother, Modupe Fatunbi, who had connections to a fabric distributor in Asia, Mrs. Olatoye picked out the colorful, patterned yards of lace and silk for each of her ensembles. They featured: a champagne and rose gold-color set, heavily beaded with pearls and embroidered flowers for her Yoruba traditional wedding (also known as the engagement ceremony); a royal blue dress with a detachable skirt for her western wedding, which included a conventional white gown; and various fabrics for three thanksgivings after the wedding, when the couple receives well-wishes and blessings from friends and family.

To streamline the process, Mrs. Olutoye enlisted the assistance of Doyin Fashakin, the owner of Doyin Fash Events, a luxury bridal consultancy and events company in Houston. Mrs. Fashakin, also of Nigerian heritage, knew the subtle fashion elements necessary for an authentic cultural wedding, and wears many informal hats during the wedding preparation process — family therapist, budget enforcer and fashion consultant for anxious clients.

“When you’re picking out your outfits, it’s very important that you select something unique and colorful but also of quality,” said Mrs. Fashakin, who along with overseeing the more logistical aspects of planning a wedding, also helps brides source fabrics and accessories for their ensembles from vendors in Nigeria, Switzerland, Dubai and Australia.

What makes a good fabric? “No synthetic fibers or blends; the material should be 100 percent lace or silk,” Mrs. Fashakin said. “The material also shouldn’t bunch or fade. There shouldn’t be loose threads and it should always feel good against your skin.”

Chioma Nwogu-Johnson of Dure Events, a wedding and events company in Houston, said that while planning a wedding in Houston is more cost-effective than in New York, the brides who procure her services still spend from $100,000 to $300,000 or more to host their nuptials. A sizable budget — sometimes $10,000 or more — is usually allocated to wedding fashions. Couples also absorb the cost to outfit large bridal parties and select attendees in aso ebi (translating to “family clothes,” or a uniform dress worn by friends of the couple as a show of solidarity). Some brides opt to send their raw fabrics to trusted tailors in Nigeria, where the craft work is less expensive.

“Nigerian brides spend months searching for their wedding fabrics looking for something distinct — something that no one else will have — and that can sometimes be a tedious and frustrating process for brides,” said Ms. Nwogu-Johnson, whose clients often include affluent professionals, like medical doctors, engineers and oil contractors. “They want to make sure that no other brides are wearing their fabrics. More than anything, they want to make sure they stand out.”

Social media can provide some inspiration for brides. The hashtag #nigerianwedding on Instagram touts more than 3 million posts, showing brides in all manner of colors, fabrics and bridal party size.

The style of dress at Nigerian occasions will vary, depending on the tribe of the celebrants. For instance, brides from the Igbo people, another major ethnic group concentrated primarily in south-central and southeastern Nigeria, adorn themselves with coral beads signifying royalty, and at times use George fabric, a heavily embroidered material from India.

Material made of lace is also popular for many Nigerian brides across tribes, as are other textiles like silk and tulle, embellished with hand-stitched beads, stones and pearls tailored painstakingly to a bride’s taste.

Many brides spare no expense in making what the Yoruba people call their aso oke or top clothes, made of a matching buba blouse and iro, a swath of fabric wrapped around the waist. A heavy sash of complementary fabric, called an iborun, is draped on one shoulder. The bride’s ensemble is matched to her husband’s tunic and pants set, along with his agbada draping and fila hat.

But perhaps the most important part of any Nigerian bride’s look is her gele, a scarf or fabric folded into an ornate shape atop a woman’s head. The gele is standard in African women’s wear, although called by different names throughout the continent. A bride’s look is incomplete without it.

Tying gele requires artistry, nimble fingers and a touch of originality; no two geles are tied the same. “A well-tied gele at a wedding is what an ascot is at the Kentucky Derby,” said Hakeem Oluwasegun Olaleye, a bridal stylist based in Houston who is known within the bridal circuit as Segun Gele. Named for his skill in fashioning the head scarves, Mr. Olaleye is commissioned to wrap geles around the heads of brides and female attendees at weddings around the world.

“Geles are art — it is your crowning glory,” Mr. Olaleye said. “It’s as important as your hair. You can wear a cheap dress and have your head wrap beautifully done and no one will notice your outfit. Your gele is the focal point.”

When Charlye Nichols Egbo, 31, a luxury property manager in Houston, married her husband Stanley Egbo, 38, who works in oil and gas logistics, in March, she employed five distinct dress changes for her traditional engagement and western wedding, sourcing materials from Nigeria and Turkey. With nods to her husband’s Igbo culture — Mrs. Egbo, who is African-American — solicited help from Ms. Nwogu-Johnson and Mr. Egbo’s three sisters to pull each of her distinct bridal looks together. One of her looks was a heavily beaded navy and gold embroidered ensemble with an embellished floral sleeve made from fabric bought in Dubai. Another outfit — a sparkling, two-tone red set number with coral neckwear — was complemented by a fuchsia-laden aso ebi party of 27 and a custom-made white gown by Esé Azénabor, a Nigerian atelier.

“Every suit maker, every dressmaker we used was Nigerian, Mrs. Egbo said. “I could have bought a gown from Vera Wang, but it was important to us to maintain authenticity, which made everything that more intimate and that more special.”

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