Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated with cloth and sewing, as luck would have it, my skills would be applied to please the orishas. Whenever I have the time I like to make ashó orisha or clothes for the orishas. Normally these one of a kind creations are done for Karioshas and Wemileres, but sometimes a priest has a seamstress make a special outfit to celebrate their anniversary as well.
Sewing for a new iyawó is special to me for two main reasons. First I get to make someone look spectacular and second, it gives me an opportunity to thank the orisha for their many blessings in my life. I also consider that every act done for an orisha should be an opportunity of spiritual growth, thus I like to meditate while I do the design and select the symbols to enhance the ashó orisha.
I have found that most times there are interesting correlations between my work and the itá. One time I did an outfit for an iyawó Obatalá and the symbols I selected were actually part of his new orisha name. So I like to think that as my hands work on the project I pour ashé onto the fabric to bless the life of the iyawó in my own special way.
My own kariosha outfit was rather simple, it was the first project for the seamstress who made it and although it fit nicely, it did not had the luxury I had come to admire in all the Días del Medio (The middle day is an open house day where the iyawó receives visitors from the community) I had witnessed prior to my own initiation. This did not diminished my joy, but it did made me think deeply about the meaning of the ashó orisha and how it speaks to others who come to admire an iyawó and pay respects to the orisha. That day I made a promise to myself, if I ever had the blessing to share my talents with others, I would do my best to make them fantastic and I would never do the same outfit twice.
The Lukumí sense of style was deeply influenced by the fashions and aesthetic sensibilities of the 16th and 17th centuries. Normally satins, laces and shiny materials are used to create ashó orisha. However, the usage of elaborate fabrics is not unique to the Lukumí. In Yoruba land, fabric also speaks of status and elegance. Colors are expressive and bold. Gold, orange tones, deep purples, blues and greens intermingle with grace and style in tunics and head wraps. This same influence can be seen in African-American communities where on Sundays women dress their best to church and top their outfits with elegant hats. Hats are but another way to crown a head.
When creating an ashó orisha there are many elements that need to be well balanced. I will concentrate on male orishas on this article. Their traditional outfits are modeled combining elements such as tabards, doublets and pantaloons and decorating them with symbols associated to the orishas.
Thus for Obatalá you may find a pauyé, a sun, a moon or a boa if we used the more traditional elements. Those seamstresses that get a kick out of using syncretistic iconography may incorporate a host, a chalice and the quintessential white dove.
No outfit for Shang and Obatalá is complete without a regal crown, there are many variations of crowns, but normally they echo and compliment the style and ornaments of the ritual ashó orisha.
In the case of Shangó, there will be more of a martial element to the outfit. Turrets representing his castle, a thunderbolt or several of them, double headed axes, turtles and perhaps even a tiger may be part of the symbols incorporated in the ashó.
The warriors have perhaps the most elaborate set of initiatory regalia. Whereas for Shangó, Aganju, Obatalá there is only the need to make a simple set of shirt and pants for the morning of the Día del Medio— gingham fabric is used for the top and plain white pants for the bottom and then the gala clothes, the Warriors require plenty more. Besides the Día del Medio clothes, the warriors must wear a burlap vest, shirt and pantaloons during their crowning which is done in at outdoors throne, and they require as well the gingham outfit for the morning and the formal wear to welcome visitors. Instead of crowns, the warriors wear elaborate hats which also remind us of regalia a la “Pirates of the Caribbean” style.
But, what happens when a man is consecrated to a female orisha? Do we get any cross-dressing? The answer is NO. The colors and symbols of the female orisha are adapted to male fashion as described for Obatalá and Shangó, but you will not see a man wearing skirts at a Día del Medio. This is a common misconception I have seen among non-initiates. On the other hand, when a woman has as orisha a male, she will wear pants and shirt, but then again women use pants so this is hardly a shock in our society, even way back in the days, women still wore bloomers underneath skirts and bloomers are nothing other than underpants.
There is the option of adopting African style clothing, as I have seen done before and I have actually done one outfit like that at the request of an olosha. This means using long kaftans and long pants underneath but that is less common in traditional Lukumí ilés and perhaps it is gaining more popularity in ilés where more African-American and African traditional elements are used. However, in Nigeria I have also seen iyawós wearing very simple wrap around tunics with only one shoulder covered.
Either way, ashó orisha is more than fashion, it is an expression of royalty and status and yet another way to pay tribute to the powers of the recently crowned orisha which for a day comes to mingle among us.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá