Habesha Kemis: The age-old holiday attire
On the 13th month of the Ethiopian calendar, the very last Saturday of the 2011 EC, it was a very gloomy weather. Yet, shops were open from early in the morning. The narrow streets of Shiro Meda, to a certain extent, resemble the bustling Medina of Marrakech. Usually, during holidays, Shiro Meda is full of people buzzing, women can be seen excited to get a new Habesha kemis (dress), getting measured, choosing designs or trying readymade dresses, picking up orders and discussing payment. Shockingly, unlike the past years, this year shops were dry open, there were very few people buying clothes.
Habesha dress is a traditional clothing that has been worn in Ethiopia and Eritrea for centuries. It is handwoven and made from cotton and is especially worn during celebrations and holidays. One of the seasons to purchase Habesha dresses is during the upcoming days of the Ethiopian New Year. Habesha dresses are also selling on the international market. For instance, people can order their Habesha dresses from online stores like Etsy. The peak season for Habesha dresses is usually during Timket more than Enkutatash (the Ethiopian New Year). And the place to go to for Habesha dresses is Shiro Meda; however, nowadays, many habehsa dress shops can be found in shops all around Addis Ababa.
When making a Habesha dress, the cotton is first spun into yarn by the Dewari. Then it goes to a Shemane (weaver), who makes the traditional clothes. And then there is the hand sewing of the different types of colorful patterns or Tibeb into the dress. This entire process, depending on the discipline of the workers and the design, takes about 20 – 25 days to make one Habesha dress. Customers appreciate that the traditional dress is hand-made, and the material used to make the dress is usually of high quality. The material is cotton and there are different kinds such as saba, fetil, menen, weldeyes, etc.
Mostly the peak season to buy Habesha dresses is during holidays and weddings. Many of the sellers said that New Year is not a high season; however, during Timket (Ethiopian Epiphany), Christmas and Easter there are way more customers. Usually, Habesha kemis cost around 3,000- 10,000 birr depending on their design and the quality of materials.
However, nowadays, Chinese manufacturers are making cheaper counterfeit dresses by printing the Tibeb pattern on the dresses; something that is infuriating many in the business as well as customers.
According to Marta Debouch, owner of Yarrow Hand Woven Design, the Chinese manufactures that are counterfeiting Ethiopian Habesha dresses should be considered illegal. “They are stealing our culture that we have had for years by creating fake or artificial Ethiopian traditional dresses,” she told The Reporter, adding that the government should take action.
Marta said that she would go as far as calling it “modern colonialism”. She continues to explain saying: “It isn’t about the money or the business, but it is generally damaging the positive image of Ethiopia, when another country starts making our own traditionally handmade clothes.” She personally designs every clothes in her store, and even if there is a patent law, she asserts that it used to cost eight dollars to get one designed approved. And that, according to her, is highly expensive for local shops so the government should find a solution for protect Habesha dress designs from being stolen.
Other Habesha dress sellers located in Shiro Meda share similar frustrations. Some such as Biruk, an employee of Kiyab Habesha dress shop, believe that the Chinese counterfeit dresses are not as much desired as the handmade traditional clothes; however, in the beginning it did hurt the market. Now people are well aware of the counterfeit clothes as opposed to the authentic ones so it doesn’t affect the market as much any longer. However, Chinese companies are upping their game and producing more alike material so it can still be confusing for customers. Aynalem and Betty, Biruk’s neighbors in the shop next door, Aden Traditional Clothes, believe that the Chinese dresses have badly hurt the market because of the price difference and some people do not know the difference between the two.
Unlike the traditional handmade habesha dresses, Chinese manufactures copy the design and make it in factories with materials that are lower in quality than cotton. Unlike cotton, the material they use are not weatherproof and hypoallergenic or even comfortable. So, the difference between the two, according to the those in the business, are the quality and the material used to make the dresses. The cost is of a genuine Habesha dress ranges above 3,000 birr while, the replica is sold for just 1000 birr or less.
Unlike some sellers, Marta, an employee of Designer Shewa, a shop which is located in Shiro Meda, believes that the customers know the difference between the authentic and the Chinese-made. She says that people do prefer the traditional handmade habesha dresses. People sometimes buy the counterfeit dresses for coffee ceremonies but not for holidays. Similar to her, Hagos, the owner of Debretsion Shop, located in a different part of Addis Ababa, told The Reporter that women prefer the authentic one because the Chinese counterfeit does not have the same grace as the original Habesha dress.
Many of the sellers and owners of Habesha dresses claim that this year business has been slow because of the changes in the country and the economy. And Habesha dress shop owners such as Hagos claim that working with weavers is hard as some lack discipline while others lack the skills. He claims that it would be good if the government could organize short-trainings for people working within this field so the products will have better quality, which, in turn, will help the market to develop within the international market.
Wudnesh Hailu (PhD), who admires Habesha dresses greatly, says that she enjoys Habesha dresses and frequently wears them to events, holidays and on Sundays. She says that it is comfortable to wear during any season of the year and even abroad. She adds that Habesha dresses are made from cotton, so it is also good for the skin. Wudnesh told The Reporter that she feels sad that Chinese manufactures are creating counterfeit habesha dresses. It hurts the economy of the traditional weavers badly and it is not even good for the health of those who wear the counterfeit ones as the clothes are not made of cotton but polyester. Scientifically, cotton is known to be good for people’s health. She said that the government should protect Habesha Kemis as it does with coffee and trying to do with teff, because Habesha dresses are unique only to Ethiopia.
“Patenting Habesha dresses is a necessary step that the government should take to protect Ethiopian Culture,” Wudnesh said, recommending that creating awareness regarding the issue and creating associations can bring change. In addition, she recommended that the government can also increase taxes on the imported counterfeit Habesha dresses from China.
Contributed by Sesina Hailou