…The glorious Gomesi: a dress made from bark….
Bark cloth has been made in Uganda for centuries. This is done by transforming the bark of the fig tree (Mutuba) into cloth. Using the Mutuba tree produces a wonderfully red-colored cloth.
- Bark is cut from the tree in strips
- outer bark is then scraped off using a knife
- the inner bark is then rolled and boiled in water to soften it
- the bark is then placed on a log and beaten with ridged mallets of a variety of sized groves: first beating is with the heaviest mallet with the deepest grooves, ending with the lightest mallet with the finest grooves.
- until it becomes soft and malleable: the bark is thinned and refined during this process
- the bark is then laid out in the sun for 2 – 3 days and it is during this time that it develops it characteristic red color.
- patterns were then “printed” onto the bark-cloth using a mixture of mud and water. Stamps of various shapes were designed and then dipped into the dye and pressed on the cloth.
- to divided the traditional houses into rooms: hanging up a large “curtain” of bark cloth.
- a funeral shroud or a blanket
- dresses: many years ago, women used to drape this bark-cloth around their bodies: no sleeves and no covering over the shoulders or arms: just large swathes of this cloth. It was tied around the waist with a long piece of string or bark-cloth. This was known as the SUUKA and was traditionally worn by the women of the Baganda kingdom.
The traditional dress began to evolve. Apparently around 1905, a tailor from India/Goa by the name of Gomes was asked to re-design a uniform for girl’s school. The girls had been draping large pieces of sheeting around themselves (Suuka style) but it kept slipping off during times of hard work! He decided to switch from the traditional bark cloth was replaced it with cotton fabric imported from abroad.
The new style dress was introduced as a uniform at Gayaza Girls’ school but it was thought appropriate to introduce sleeves (more modest). So a square neckline with 2 buttons on the side was added, with to the elbow sleeves. A long sash was included to keep the fabric in place, which can total up to about 6 meters of fabric, as it is draped to the floor! The final change was when it was decided the puffy sleeves should be come to a pointed spike at the top and hey presto: we have the modern day gomesi and is worn by women all around Uganda.
The Gomesi is known as a dress that shows respect and honor. It is considered “presentable attire” when, for example, a young lady is going to meet her potential in-laws, or there is a wedding or special occasion (birthday, funeral, formal function, festival). Many “mature” women (ie: older) or in the rural areas, will wear it daily. But when the younger women want to impress, they will gladly put on their Gomesi: with brightly colored, shiny, matching sash, shoes, handbag and earrings.
They make a striking outfit: so when you travel Uganda, keep your eyes open: the spiky shoulder/sleeves, the meters of fabric and the long sash make them easy to spot!