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Fabric's the thing in Nigerian weddings

Subtle fashion elements are necessary for an authentic cultural wedding by Adenike Olanrewaju The New York Times | September 8, 2019 at 2:07 a.m.
Bride Dola Olutoye dances in to her reception to meet her groom, Yinka Olutoye, during their May 25 wedding in Houston. The color and flair of traditional Nigerian wedding ceremonies give brides and grooms a way to express a vibrant cultural heritage.

Dola Fatunbi Olutoye, 25, was ecstatic after becoming engaged in 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 May 25 in Houston.

Dola Olutoye, a pharmacy student from Houston, and Yinka 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 Dola 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, including 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, Olutoye 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, Olutoye enlisted the assistance of Doyin Fashakin, the owner of Doyin Fash Events, a luxury bridal consultancy and events company in Houston. 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.

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 craftwork 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 Nwogu-Johnson, whose clients often include affluent professionals, including physicians, 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 such as 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 womenswear, 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 headscarves, 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," 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."

High Profile on 09/08/2019

Print Headline: Fabric's the thing in Nigerian weddings


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