Kanzu ama dera? The evolution of the sensual garment women love and men drool over

For ages, the colourful, free, flexible and versatile cotton dress locally known as ‘dera’ has mostly been associated with the Swahili people in the coastal regions of Kenya and Tanzania.

Deras come in different shapes; there are those that cling to one’s body, while there are also loose ones, but most importantly, according to many women, one must have a scarf.

The fancy dress stitched at the seams with no openings or fastening design may be the simplest among women’s clothes with two pieces of garment sewn together, just leaving space for the arms and neck.

Usually, the fabric is brightly coloured, with patterns and prints which serve to preserve the dera’s special feminine essence.

Generation Next - Style Lab - Dera. Photos by FELIX KAVII.

Kungwi’s and Muslim religious leaders have a story on how the dera dress evolved and dominated the fashion industry, saying that it has a rich illustrious culture and it was adopted as a part of Somali culture.

Hodan Adan, an 80-year-old, says she has witnessed the evolution of deras from a Somali auxiliary cultural dress to its adoption in the fashion industry.

Mrs. Hodan says the dress originated from Yemen and traces its history to the Somali community, where Somali ladies wore it to do house chores and would throw on a bui bui on top when stepping out of the house.

Hodan says that before the world took up the dera, Somali women used to wear a thin cotton dera, which was nearly transparent, and which was adorned with lace and an expensive underdress or petticoat.

“I remember I used to tuck in the dera at the waistband of the petticoat to make it visible,” Hodan says.

Even as time evolved, she says, women, especially Muslims still adore it as part of their culture and religion of preserving a woman’s sensuality. The dera’s biggest quality and what has endeared the garment to Muslim women, in particular, is its ability to preserve a woman’s dignity and respect.

“It’s an abomination that a Muslim woman would be walking in the streets exposing parts of her body. That is why a dress is still a must for every Muslim woman.

“They wear it all the time, especially indoors, using it as a working dress, apron, evening wear, pajama, swimsuit, in fact, the many buibui’s in town are almost always concealing a dera,” she says.

The attire evolved and nowadays, fashion has taken a paradigm shift as the dresses have become an essential for women not only in the coastal region, but also in other regions in the country becoming the latest fad in the streets as girls have also abandoned their jeans in a bid to embrace the secretive dress.

Variety. PHOTO: Felix Kavii.

Some women say they have adopted it because of its aeration-enabling qualities and free-flowing nature, while others say they only wear it during the holy days when visiting their in-laws in shags.

Others wear dera when going for marriage introductions in a bid to portray the picture of ‘wife material’ as in-laws always believe that a woman in long and flexible dresses is well mannered and was brought up well.

‘’I wear deras every time I accompany my husband to his ancestral home. I have a lot of them just to serve that purpose,” says Anita Charo, a resident of Kilifi.

Fatma Ali, 34-year-old and a mother of two says that every married woman should stock deras for everyday use and a few expensive pieces for special occasions.

“Sometimes you see a dera made of expensive material with elaborate embroidery, making it difficult to recognise. Some deras have become office wear too,” she says.

 Fatma says what makes deras appealing is their liberating aspect. Men also find it sexy and mouth-watering due to its flexible nature.

“You slip on a dera anytime and you are good to go. Your  partner doesn’t have to struggle undressing you because it’s not sophisticated with fasteners or cords, not even a simple button to complicate your bedroom life for those who wear it as a nightdress.”

Amina Abdala says there are romantic men who would find their woman in the kitchen and use the moment for a quickie...as such, deras are meant to be worn without underwear.

“It’s always good to be free as a woman, and mostly these deras are supposed to be worn without underwear especially when in the house with your partner,” she says.

For the known hot weather around the coast, women say they are attracted to the malleability of the dera dress, which you can slip on with or without other clothes underneath.

Said Khatibu, a resident of Kilfi, says he prefers his wife wearing a dera because it’s respectable wear.

“Dera ndo kusema. I bought several pieces for my wife, the ones she wears in the house while doing house chores and those she puts on while stepping outside the house,” says Khatibu.

He however says the outfit is better on women with a big derrière, especialy when worn without inner-wear.

As the saying goes, ‘Dera bila tako ni kanzu’ translating loosely to ‘without a big derriere, the dera will look like the religious white gown that Muslim men wear known as a Kanzu’.

Even as ladies talk themselves into styling this little piece of fabric into trendy looks, some men think that a dera looks better transparent and loose-fitting, but should strictly be kept indoors.

“I like the dera but I prefer my wife wearing it inside. I find it sexy since I can feel her body anytime without much struggle. But I wouldn’t want her to wear it outside because it makes her look older,” says  Elias Charo, a resident of Kilifi.

What you wear speaks volumes about you. According to some men we interviewed, a dera looks lazy, unkempt and unappealing to the visually-inspired man.

Some think it’s a night dress or a petticoat and it baffles them as to why their wives wear it in broad daylight.

“Ladies think that wearing a dera makes them look mature. No! The cotton transparent dera does not make you look mature, it makes you look lazy especially when worn with flat shoes,” says Issac Mangale.

Omar Kiponda says the dera is only good on pregnant women and not for every woman.

“I don’t like it even as a night dress, I think it was initially used as a night dress, but with the current style every woman is now ‘pregnant’ and that’s the reason for its wide spread,” says an irritated Kiponda.

However, Bensukar Daura, a fashion designer and Nigerian citizen based in Mombasa says the dera dress can be styled to look more appealing.

The Nigerian-born fashion designer says the dera’s relegation to an indoor ‘uniform’ does not make it bearable for the African man as he has to contend with the shapeless look the dera drapes on a woman’s body.

“You can redesign this free piece of fabric into something more feminine, showing off your strong curves and make it appealing visually.

“The fabric can be made thick, detailed with embroidery and styled with accessories such a sling bag and sneakers to achieve the punk look of the otherwise traditional piece of clothing,” he says.

Munaa Hassan is a prominent businesswoman who owns a  boutique in the outskirts of Kilifi town. Clad in a  yellow stripped dera and a head wrap, she says she only stocks khangas (lesso) and deras.

Munaa Khasan ,a prominent businesswoman who sells deras in KIlifi. 


She also says that her sales have improved drastically over the years due to the high demand of the dresses. “This is my fifth year in business, and I have more varieties of deras and the demand is very high. I also supply some of the shops over here.

“I don’t know what caused the shift in fashion but am glad that unlike in the past, they are really moving fast,” says Munaa.

According to Islamic religion, the dera has played a big role for women.

“The dera may not be exactly a religious symbol like the buibui, abaya or niqab, but it conceals the curves and shape according to Islamic requirements.  It conforms with the Shariah requirement for a woman to cover her whole body,” says Ustadh Ali Bahero.

Bahero also says that Muslim women swim in deras in public places.

Before deras, it was scandalous for a Muslim woman to be caught in the beach in a bikini, but this has changed.  The dress has been featured in fashion events on the world stage with some celebrated models strutting the catwalk dressed in this Somali attire, showcasing its deceptive simplicity.

According to Islamic religion, burning incense is only reserved for married women.

“It’s romantic for a married woman to wear her dera, burn incense and stay indoors with her husband.”

The dresses, which come in different sizes, colours and shapes are mostly sold in Marikiti market in Mombasa, both in retail and in bulk, and they are now a fast moving commodity. Prices range from Sh300 to Sh15,000 depending on many factors, among them the fabric quality.

Deras have also taken the political stage for female politicians in the country. Nairobi Nominated senator Millicent Omanga carefully picks clothes that flatter her curves.

In different occasions she has stepped out of the house donning the very controversial dera.

Another woman leader is Likoni Member of parliament, Mishi Mboko, who stands out in her beautiful deras that she says represents her Swahili culture.

Volleyball and Handball
Chumba back as KCB aim to reclaim continental title in Cairo
By AFP 6 hrs ago
Kenya's Munyao gets better of Bekele to win London Marathon
By AFP 12 hrs ago
Arsenal thrash Chelsea 5-0 to open up Premier League lead
By AFP 12 hrs ago
Inter Milan seal Scudetto in derby thriller with AC Milan