Cowrie shells are shells from marine gastropod mollusc that belongs to the family Cypraeidae. Cowrie shells are light beige, small, glossy, and porcelain-like. The shells were introduced to West Africa by Arab traders in the 8th century (Sogoba, 2018). Cowrie Shells became the official currency of the Mali empire in the 18th century. Eventually, they became the most widely used coinage throughout West Africa, coexisting alongside other currencies (Jallow, 2021).
Cowrie shells were the preferred currency because they were lightweight, non-perishable and difficult to forge. The national currency for Ghana is the cedi, the Akan word for “cowrie”. In 1991, the 20 cedi coin had an embossed cowrie shell. Benin serves as the home base for the Banque Centrale des États de l'Afrique de l'Ouest (BCEAO), the Central Bank of West Africa. Cowries the size of windows adorn the corporate structure's contemporary appearance and are a reference to the monetary role cowries played in the past in West Africa.
The Use For Different Occasions
Cowries were used as decorative beads in jewellery and hairstyles. It was seen as status for wealth due to its monetary use in the past. The shells were also used to adorn statues and baskets. In some African cultures, Cowries play an important spiritual significance. They were used as talismans and protective charms for warriors and hunters. Cowrie shells are used for healing by the renowned traditional healers, the Sangomas, in South Africa.
The Lodagaa people of northern Ghana believe that a deceased person must pay a charge of twenty cowries to cross the River of Death to get to the western realm of the dead (Sogoba, 2018). In the Mende Culture (Sierra Leone) and in other African Cultures, the cowrie shells are also used as a symbol of femininity. Pregnant women use them to protect and pray for their child's safe delivery. Some African fashion designers use cowries to pay homage to their history and identity.
Its Use Within Fashion Today
Today we see Cowrie Shells used within the contemporary fashion industry. Lafalaise Dion a fashion designer from Côte d'Ivoire is notoriously known for her incredible creations with the Cowrie Shells and bears the title 'Queen of Cowrie Shells'. Her intricate patterns have elevated cowrie shells to a global level. Beyoncé wore one of Dion's Face Masks 'Labadja', in her music video, "Spirit" for "Black Is King" (Simon-Hartman, 2020). Lafalaise Dion designer employs cowrie shells as her primary medium to re-establish her connection to her ancestors' power. Miss Côte d’Ivoire and Miss World Second Runner Up (2021) Olivia Yacè pictured in a handcrafted cowrie gown by the talented designer in one of her photoshoot sessions with Said Mhamad Photography. This image shows not only the beauty of the shell but the relevancy and history of its many uses over centuries. Alongside Lafalaise Dion, many designers use the Cowrie Shell as a part of their brand identity.
Aajiya a contemporary lifestyle brand founded in Stockholm, Sweden by Maimuna Cole who was born in Sweden with Gambian Heritage. Aajiya has taken an alternative yet innovative path with cowrie shells by developing cowrie shell prints to create her garments. Her pieces have garnered attention from the press and several celebrities, such as Gabrielle Union, during a trip to Paris.
By Louisa Pokua Owusu-Afriyie, Africa's Young Fashion Leaders Fellow (Project Management) at the Council for International African Fashion Education
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Haour, A. and Christie, A. (2019). Cowries in the Archaeology of West Africa: the Present Picture. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 54(3), pp.287–321. doi:10.1080/0067270x.2019.1648726.
Jallow, K. (2021). Cowrie Shells: An African Heritage That Inspired Global Fashion Trends. [online] amaka.studio. Available at: https://amaka.studio/explore/articles/cowrie-shells-an-african-heritage-that-inspired-global-fashion-trends [Accessed 18 Nov. 2022].
Sogoba, M. (2018). The Cowrie Shell: Monetary and Symbolic Value | Cultures of West Africa. [online] Cultures of West Africa. Available at: https://www.culturesofwestafrica.com/cowrie-shell-monetary-symbolic-value/.
Image Credits: Lafalaise Dion