When I was doing research answering some of the questions we have received from a few of our friends that we’ve finally convinced to visit the Mara, one of the first questions we got was: why do Maasai wear red?
My research revealed a very distinct pattern of poor research and shallow analysis of culture and traditions, so I decided to take the time and write this detailed article explaining why Maasai wear red.
What does Maasai wear?
A traditional Maasai man will wear a simple clothing ensemble that consists of a red or purple cloak, known as a Shuka, with the colors symbolizing the blood they shed in battle. Men also wear leather sandals and a headdress made of cowhide called a kofia.
What is the significance of red?
I found several answers to why Maasais wear red but I strongly believe most blogs have did not really do primary research to understand the background of Maasai’s clothing and attire. Prior to colonial conquest, Maasai used to wear skin as their garments. The skin could be one from a goat, zebra, cow or antelope.
The colonizers brought with them a type of cheap, locally produced cloth and it was then that the Maasais started wearing red or purple as their main clothing. It is believed that red was chosen to signify aggression, vitality and strength — a reminder of their warrior past. I could not authenticate this claim though.
So why do Maasais wear red?
In the 19th century, Scottish missionaries and traders had a significant impact on Maasai life. They popularized wearing cloth instead of animal skins, often donning signature red scouting quilts which eventually led to the ubiquity of red as an iconic color for the Maasai people. This is why today most members of this community are seen in their traditional garb -a cloak called Shuka- usually adorning its bright crimson hue.
There is one thing to know about the Maasais as a people. They are very friendly and peaceful and really got along well with the colonizers, unlike their neighboring Kikuyu who fought the British. You can say the Maasai appropriated the red color from the Scotts and made it their own.
I want to clarify something regarding the misleading interpretation of the red color by some. The red worn by the Maasai is not a sign of aggression or strength, it’s more of an expression of identity and pride in their culture. It signifies a connection to their ancestors and roots.
In all the literature I reviewed, no peer-reviewed study made reference to associating red with Maasai’s sign of aggression or strength. In fact, this claim is discredited by the fact that women (considered to be less aggressive than the Morans) like wearing red.
Tartan fabric was a Scotting innovation not Maasai’s
Scotting missionaries used a kind of cloth woven in a tartan pattern, often decorated with fringe. This fabric became popular among the Maasai and eventually red was adopted as their primary color representing the tribe’s unity and identity.
The Maasai have taken a liking to Tartan fabric and are even introducing variations in the shades of their blankets for an eye-catching, modern twist on traditional attire. The idea of wearing a uniform that symbolizes identity and bonding is entrenched deep in Maasai culture. This cloth has become an important part of the current fashion sense within this community as seen at weddings and other special occasions.
It is true that the color red signifies aggression, vitality and strength to some extent but it also carries much greater meaning for the Maasai people. Wearing red is a way to honor their history, identity and culture while still looking fashionable. The iconic color is a sign of pride that they can express through clothing.
Maasais including women likes to adorn themselves with the traditional Shuka cloaks to showcase their identity and pride in their culture. Red has become a signature color of the Maasai tribe, used to symbolize unity, strength, and solidarity throughout generations.