The Rich Auntie: Gold in East African Culture and Fashion

Social media director Elle Daniel analyzes the cultural significance of gold in East African Culture.

This article originally appeared on pages 38-39 of the Spring 2023 issue of Coulture Magazine.

East Africa is home to many artistic traditions. In Somalia, colorful Baatis (a loose fitting dress) are worn around the house and amongst friends, while in Ethiopia, Shashs and Netelas (a cotton scarf placed around the head) are worn to the market and church. These traditional pieces inspire many clothing styles. But one of the most influential pieces of East African fashion and style is jewelry.

Many of us who grew up in the culture, including myself, know at least one auntie who will not leave the house without a few rings and necklaces to compliment her outfit. These jewelry pieces usually contain one important piece of refined metal: gold. Gold is a staple piece in East African culture and fashion. It is in our headpieces during weddings and in our everyday necklaces. It is most notably worn as a religious piece, such as a cross necklace, which I have worn almost every day of my life since it was gifted to me as a child. The striking yellowish-gold color can be found on almost any jewelry piece and any article of traditional or non-traditional clothing in East Africa. The significance of the metalchanges depending on the region you are in and the cultural values of that region.

Gold jewelry in many parts of Africa (and around the world) represents more than just wealth; it is also a sign of prosperity and spiritual health. It dates back as far as the Axum Empire (100-940AD), where not only was gold jewelry significant, but gold art pieces were too. The usage of gold in everyday life gave meaning to a number of families in the region and it made many of the pieces generational heirlooms. Countries like Tanzania are known for their gold mines where this precious metal had strong economic and political meaning. Without their mines, their economy would fail. Gold in East Africa has a lot of meaning both in an economic and traditional sense. It can be the basis of economic depletion or familial inheritance depending on which countries in the region you decide to speak to and learn more about. The cultural meaning of gold in East Africa can also be found in North African and Middle Eastern societies. Many people within these ethnic groups can say that we share more than just subtleties in our languages, but in our traditional practices as well. 

 With this deep history, East African cultures do not underestimate the power that this metal has within their community. It is important to note, though, that not all communities in East Africa have the ability to purchase gold jewelry. . Furthermore, it is also very common to see these gold pieces within diaspora families (i.e., families who emigrated out of Africa). The diaspora has changed the meaning of many cultural styles and has helped push the globalization of many fashion trends that have roots deep in African/East African history. And part of this globalization has led to the development of comedic connotations in connection to aspects of traditional East African culture.

The idea of the ‘Rich Auntie’ first came about as memes made by the diaspora generation to poke fun at our family members who go all-out for special occasions and, for some, just everyday life. “Showing up and showing out” is the Rich Auntie motto; they have to put on a show for the whole family, while simultaneously looking good and spreading gossip about the family. The Rich Auntie aesthetic is nothing to be ashamed of. A lot of us actually want to grow up and become one ourselves (personally speaking). It helps us have another outlook on the lives our families led. Many of them were not fortunate to have this lifestyle growing up, yet they built it for themselves. There are no major physical constraints to the Rich Auntie aesthetic in East Africa, they only have to be dripped in gold jewelry and have a great sense of style. 

There are no major physical constraints to a part of the Rich Auntie aesthetic in East Africa. They only have to be dripped in gold jewelry and have a great sense of style to be deemed a Rich Auntie in the eyes of the diaspora and abroad. Many of my Rich Aunties wear  Netellas and Kemis (specifically the traditional Ethiopian mosaic pattern dress) along with multiple gold accent pieces on their clothing and jewelry. This combination is one of the most famous fashion styles seen  in Ethiopia, and it is common to see other versions of the same Rich Auntie aesthetic in other parts of East Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East. The mosaic pattern and increased indulgence in gold jewelry has also made its way into mainstream fashion and runways. 

Gold pieces in East African style and jewelry aren’t randomly traditional and culturally significant. Gold on warmer skin tones, specifically on brown to dark skin, looks more decadent and stands out more. Meanwhile, other jewelry metals like silver tend to wash us out and look more jarring. This is important to note because the mutualism of skin tone and correct jewelry takes a large part in the longevity of gold in the community. 

As mentioned before, gold in East African culture is very influential — so influential that we are able to see it on runways all over the world, even on the most famous of models. One of these models being THE Iman. Iman is known for being one of the most famous supermodels of the 70s to 90s as well as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Born in Somalia, Iman has made a name for herself and others of her ethnic background in modeling, especially being a supermodel during a time when Black women in general were not given the respect they deserved in the industry. She is known for her daring looks and stylish ways. Her look for the,2021 Met Gala  was in an all-gold ensemble that has a striking resemblance to the natural gold-tinted beauty of her heritage. 

The gold upon her skin tone not only blended, increasing the beauty of the  look, but it also plays into the multiple roles of gold in East African culture. As mentioned, there are multiple meanings to what gold means to people of the culture, but from looking at this photo, it is hard to not see Iman as royalty. Every single part of her stands out. Her golden skin, headpiece, dress, earrings, and even her hair. Many models make gold stand out in their everyday or even avant-garde fashion style. No matter the scenario, gold has never really done anyone wrong. This is largely due to its timeless look effect.Seeing these traditional styles migrate onto mainstream platforms is something that has been in the making for years, and it has been welcomed beautifully. 

But let us not forget the people who helped make this style and fashion sense important from the beginning: our Rich Aunties. Without this familial style that was transcended by our own families, a lot of gold’s current meaning and depiction would not be what it is now. Our aunties paved the way for so much of this and it can never be fully expressed with gratitude. We once joked about their overindulgence in gold jewelry, but now we also cannot leave the house without multiple gold rings and necklaces on. It is crazy how something as simple as a family member’s admiration of gold hardware can turn part of a culture into part of  style iconography. Gold has seeped away from just jewelry to also having a place in clothing and in design pieces that give the piece a sense of timelessness and beauty that we have seen in our aunties for decades. Gold’s meaning is transversal and will stand the test of time. There is no telling where gold’s style and fashion route will end up next, but we all know where it began.

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