Wearing the traditional safari clothes of the old Hollywood era might get a few raised eyebrows when you arrive for your African hunt. In reality, the old-time safari clothing was very practical - light-weight, lots of pockets, muted colours and comfortable.
The early Victorian explorers, naturalists and hunters adapted their usual sombre attire to more suitable outfits for life in the African bush. Black was rejected in favour of light browns, beige or olive green which provided camouflage and better protection against the heat. Safari hats were 'scientifically' designed to shield the wearer from the dangerous effects of the sun. Sun helmets or pith helmets were particularly fashionable.
In 1888 Thomas Burberry patented Gabardine which was tightly woven worsted cotton which was waterproofed before weaving and more comfortable than rubberized fabrics. Gabardine garments became all the rage with sportsmen and particularly African hunters and explorers, receiving 'celebrity' endorsement from the likes of Denis D Lyell and Powell-Cotton, who says, "Burberry suits resist the thorns while khaki and other shooting cottons are torn to rags."
East African hunting clients from the early 1900s onwards were whisked into the safari tailors Ahmed Brothers as soon as they reached Nairobi. They were then measured and kitted out in perfectly tailored safari suits, boots and hats which were delivered to them the next day. Pith helmets and terais were gradually replaced by Borsalino safari hats.
The 'safari look' became popular with non-safari goers in the 1950s with the advent of the Hollywood interest in Africa. The films of Ernest Hemingway's books 'The Macomber Affair' and 'The Snows Of Kilimanjaro' followed by 'King Solomon's Mines' and 'Mogambo' firmly planted the safari image in the minds of the public.
Safari style jackets were the 'in thing' to wear as casual attire in an effort to emulate the debonair looks of Clark Gable and Stewart Granger in these movies.
Khaki, olive green or brown are ideal as colours for your safari clothes. It is a good idea to check with your outfitter what the bush vegetation will be like when you hunt. For example, if it is very lush and green, a light khaki may not be the best idea. Clark Gable (below) might have been better dressed in dark green for his rainforest scenes in 'Mogambo'. The rule of thumb is no bright colours or white in the bush.
Some armchair experts, particularly in the photographic safari business, will say the colour of your clothes does not matter because animals cannot perceive colours. This is true for some animals but monkeys and birds can see colour and it is these animals that often give the early warning of danger to most other game animals.
Full camouflage outfits are not really suitable for African hunting just in case you get confused with the local police or militia who generally wear camo. The odd camo T-shirt will be OK but draw the line at full combat gear. You will also not need to wear any luminous warning badges or stripes - with any luck you will be the only armed hunter on the block.
Check all your safari clothes are made of natural fibres like cotton as they far more comfortable when sweating and quiet when you are walking. Having said that, there are lots of clever hi-tech synthetic fabrics which breathe, repel insects and offer sun protection and when washed, dry in 5 minutes flat. If you opt for synthetic fabrics for your safari clothes, do not be surprised if your trousers return from the laundry with a large hole melted in them. Make a point of telling the ironing person not to iron or only use a cool iron because they won't read the fabric care tag in the garment.
When you find your first pile of clean laundry, where even your underwear and socks are all neatly ironed and folded on your bed, you might this is just great quality safari camp service. Of course it is but it is also a very important for your health.
Every item of clothing, even socks and towels, get ironed in a hunting camp because if the clothes are dried outside, which they mostly are, there is a risk of a botfly laying eggs in the damp clothing. The larva may then burrow into the skin of the person wearing the clothes and further grow into a big fat maggot. The heat of an iron kills any potential botfly eggs. Some camps in South Africa may use a tumble drier to dry the client's clothes which negates the botfly issue. If you rinse out any clothes yourself like a swimsuit or underwear and leave them to dry outside, be very aware of the botfly. You might think a botfly can't penetrate the smooth synthetic fabric but there are plenty of other areas in the garment where they could lay their eggs, such as the waist band and seams.
Also check whether your synthetic safari clothing, trousers especially, are liable to be noisy while walking. Light nylon fabric tends to make a gentle swish with each step.
Make sure you are not going to be too distressed if your safari clothes suffer damage on your hunting trip. Don't bring clothing that is too good to get torn by thorns, get permanently stained with mud, blood and other natural bush 'stains' or undergoes subtle and not so subtle colour changes due to the sun or the zealous utilization of bleach in the laundry.
Consider treating your clothes with Permethrin to reduce insect bites. You can either do this yourself with the many Permethrin products available or buy ready-impregnated clothes from manufacturers like Exofficio. The ready-impregnated insect repellent clothing tends to be made of synthetic materials. Read more about insect repellents for Africa.
Even though it is likely (not always though) to be very hot when hunting in Africa, make sure you wear clothing that is going to protect you against the sun. Resist the idea of wearing minimal clothing because it is so darned hot! Without a doubt, you must wear a full-brimmed hat. A baseball cap really is not adequate as they leave the ears and neck completely exposed. A useful solution is convertible safari clothes you can manage according to the heat - zip-off trousers/shorts, tab roll-up shirt sleeves or zip-off sleeves on jackets/vests.