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Safari Clothes

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.

A Spot Of History On Safari Clothes

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."

Gabardine Advert
Gabardine Advert 1910

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 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.

Stewart Granger
Stewart Granger's safari jacket from King Solomon's Mines

Essential Safari Clothing Guidelines

  • Muted colours are best - khaki, olive green or brown are ideal. 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.
Clark Gable
Clark Gable in Mogambo

  • 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.
Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood in White Hunter, Black Heart

  • Check all your safari clothes are made of natural fibres like cotton as they far more comfortable for sweating into 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 because you had not warned the ironing person.

    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 will use a tumble drier to dry the client's clothes which negates the botfly issue. However if you rinse out any clothes yourself like a swimsuit or underwear and leave them to dry outside, be aware of the botfly.

    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.

Ernest & Mary Hemingway
Ernest & Mary Hemingway on Safari

  • 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.
Robert Redford
Robert Redford in Out Of Africa

  • 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. Read more about Insect Repellents.
  • Even though it is likely (not always) to be very hot when hunting in Africa, make sure you wear clothing that is going to protect against the sun. Without a doubt, you must wear a brimmed hat. A baseball cap really is not adequate as they leave the ears and neck completely exposed. A useful solution are 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.

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