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 said, "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 gradually replaced by Borsalino safari hats.

Borsalino Safari Hat
Borsalino Safari Hat

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 For Safari Clothes

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 while 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 warnings of danger to other game animals.

Clark Gable
Clark Gable in Mogambo

Camouflage Safari Clothing

Full camouflage outfits are not really suitable for African hunting 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. There is also no need to wear any bright, luminous warning badges or stripes on your clothes - as you, and your hunting party, should be the only hunters in your African hunting area.

Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood in 'White Hunter, Black Heart'

Natural Fibre Versus Synthetic Safari Clothes

Safari clothes made of natural fibres like cotton are far more comfortable when sweating in the heat and trying to walk or stalk quietly. Synthetic trousers or shorts have a habit of making a swishing noise with every step. Having said that, there are lots of 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 fabric safari clothes, make a point of telling the person who does the ironing in camp, NOT to iron these types of clothes. They won't read necessarily read the fabric care tag in the garment, and a hot iron will melt a hole the synthetic fabrics.

Ironing Safari Clothes

When you find your first neatly folded pile of clean laundry left on your bed, you will find even your underwear and socks have all been ironed. You might think this is just great quality safari camp service but there is a good reason for it.

Every item of clothing, even socks and towels, get ironed in a hunting camp because usually the clothes are dried outside in the sun. This means there is a risk of a botfly laying eggs in the damp clothing, the larva of which 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.

Ernest & Mary Hemingway
Ernest & Mary Hemingway on Safari

Safari Clothes Damage

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'

Insect Proof Safari Clothes

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 though. Read more about insect repellents for Africa and check out this large range of insect repellent safari clothing.

Sun Protection Safari Clothes

Even though it is likely (not always though) to be very hot and sunny when hunting in Africa, you may like to consider wearing clothing that has built-in UV protection. Resist the idea of wearing minimal clothing like sleeveless T-shirts, shorts, etc because you will likely get sunburn. 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 to get sunburn. 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.

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Page Updated: Mar 2024

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