What you need to know:
Traditional wear. In every Ugandan society, the Gomesi is worn at most functions. It is the trademark of a typical Ugandan woman. But where did the popular attire come from?
The history of ‘Gomesi’ dress in Uganda is obscure. The exact date when the first Gomesi was sewn, the tailor who made it and the first person to wear it has remained a mystery. Nonetheless, there are two versions about the advent of a Gomesi to Uganda.
The first version claims that the Gomesi was first sewn by an Asian (Indian/Goan) tailor called Milagres Gomez who was residing around Mengo Hill, near Kampala Township in 1905 or on Bombo Road near Gayaza village.
This version adds that Gomesi was the first school uniform for the Gayaza Junior School and was made by Gomez who was asked by Miss Freda Allen, the first headmistress of the school, to sew them school uniform. Gayaza Junior School opened on January 18, 1905 with four girls who had previously been pupils at Namirembe Girls’ Junior School, the first girl’s school in Uganda. Namirembe Girls’ Junior School had opened in 1898 but closed in late 1904 to pave way for the expansion work at Namirembe Hill.
The four pioneers were daughters of some Buganda chiefs. The remainders of the pupils were absorbed in the first mixed school in the country which was built at Kampala Hill in 1902 below the Namirembe Hill, historical records indicate.
The second version claims that the Gomesi was first made by an ‘India/Goan’ tailor called Fernando Gomez in the 1920’s or thereafter who resided along Bombo Road near Gayaza village.
This version also asserts that Miss Allen, the headmistress of Gayaza Junior School, asked Gomez to make uniforms for the school. And later, the dress became a popular wear for women in Buganda and beyond.
The version further claims that the name Gomesi came from Gomez who had been sewing the unbranded dress for long. Since the illiterate clients could not pronounce the name Gomez, they called him Gomesi. And soon the attire came to be known as Ekiteteyi Kya Gomesi and later people called it Gomesi and the name stuck to this day.
So, was Gomesi first made by Gomez in 1905?
There are pictures of Gomesi in Uganda dating before 1905; which would mean that the Gomesi was not first made here in 1905. Nevertheless, there are pictures from Gayaza High School archives unfortunately only dating from 1908 showing female school staff dressed in strapless Gomesi while other undated photographs show students wrapped in Suuka as well as strapless Gomesi of different colours and some flowered.
The Suukas covered the body from the chest to ankle and were worn all the time both in class and outside including the garden. Gayaza High school evolved from Gayaza Junior School.
Evolution of the Gomesi
Could the Gomesi have evolved from the famous Suuka wear? Cotton-made Suuka was the first foreign feminine wear in Uganda.
The coming of the Arab traders and later the first Christian missionaries in 1877 to Uganda changed the social life style of Ugandans especially those who interacted directly with the foreigners.
It was the foreigners who brought cotton-made Suuka wear into Uganda. Previously, Ugandans, except those in north and north eastern Uganda used to wear bark cloth Suuka made locally.
Up to 1910, some mature men and women from West Nile, north and north eastern Uganda wore a thong covering only the private parts while the buttocks went naked – pictures available show.
Nevertheless, from the colonial pictures taken between 1880 and 1900 in Uganda show that it was only in Buganda where girls and women wore the bark cloth Suuka wrapped from above the breasts to the ankle.
While in Tooro, Ankole and Bunyoro kingdoms as well as Busoga region, apart from the royals, girls and women wore backcloth Suuka wrapped from below the breasts to the ankle, historical pictures show. Worth to note is that from 1840’s when the Arab traders first arrived here in 1880s, cotton Suuka were a nobility and novelty of the royal and the rich.
Nonetheless, it would seem that the Uganda’s famous Gomesi dress started evolving from the Suuka wear before 1900; if it was not imported here for the photograph of Kayima (Buganda Saaza chief of Mawogola) Matayo Kisule and his family taken in 1895 by Father Varangot of the White Father shows a woman dressed in a strapless Gomesi.
In the photograph, a woman standing next to chief Kisule is dressed in a Gomesi with flaps hanging around the hips. And the Gomesi seems to be fastened above the hips or inside the flaps. So, could what the woman standing next to chief Kisule be wearing of the earliest Gomesi design as it evolved from the famous Suuka wear? Did Gomez make Gomesi for the first time in 1905 or he simply modified?
What is clear though, is that in the 1920s, Gomez changed the Suuka from being strapless to having a bra size straps to have today’s look of a Gomesi. And in 1930s, the straps were enlarged and the following years Gomesi with sleeves and better designs were made.
Since 1940s, different Gomesi designs have been made. But its history has remained a mystery.
First sewing machine in Uganda
Brother Hermann of the White Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church was the first person to import a sewing machine into Uganda on the advice of Monsignor Livinhac.
Brother Hermann arrived in Uganda in late 1897 with a team of other priests. On arrival, he was posted to Bikira Catholic Mission in Masaka, present day Rakai District. He had been transferred from present day Algiers city in Algeria to Uganda by Monsignor Livinhac.
“My major assignment was to sew dresses for the ‘Baganda people’ [meaning people in Uganda]”. Brother Hermann reveals in his memoirs published in 1955 when he was at Kisubi Catholic Mission aged about 88 years.
So, if it is true that his was the first sewing machine in Uganda, as Monsignor Livinhac who arrived in Uganda in 1879 and was based at Rubaga Hill wrote, then who made the Gomesi that existed in Uganda before the arrival of the first sewing machine in 1897?
Brother Hermann said while in Tanzania, he had made a trouser for King Mwanga on the orders of Monsignor Livinhac as a token of appreciation for allowing the White Fathers to evangelise Catholicism in Uganda.
Unfortunately, by the time the team arrived in Buganda, Mwanga had been deposed, Brother Hermann wrote.