Keti Koti
Author: Daan van Dartel

Fashion and heritage from Surinam

Fashion and heritage from Surinam

Magnificent headscarves, voluminous skirts and wide, protruding jackets: the ‘koto’. Some see it as a typically Surinamese style of clothing to be proud of. For others it’s a hangover from slavery, which no-one wants anything to do with. Read all about this meaningful ensemble here.

Kotomisi and Keti koti

Everyone is familiar with the parade of Afro-Surinamese women wearing magnificent headscarves (angisa), voluminous skirts (koto) and wide, protruding jackets (yaki), who walk through Amsterdam on July 1st on their way to the Oosterpark. Every year the festival of Keti Koti (broken chains) is celebrated there, the abolition of slavery on that day in 1863. Afro-Surinamese women who wear a koto are called kotomisi. Misi means woman. The skirts stand out with starch but often because several skirts are also worn underneath. A koto should have lots of volume. Each item of clothing may have the same print (heristel/eristel) but may also be made from different fabrics. The Surinamese flag is a popular print.

Different feelings

For some the koto is a hangover from the period of slavery and a complex legacy. Others see the ensemble as a truly Surinamese style of clothing, which since the slavery period has developed into its current form and incorporates influences from various cultures: something to be proud of! Women wearing a koto radiate this with verve. It is said that wearing a koto makes you ‘grow’ and that a koto may, no must, take up space. Traditional and modern koto, which follow the latest fashion, are worn on festive occasions like birthdays, weddings and koto-dansi (dancing parties).  

Three different traditional koto with angisa, yaki and koto, Paramaribo, resp. c.1900, pre 1960 TM-5193-2, TM-4181-1, TM-5677-1

A never-proven story

Books from the 17th and 18th centuries repeatedly tell the story of how a plantation owner’s wife thought of the koto to conceal the naked bodies of their enslaved female servants, so that her white husband would not be led astray. This story persists in more recent publications too but where it comes from isn’t known. Research shows that the koto originated under many different influences and enslaved Afro-Creole women developed their very own style.

Koto op de plamtage
Paramaribo, 1880-1900, photographer J.E. Julius Eduard Muller TM-60008917; Surinam, c. 1900, photographer unknown RV-A160-23

The more the better

The collections of the Tropenmuseum, Museum Volkenkunde and the Wereld Museum include 36 complete koto (ensembles), about 450 angisa (headscarves), 34 kotomisi dolls and many depictions on prints, paintings and calabashes. The more fabric used in the style, the greater the wealth, power and importance.

kotomisi pop
Kotomisi doll, Commewijne district, 1824

The koto and kotomisi dolls show a huge variety of style with shorter skirts, longer yaki (jackets), different patterns and colour combinations, several underskirts and different empi (vests) and pangi (wrap cloths). In the past koto were decorated with embroidery, nowadays with colourful floral applications often originating from Thailand. Sometimes the clothes are made there on commission. The koto in our collection are mainly from the first half of the 20th century and mostly donated by people who worked in Surinam.

New acquisitions

The Surinamese designer Jürgen Patrick Joval (Paramaribo, 1980) presented a 24-piece collection during the Ode to the Koto Gala in Amsterdam on 3 June 2018. Two ensembles from that collection are now part of our collection. Joval combines contemporary fashion with an ode to Surinamese heritage. He wants to ‘keep the koto alive in a new form’. The fabrics and techniques are new, the design and how they are worn historical.



Waarderi koto
The white ensemble was given the name Waarderi koto and is literally a celebration. It depicts painted historical photos of monumental buildings in Paramaribo.

Tu Kondre Uma
The ensemble with the Dutch and Surinamese flags is called Tu Kondre Uma. Tu kondre means two countries. Uma means woman. The date of the Independence of Surinam, Srefidensi, 25 November 1975, is on the hem of the ondro empi (underskirt). The coat of arms of Surinam is on the shawl over the shoulder.
Tu Kondre Uma
Het ensemble met de Nederlandse en Surinaamse vlag heet Tu Kondre Uma. Tu kondre betekent twee landen, Uma betekent vrouw. Op de zoom van de ondro empi (onderjurk) staat de datum van de Onafhankelijkheid van Suriname, Srefidensi:, op 25 november 1975. Op de schouderdoek is het wapenschild van Suriname afgebeeld.

Want to see more koto and kotomisi? Then click here.

Want to know more about Kotomisi dolls? Then read more here.

Want to know more about angisa? Then read more