Growing up in cosmopolitan South East London, I was always fascinated by the exotic fashions of the African community, and in particular by the outfits that the women would wear to church. Every Sunday they would emerge like butterflies from their chrysalises, casting off their drab European garb in favour of exuberant traditional costumes. Always elaborately coordinated, these women would encase themselves in folds of brightly printed cloth, or perhaps dress from head to toe in pure, snowy white. Best of all were their elaborate headpieces – swathes of vibrant fabric wrapped, folded, pinned, and tucked into a multitude of gravity-defying shapes. The finer details may have been lost to my childish gaze, but each fashion choice was rooted in the rich and diverse material heritage of the African continent, betraying clues to the particular geography, politics and status of the wearer. These women weren't just dressing to look fabulous, they were proudly proclaiming their cultural identity.

The rich cultural and historical significance of such textiles is explored in the British Museum's exhibition, Social Fabric: African textiles today. Textiles are a prominent part of material culture throughout the African continent, and closely reflect social and political developments, as well as changing fashions and tastes. Many are printed with symbols and slogans that might refer to a personal rite of passage or a major political event. They can even be used as a coded language by the wearer to express ideas which cannot be spoken, for example, warning a potential love rival to stay away.

This exhibition focuses on textiles from eastern and southern Africa, and includes kangas from Kenya and Tanzania, capulanas from Mozambique, and shweshwes from southern Africa. There are some fascinating pieces on display here, with many textiles combining striking African design with intriguing political and social meanings. The range of topics referred to by the textiles is staggering, with fabric designs commemorating themes as diverse as Michael Jackson, the new Millennium and the 2010 World Cup. They often have a rousing political message, with examples here championing women as a catalyst to development, and declaring war on HIV and AIDS. Many honour popular individuals, from prominent freedom fighters Nelson Mandella and Josina Machel to the less savoury characters of Jacob Zuma and King Mswati III of Swaziland, one of the last absolute monarchs in the world.

Also examined here are the history and contemporary trade in these textiles – subjects which shed light on Africa's colonial past and its continued relationship with the wider world. Kangas, for example, were first made by sewing together smaller handkerchiefs imported to Africa by the Portuguese – none of these early examples survive, although artist Shaib Ali has here replicated an original design. Today, they are often produced in Asia, and many prominent textile traders in east Africa are of Indian heritage. These cultural links extend beyond simple trade, and there is a kanga on view here decorated with hennaed hands, intended for the large Indian diaspora population of east Africa. Perhaps more surprising is a link to Europe's own material culture: a bale of scarlet tartan reveals the popularity of this Scottish design classic among the Maasai warriors of Kenya and Tanzania.

This is a fascinating topic, and one that deserves more attention in academic circles. This insightful exhibition is only small, but together with the accompanying catalogue it makes a significant contribution towards a greater understanding of this rich and varied part of African culture.

Social fabric: African textiles today, at British MuseumKitty Walsh reviews Social Fabric: African textiles today at the British Museum.4