herero women in traditional dress

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Southern Africa

Welcome back to another week of the anthropology in fashion series, where we learn about the traditional dresses from one region in the world every week. This week we’ll be looking at clothing distinct to Southern Africa.

Southern Africa generally refers to the lower portion of the African continent. There is no one way to define the region, as different organizations have their own list of countries that they consider to be in this sub-region. However, for the sake of this post, we’ll consider the countries that are generally thought to be part of this area. The countries are Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia, Eswatini, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Evolution of Clothing in Southern Africa

The early humans on the African continent began wearing clothes approximately 180,000 years ago, not too long after early humans evolved into the modern human species. This was perhaps because of the drop in temperatures that the planet was experiencing, as it was during the Ice Age.

They would initially use unprocessed skin and fur extracted from animals. However, as humans changed their lifestyle from hunting and gathering to gradually settling down in different areas, they developed ways to process the raw material.

They developed their own ways to create leather to manufacture minimal clothing items such as belts, aprons, loincloths, wraps and headdresses.

The Initial Purpose of Clothing

The continent may have several climatic zones, but it overall maintains a warmer climate. This applies to southern Africa as well. The climate in this sub-region is arid to sub-humid and the temperatures remain mild on average.

This explains why early forms of clothing were minimal. The main purpose of wearing clothes wasn’t for the sake of covering themselves or protecting themselves from the weather. In fact, clothes were a marker of social and marital status. They were also a sign that a person was moving from one phase of their life to the next.  For instance, young women and girls would cover only the lower halves of their bodies with a wrapping skirt made of leather. But, as soon as they got married, they’d wrap their whole bodies with leather wrap and wear a leather cloak.

women in pre-colonial zimbabwe wearing clothes made from animal hides
Women’s clothing in pre-colonial Zimbabwe. Image Credit: The Patriot

Additionally, higher authority and power in society were indicated through leather made from the hides of rare animals. Wearing certain types of headdresses would also communicate status. Clothing was also regarded as an object to ward off evil spirits and, as something that had magical protective powers. Hence, they were used for rituals as well.

Foreign Influence on Clothing

While other parts of the continent found alternative materials to make fabric, the southern portion of the continent continued using leather. That is until fabric made of materials like cotton was introduced to the region through trade, missionary activities and colonization. Cotton in particular soon replaced leather altogether, especially in trading posts and urban areas. Today, traditional leather is hardly used to make traditional clothes. In addition to the introduction of new materials, new designs were also introduced. Interestingly though, the concept of clothes didn’t change too much. Even today, many of the traditional clothes in the region consist of wraps, aprons, cloaks and headdresses.

Presently, these clothes are no longer worn daily, as much like the rest of the world, western-style fashion has replaced everyday attire. However, their essence remains as seen in the patterns, colours and style.

Now, let’s look at a few examples of traditional clothing from a few of the countries in the region.

South Africa  

South Africa is a multi-ethnic country that is home to many cultures. Each culture has its own way of living, its own cuisine and even its own way of dressing. However, for the sake of this post, we’ll look at what the Zulu and Xhosa people wear traditionally, as these two are the two largest ethnic groups in the country.

Xhosa Clothing

The most notable traditional dress of the Xhosa is the  Umbhaco and, it is worn at weddings, coming of age rituals and funerals.  Umbhaco actually refers to the durable cotton fabric used to make traditional clothing. But, it could also refer to the long skirt that both men and women wear as part of traditional attire. The skirt usually comes in white and the patterns are made in black, forming a nice contrast. Multiple stripes at the bottom of the skirt are a common pattern. The Xhosa are famous for their beadwork and their skill is reflected in their attire and jewellery. The end of the skirt is also decorated with beadwork.


Xhosa Women’s Clothes

xhosa woman wearing umbhaco
Xhosa woman in traditional attire. Image Credit: Ankara Style

To wear the outfit, women first wrap and tuck the umbhaco around their waist. Then, they wear a faskoti, which is a skirt that only covers the back and partially the thighs and, tied at the waist. This is simply for aesthetic purposes. Then, they wrap a blanket decorated with patterns and beads around the chest, tuck it in and fasten it with a pin. This blanket is called ncebetha and only married women wear it.

Next, they hang a sling bang called inxili, from their shoulders. This bag is also decorated with colourful beads and black striped patterns. It is used to carry the traditional Xhosa smoking pipe.

Then, married women wrap their heads with a black coloured cloth known as iqhiya. It is worn to show respect to the men of the family. Lastly, they also wear a white shawl, in the manner of a cape. The shawl, called ibhayi, also has striped patterns in black and beadwork done. It is also worn as a sign of respect towards others.

The outfit is completed by wearing several pieces of beaded jewellery. Both men and women wear a broad beaded collar necklace. They also wear anklets and bracelets made of beads.

Xhosa Men’s Clothes

man wearing the xhosa traditional attire
Xhosa man in traditional attire. Image Credit: Ika via Bontle Bride

Like women, men also wrap the umbhaco around their waist. The upper half of the body can be left bare but, nowadays, most men wear a shirt or singlet, either white or black. On special occasions, they place a long rectangular piece of cloth on their left shoulder. Completing the outfit is a set of jewellery made of colourful beads. They wear the ingqosha, a broad beaded collar; isidanga, a long bunched up necklace that can sometimes reach the knees, beaded anklets and bracelets called amaso and finally, a beaded headband known as umngqa.

The designs on the jewellery, the colours of the beads and the type of jewellery differ from clan to clan.

Zulu Clothing

Zulu people make up the largest ethnic group in South Africa. Traditional Zulu clothing also heavily uses extremely colourful beadwork, to decorate clothes, to make jewellery or even as articles of clothing. Zulu clothes are now mainly worn on special occasions; coming of age ceremonies, dance performances, cultural events & festivals and rituals.

Clothes of Zulu Women

Zulu women traditionally wore different types of dresses at every stage in their life. In girlhood or before marriage, they wear a colourful short skirt made of grass or beaded strings. They traditionally wear nothing on top, wear beaded jewellery on their ankles, waists and arms and, keep their hair short.

When engaged, they will start covering the upper half of their bodies and start growing their hair. Traditionally, they’d cover their chests with a wrapping cloth but now, they wear cotton vests, singlets or bras made of beads. Once married, the woman covers herself completely, indicating her betrothal to someone. Her attire consists of a black coloured knee-length skirt made of thick cowhide. The garment is called isidwaba and it is traditionally made from the hide of a cow that the woman’s father owned.

zulu women wearing izicolo hats
Married Zulu women. Notice they are wearing black isidwaba skirts decorated with colourful beads and a red izicolo hat. Image Credit: LaoisAfrica

Married women also wear the iconic headdress, izicolo. It is a wide and circular hat traditionally made of grass. It is meant to protect its wearer from the sun as they do their chores outdoors. It is also the symbol of a faithful married woman. Earlier, the hat would be stitched onto the bride’s head and only removed occasionally to wash the hair. Nowadays, they are only worn on special occasions. Lastly, to show respect to their in-laws, women also wear a shawl called ibhayi around their shoulders.

Clothes of the Zulu Men

Zulu men also dress according to their age, marital status and position in society. Their traditional clothes are made of animal hides and the type of skin used to make the dress indicates their authority and power in society. For example, the leopard is considered to be the king of all predators, so, leopard skin was only worn by royalty and the chiefs. Commoners could only wear leopard skin on their wedding day.

The clothes focus mainly on covering the lower parts of their bodies. They wear a front covering called umutsha and a back covering known as ibheshu. Ibeshu is made from the skin of a calf. Boys and younger men wear a knee-length back covering, as they need to hunt, dance and fight, while the elderly wear longer ibeshu as they lead a more sedentary lifestyle.  Headbands are only worn by married men.

zulu men dressed in battle attire
Zulu men in full battle attire. Image Credit: Eshowe

Zulu men also have a battle costume, where, in addition to the front and back covers, they also wear a neck cover usually made from cowhide. Originally, this indicated that the wearer had killed another person in battle. Battle attire also consists of ankle and armbands made of the tuft on a cow’s tail. These accessories seemingly add bulk and weight to the wearer.


This desert country in southern Africa is known for its one of a kind landscapes and wildlife. Like South Africa, Namibia is also a multi-ethnic country, so, there is no single costume that represents all the different ethnic groups.

However, one iconic piece of clothing that is very popular in the country and well known in the region, is the dress of the Herero women. The largest population of Herero is in Namibia, but they also reside in Angola and Botswana.

Herero women wear a Victorian-style dress called the ohorokova. It was introduced by the wives of the German missionaries in the 19th century as they weren’t comfortable with how the Herero or, in fact, any Namibian ethnic group originally dressed. Before the introduction of European-style clothes and foreign fabrics, they wore clothes like leather aprons made of goat, sheep and game.

Ohorokova is a multi-layered, floor-length dress that is fitted at the top and has a wide skirt at the bottom. It has puffy ¾ length sleeves with cuffed ends. The dress is worn with several petticoats underneath, creating a fuller skirt. The colours of an ohorokova are vibrant and have eye-catching patterns on them.

The dress is not complete without a hat that is shaped like the horn of a cow. Herero people were originally cattle breeders, so they have huge respect for cattle, especially cows. Cattle are a source of income, livelihood and food, so they treat them like a symbol of wealth. The hat is deliberately shaped like a cow’s horn to pay respect to the animal that is so important to them and their culture.

Although the Herero women were initially forcibly dressed in an earlier version of ohorokova, today, they wear it with pride.

woman wearing a colourful ohorokova dress
Herero woman wearing the ohorokova. Image Credit: Eric Lafforgue via Flickr

Herero men

Herero men, on the other hand, traditionally adopted military-style clothes. As a result of the Herero – Nama genocide by the German Empire between 1904 and 1908, the Herero population of Namibia declined by 80%. At the time, whenever the Herero men were able to defend themselves, usually by killing German soldiers, they would wear the clothes of the deceased like a prize, as a symbol of their accomplishment.

These clothes were khaki military uniforms and the Herero men today wear a version of those clothes to commemorate and pay their respects to their ancestors. These clothes are only worn on occasions held to remember the fallen members of the tribe and at certain festivals.

Alternatively, they wear a lighter and more colourful version of the western suit.

man wearing a military style suit
Herero man in military-style dress. Image Credit: Africa Geographic

Wrapping Garments in Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi

Wrapping clothes are a popular traditional garment used all around Sub-Saharan Africa. Kanga and kitenge or chitenge are two popular types of wrapping clothes found around the continent. These are essentially long rectangular pieces of cotton fabric that have multiple uses. The kitenge is usually thicker and it is dyed using a tie-dye or resist-dyeing method like batik. Kanga, on the other hand, is thinner and the patterns are printed on the fabric. Both are extremely colourful, have captivating patterns that are significant to the country it is sold in.


In Mozambique, this wrapping cloth is known as capulana and it is a common piece of clothing used by all Mozambican ethnic groups. The capulana is a 2-metre long fabric decorated with geometric motifs that are symbols of Mozambique. Though both men and women wear capulana, it is more popular with women.

Capulana was introduced to the country by Indian traders via the Maritime Silk Route. The merchants would barter the fabric for local commodities. Before its introduction, Mozambicans wore animal hides to cover themselves. Originally, capulana came in white, black and red as they were colours. White was believed to hold ancestral powers, black represented evil and red symbolized war.  The cloth has been used daily since the 19th century.

Today, in Mozambican society, the number of capulana a person owns is an indicator of their status in society. The more the merrier. Capulana is also considered to be a fabric symbolizing love as men offer them to women when they wish to court them; they are gifted by husbands to their wives, sons to their mothers, and sons-in-law to the family of the woman they wish to marry.

Using the Capulana

capulana wrapping cloth worn like a sarong
Capulana worn like a sarong. Image Credit: Pinterest

Capulanas are used every day for just about anything. From wearing them as daily attire to using them as towels and bedsheets to using them for cultural and religious ceremonies too. The capulana can be worn as a skirt, a body wrap, headdress, and even be stitched into trousers, coats and dresses. The way that the capulana is worn indicates which part of the country the wearer comes from. Alternatively, it is used as a baby carrier, as a blanket, a shawl or a towel.

Similar to the capulana is the chitenge, which is popular in Zambia and Malawi. They also come in bright colours with traditional motifs and they are also used in the way capulanas are used.

Click here to read about the origins and other details about the chitenge or kitenge.

The Future of Traditional Clothing

modernized umbhaco dress
Modern version of Xhosa umbhaco. Image Credit: Pinterest

As we saw, the more complex and elaborate traditional clothes are hardly used in daily life. They make appearances at special occasions and events that too for a limited amount of time. This is because they have now been replaced by western fashion, adopted internationally. After all, they are more suited to the modern and fast-paced life that we now live in. To keep traditions alive, however, this region has seen designers honing their creative skills and are designing modernized versions of traditional dresses. This makes it more appealing to the present generation, which motivates them to get in touch with their roots again. In the process, the clothes lose their purely traditional essence, but they still manage to keep the rich and ancient heritage alive.

Link to last week’s post, in case you missed it: Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Eastern Africa

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