November 10, 2014

An unusual story

Following all the 19th century fashion goodness from last week, I would like to share something I found in one of my vintage magazines. These ladies' magazines didn't just provide fashion news, housekeeping advice and knitting patterns, they also aimed to entertain and educate. In this case, they, the editors of Beatrijs magazine in 1951, have chosen to share some curiosity from the wide world...

The article is titled "An Unusual Inheritance" and its subject is the traditional costume of the women from the Herero tribe in Southwest Africa. The text is fairly limited in the information it provides and not without a light touch of casual racism.  
What mainly stood out to me were those great portrait pictures.

According to the text, the Herero were originally nomads who traveled around with their herds of cattle until control of white people over the land forced them to settle. When they did, in the 19th century, missionaries came to convert them to Protestantism. And they handed out clothes to their new converts. Clothes which had been made by women in Europe in support of the mission. Those clothes, although not high fashion, were in line with the prevailing styles at the time: The long, full, frilly skirts and buttoned-up bodices of the Victorian era. 

The style caught on with Herero women and continued to be copied over the years. It was blended with African elements and always worn with the distinctive high turban headdress (only for adult women).

Of course, I tried to find some more information about this tribe and, as usual, Wikipedia provided. As was to be expected, the interaction between the Herero and the colonizing white people didn't go as smoothly as you might think from the Beatrijs article. In fact, the tribe had a prolonged struggle with the German settlers which ended in an initially successful, but eventually brutally crushed, rebellion in 1904. 

As for clothing, there is this modern picture of ladies in colourful long dresses which seem similar in shape to those in this article. Full skirts, long sleeves with puffs at the shoulder. And headdresses which are shaped like the horns of a cow. And are nothing like the high turbans in Beatrijs. An explanation might be the fact that the Herero are not a homogenous people. Of several groups, there are two (including the largest one) which wear clothing influenced by contact with colonial European culture while other groups wear traditional leather garments. It might be that the ladies in Beatrijs belong to another group than those on the picture on Wikipedia. The other of the two. And there is little doubt that the Beatrijs story is based on those groups, not on the story of all Herero people.

The writer of the Beatrijs article seems delighted that "These black beauties still dress like our grandmothers did sixty, seventy years ago". Oddly, she doesn't seem to realize that Victorian (and slightly earlier) style lived on, in a similar way, in the traditional costumes of certain places in her own country (that link takes you to a google image search which will show what I mean).  

P.S. This is not actually related to the story of the Herero women in any way but writing this post reminded me of the work of British/Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. This explores, among other things, the complex relationship between Europe and Africa. Often in textile and garment (or rather, dressed dummy) form. 


  1. Thanks for sharing this original article, and the work of Shonibare. I'm always intrigued by how textiles and garment designs travel, and influence/are influenced by culture.

  2. Really interesting! Thank you for sharing this... the story and the amazing costumes by Shonibare.

  3. Thank you for sharing the story!! It was very interesting...

  4. Very interesting, and I really love those portrait pictures. Thankyou for sharing.