Costume, Conflict and Tradition: The Story Behind The Clothing Styles Of The Herero People Of Namibia

The brilliant colors and striking variety of the costumes of the Herero people of Namibia have a fascinating and sometimes tragic back story. Their clothing melds the traditions of their former German colonizers with modern flair to make bold and beautiful outfits that represent their modern cultural identity.

The results are stunning horizontal hats reminiscent of cow horns from the Herero’s cattle-herding traditions, and sweeping floor-length gowns sometimes patched together with pieces of vintage fabrics or made of sleek modern textiles.

German rule ended in 1915 when the German army occupying southwest Africa was beaten by South Africa. Once liberated, the Herero men began dressing like their German oppressors. Herero women adopted the styles, airs and graces of the Christian missionary ladies who had come to live among them starting in the 1890s.

The history of the Herero and Namaqua genocide is not well known, and its foundational relationship to Nazism is often dismissed. This history lives in Herero women’s clothing.

Here are just a few images that show the interplay of costume, conflict and tradition in the Herero people of Namibia.

Herero tribe guardsmen marching past the home of their assassinated chief Clemens Kapuuo.  (Photo by Sahm Doherty/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Herero tribe guardsmen march past the home of assassinated chief Clemens Kapuuo. Photo: Sahm Doherty/Getty

Death and land

An estimated 80,000 Herero lived in German South­west Africa at the beginning of Germany’s colonial rule over the area.

They earned a living as cattle herders in central-eastern Namibia, an area known as Damaraland. During the scramble for Africa in 1883, Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz
bought coastal land near the Angra Pequena Bay from a ruling chief. The purchase was fraudulent, but the German government took ownership.

During the 1904 revolt, the Herero killed between 123 and 150 Germans. After the Germans defeated the Herero, around 15,000 Herero were left alive. In four years, about 65,000 Herero people died. Once freed from concentration camps, survivors found their land had been stolen. They were forced to work in slave­-like conditions.

German South-West Africa (Namibia), Herero people. Man with his two wives and his children. - probably in the 1910s (Photo by Haeckel collection/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

German South-West Africa (Namibia), Herero people in the 1910s. Photo by Haeckel collection/ullstein bild/Getty

Herero and Namaqua genocide

The Herero and Namaqua genocide was a campaign of collective punishment and racial extermination between 1904 and 1907 perpetrated by the German colonial government of Southwest Africa — now Namibia.

On Jan. 12, 1904, the Herero people led by Samuel Maharero rebelled against German colonial rule. In August, German Gen. Lothar von Trotha defeated the Herero in the Battle of Waterberg and drove them into the desert of Omaheke, where most of them died of thirst.

In 1985, the U.N. Whitaker Report said the attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of Southwest Africa constituted one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the 20th century.

It wasn’t Germany’s last genocide of the 20th century, but it is the most forgotten. The German government recognized and apologized for the events in 2004 but said it would not compensate victims’ descendants financially.

The Herero men adopted German military uniforms as symbols of their ancestors’ resistance, wearing them like badges of courage. Many of the uniforms, especially helmets, accessories and regalia, are literal relics — family inheritance. It became customary for Herero men to wear the clothing of their war conquests as a symbol of triumph, and as a way to embody the power of the oppressor.

The high, closed neck that persists in Herero dress design is the antithesis of Himba, Herero and other Namibian women’s historical bare-​breastedness, still fashionable among Himba today.

Through the 19th century, most Herero were bare-​breasted and wore front and back leather aprons made from sheep, goat, or other wild skins, much like their present-​day Himba relatives in the north.

They were celebrated for their ostrich-​shell-​embellished overskirts and metal beadwork, the brass and copper and carved-​horn cuffs worn at their wrists and ankles. The use of animal skins as the basis for Herero women’s clothing was abandoned in the early 20th century.

Traditional Herero woman in selling puppets at Windhoek , Namibia. Photo: Manfred Gottschalk/Getty

Herero woman selling dolls, Windhoek. Photo: Manfred Gottschalk/Getty

Subverting the colonizers

Anthropologists believe the dress of the Herero is a subversion of their former rulers’ fashion, testimony to how the tribe survived their German colonizers’ efforts to wipe them off the face of the Earth.

A few prominent Herero families seem to have adopted the missionary dress at first and others slowly followed.

Correctly worn, the long dress induce the wearers to adopt a slow and majestic gait, says anthropologist Lutz Marten.

Herero woman with traditional dress standing in doorway, Otjitanda, Kaokoland, Namibia Credit: Herman du Plessis CALCULA

Herero woman. Photo: Herman du Plessis/Getty

Recent memory

Namibia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world with 2 million citizens in an area more than three times the size of the U.K.

Its colonial history has been kept alive by oral tradition and family memories. Many in the Herero community grew up with family members who had survived the killings and concentration camps.

Close-up view of Herero woman, in traditional dress Sesfontein, Kaokoland, Namibia : Stock Photo View similar imagesMore from this photographerDownload comp Close-up view of Herero woman, in traditional dress Sesfontein, Kaokoland, Namibia Credit: Heinrich van den Berg

Herero woman in Sesfontein, Kaokoland. Photo: Heinrich van den Berg/Getty

A bygone era

The Herero look like they’re from a bygone age. Dressed in costumes appropriated from their colonial past, the men, women and children are taking part in a modern reenactment of their peoples’ bloody history.

Rhenish missionaries first introduced Victorian dress, which the tribe gradually accessorized by adding, for example, cow horn headdresses.

 

Herero women, Kaokoland, Namibia, Africa Credit: Peter Adams CALCU

Herero women, Kaokoland, Namibia. Photo: Peter Adams/Getty

Younger generation blinging it up

Through the 19th century, most Herero were bare-​breasted and wore front-and-back leather aprons made from animal skins, much like their present-​day Himba relatives in the north.

Today, younger Herero generations are blinging up their outfits. The volume of the
dresses have grown. They’re wider, shinier, and made with more luxurious materials. Fabrics are imported from India, China and Dubai more than the traditional use of European materials, South African Dutch-​originated cottons, and quilt-​like pieces.

There’s more embroidery work, appliqué, and lace or lurex shawls. The jewelry is flashier.

Caption:Herero tribeswomen, dressed in traditional scarlet mourning garb, gathered at funeral of their assassinated Chief, Clemens Kapuuo. (Photo by Sahm Doherty//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Herero women at a funeral. Photo: Sahm Doherty/Getty

Keeping the memories alive

In 2011, London-based photographer Jim Naughten spent four months photographing the Herero, driving thousands of miles through the desert, negotiating with people, camping and continuously cleaning sand off his camera equipment. His resulting book, “Conflict and Costume,” looks in depth at the beautiful and bold costumes that have come to represent the cultural identity of the Herero people.

“If a warrior killed a German soldier he would take and wear their uniform as a badge of honor, and to ‘take’ or appropriate their power,” Naughten said in an email, according to Wired. “A version of these uniforms is worn by Herero men today at festivals and ceremonies, to honour the fallen ancestors and to keep the memories alive.”

HERERO WOMEN WEARING VICTORIAN-STYLE CLOTHES, MODELLED ON EARLY MISSIONARY S WIVES. ONE WOMAN HOLDING INFANT. SOUTHERN AFRICA. Photo: Credit: Martin Harvey CALCU

Herero women. Photo: Martin Harvey/Getty

The politics of fashion

In Herero dress, the dress seems oddly disproportionate to the body inside, wrote African fashion writer Catherine E. McKinley in a 2013 article about Namibian women and the politics of haute fashion.

There is an emphasis in Herero dress on construction, McKinley said. With the discomforts of colonial missionary clothing, the body was muted by the covering — the curve, sublimated, McKinley said. But “the sensuality is powerfully present below.”

“Why has this form of dress had such a powerful appeal for so many generations? Why has it not receded in fashion, given its staidness and association with colonialism and
the violence of Christian missionaries?

“The answer is rooted in the German Herero War of 1904 and the legacy of genocide,” McKinley said. “These horrendous events animated Herero dress forms in a way that few non-​Namibians—​attracted keenly to the visceral old world, costume-​y, and sometimes even fantastical elements—​recognize.”

Women in colorful dresses for Kuru Dance FestivalWomen in colorful dresses for Kuru Dance Festival Credit: Fabio Chironi CALCU

Herero women at the Kuru Dance Festival. Photo: Fabio Chironi/Getty

 

Try wearing 10 meters of fabric when it’s 122 degrees

After a Herero woman is married, she is expected to make most of her dresses, often made from fabrics taken off other garments. The voluminous patchwork outfits are considered everyday attire. Dresses made from a single material are reserved for special
occasions, according to photographer Jim Naughten, who documented the Herero in his 2011 book, “Conflict and Costume.”

In the book’s introduction, Lutz Martin writes: “Rounded to resemble healthy cows, the dresses contain up to 10 meters of cloth, despite summer temperatures reaching 50 degrees celsius (122 degrees fahrenheit).”

Herero Woman and Child Herero Woman and Child Credit: Heinrich van den Berg CALCULATE PR

Herero woman and child.
Photo: Heinrich van den Berg/Getty

An antebellum-​to-​Afro ​futurist fantasy

Here’s how African fashion writer Catherine E. McKinley described some Herero headpieces and costumes she and her team tried on:

“Long-​horned headpieces, fashioned from teal and turquoise animal print, and a sherbet pink and blue mélange of chiffon, that matched our dresses, balanced on the front lobe of our heads so that the rhinestone brooches at their center blinked like a third eye.

“…three layers of white lace petticoats and a bright-​colored underskirt beneath the wide hem of a dress that fell at the toe…empire-​drawn waist, marked by the line of a thin cinch belt and a puffed-​up shoulder that tapered to a skintight length of sleeve…up to eight layers of petticoat…

“We looked like costume characters on an antebellum-​to-​Afro-​futurist fantasy set.”

OVITOTO, NAMIBIA:  A Namibian Herero woman casts her vote in a school classroom in the Ovitoto Province of the Okhandja region, some 130 kilometers east of  Windhoek, 16 November 2004, on the second and last day of Namibia presidential election. Voters in Namibia turned out in a trickle Today to choose a successor to President Sam Nujoma, but poll officials said they expected a last-minute rush before closing time. Elections in the arid country of 1.82 million people were going smoothly Today despite a computer hitch on the first day of the third presidential and legislative vote since independence in 1990. Namibians around the vast southern African country, roughly the size of France and Italy combined, took advantage of shorter lines as they voted for Nujoma's successor, widely expected to be his chosen heir apparent, Lands Minister Hifikepunye Pohamba. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER JOE  (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

Herero woman votes, 2004. Photo: Alexander Joe, AFP/Getty

UNESCO protection

Along with the German government’s recognition of the genocide, Namibians have secured UNESCO World Heritage protection of the land where battles were fought against the Germans, as well as the sites of five concentration camps where their ancestors were kept prisoner. Some of the ruins will eventually be partially restored, the present markers replaced with official monuments.

Namibia, Kaokaland, A Herero woman in traditional attire.The origins of the elaborate dress and unique hat style of the Herero can be traced back to 19th century German missionaries who took exception to what they considered an immodest form of dress amon

Herero woman. Getty

Survivors

Today, there are around 250,000 Herero people in Namibia and the tribe is thriving.

A member of a 55-strong Namibian delegation stands and sings songs in Herero dialect in front of the Charite Hospital September 30, 2011, prior to a hand-over ceremony of 20 skulls taken from Namibia at the begining of the 20th Century. The skulls are among an estimated 300 taken to Germany after a massacre of indigenous Namibians at the start of the last century during an anti-colonial uprising in what was then called South West Africa, which Berlin ruled from 1884 to 1915. AFP PHOTO / JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

A Namibian sings in Herero dialect. Photo: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty.

Relationship to Nazism

The German experience in South-West Africa was a precursor to Nazi colonialism and genocide, according to author Benjamin Madley. He said that personal connections, literature, and public debates became conduits for communicating colonialist and genocidal ideas and methods from the South-West Africa colony to Germany.

Madley wrote a book in 2005,  entitled “From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa Incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in
Eastern Europe.”

The history of the genocide is little known, and its foundational relationship to Nazism is often dismissed, says African fashion writer McKinley.

A crucial 1918 record known as The Blue Book contains survivor interviews and documents captured from the Germans detailing the genocide — a post-​facto study, McKinley said.

“Most poignantly, the history lives in Herero women’s dress,” she said.

3 Herero Frauen

Herero women and child, www.freitag.de

OTJIWARONGO, NAMIBIA:  A Herero housewife washes outside her house in Otjiwarongo, 250Km north of Windhoek, 12 November 2004. With unemployment at between 30-40 percent, job creation is one of the biggest issues as almost a million Namibian voters go to the polls 15-16 November for the country's fourth presidential and national elections.  AFP PHOTO/ALEXANDER JOE   (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

A Herero housewife washes clothes. Photo: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty


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