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