Saturday, March 25, 2006

notes towards an understanding of herero couture

According to Lonely Planet “Namibia generally has a conservative dress code.” This is an understatement. In Otjituuo the population is overwhelmingly Herero who have a specific code of dress, a style as it’s been for at least the past hundred years. This is an intensely complicated subject. One could literally write an entire sociological thesis specifically on Otjiherero couture.

Let’s start with the women as their dress is possibly the most famous in Namibia. It is composed of a full-length pleated dress made of cotton. Some have patterns or are made like a quilt of various patches. The outer dress is worn over dozens of petticoats. The effect is to emphasize the curves and bigger is better. This tendency does make riding in the back of a combie in between two older Herero women somewhat physically overwhelming, let me make that enveloping, as these outfits were not designed for comfort, yours or your neighbors.

The cut of the dresses is identical and old-fashioned. This stems from there being one real place to get Herero dresses and that is “Busy Hands” in Okakarara. Like the cut, the patterns are all very traditional and are holdovers from the 19th century. Aside from the dress a doily-like scarf is worn over the shoulders. Finally the piece de résistance is the headpiece, the otjikoha, with the two prongs meant to resemble a cow’s horns. The Herero have always been a herding people and cows are still a central part of life here -- a symbol of a man’s wealth and form a womans dowry. This fashion nod is merely a recognition of their importance to the culture. The otjikoha is made of the same fabric as the dress and is tied in a specific way like a turban and held by a brooch. I will say that it does serve a purpose in that women often carry things on their head and thus it serves to balance loads placed there.

To complete the picture of feminine identity you have to understand there is a specific gait that women adopt, it’s something between a hobble and a slow waddle, not sure about the mechanics underneath all those petticoats but I think it’s probably the only way you can walk without falling down. When the woman are not walking they sit in groups in a shady spot under a tree or beside the school buildings. When they are seated they tuck their feet in allowing the dress to flow out around them. I’d say the diameter of the circle that the dress takes up is about five feet. Women are expected to sit on the ground, so you’ll see at events that the women are in their own area, perched on the ground while the men will sit on chairs secluded from the rest of the children and females.

The “traditional” style dates from European colonizers who brought Victorian fashion with them. Before which the dress was even more basic. Nowadays the only tribe that still wears pre-European clothing are the Ovahimba who live west of here. The men and women wear simple loin clothes, even when they are in cities. The volunteers there claim it is very strange to be in a shop waiting in line behind a topless and well-endowed Ovahimba woman. Then again, women in Namibia will often cup each others breasts while speaking which also kinda freaks out the Americans. In Otjituuo only small children wear the loincloth.

Herero men and women who live in cities generally don’t wear the “traditional” clothing unless they are attending a funeral or other event. Whereas in the villages it is an everyday thing. (Interesting side note: on Independence Day everyone working at the SPAR grocery store was wearing their respective traditional dress which was one of the more surreal moments of my service here). The men’s dress is equally European and antiquated. There are two distinct forms it might take. There is a tailored suit which again has an old European cut to it, like something out of a period drama. The men wear a fedora and also carry what another volunteer has called a “Herero man stick” which is a good way of describing it. It is a walking stick for which there is a particular way of walking while leaning back that causes the stick to swing back and forth. I can’t really imitate it even though I see it all the day. The boys at the hostel like to make their own man sticks and do the walk, which is particularly funny to see five-year-olds trying to practice their swagger. I should also mention that the stick is not merely a fashion statement, it is also a herding implement (its original purpose) and serves much the same purpose in disciplining pupils at Otjituuo PS. I guess all in all it is uniquely a cultural symbol for the Herero.

I have also had occasion to see another form of dress for the men. This is only reserved for special occasions whereas the foregoing clothing is worn everyday. I’ve had two occasions to see this form of dress: the first time was when many people were in town on their way for a Herero meeting at Okakarara about seeking reparations for the 1904 genocide. It is indeed ironic that the dress for such occasions is a military uniform complete with epaulets and gold braiding modeled on German uniforms from the nineteenth century. This is supplemented by hides or skins of animals which may be worn across the back like a cape or as a cap. The fact that these men who are not themselves veterans wearing military clothing reminds me in a way of the custom in the southern US of hereditary titles dating from the Civil War (e.g. Colonel Sanders).

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