The Herero dress is symbolic of the tragic history of the Herero people. After a genocide carried out by German settlers in the 1900s which saw an estimated 100,000 killed, the Herero have, ironically, made this dress – with its German roots – their own. The dress has since evolved over the years as seen by its modern interpretation at the last two instalments of Windhoek Fashion Week.
The Herero added their own touch to this voluminous Victorian-style dress by adding a horn-like headscarf (known as ‘otjikaiva‘) which is usually made with a fabric that matches the dress. The horned feature of the headscarf symbolises the Herero’s prized cattle, which are a wealth and status symbol in their communities.
Wearing the dress is a right of passage into womanhood, and matriarchs are in charge of giving young girls their first dress, showing them how its worn and how to behave when wearing it.
For Ngaevarue Katjangua, a 24-year-old woman from Otjihitua village situated in the Omaheke region, the Herero dress is more than just a garment. “It’s all I have to hold on to, I take so much pride in embracing it the same way my ancestors embraced it knowing that it’s all that colonialism left them with,” she says.
The headscarf on its own also hold a lot of cultural pride for Katjangua, who says that wearing it reminds her of all the rules she is bound to as a Herero woman, such as the rules surrounding behaviour and etiquette, the rules on how to handle milk in the homestead, or the rules surrounding which parts of a cow one is allowed to eat or not.
With the dress steeped in so much tradition and heritage, it’s imperative for fashion designers and tailors to understand and study this history in order to carry on its legacy. Over the years, younger and older members of the Herero tribe have bumped heads on just how far one can modernise the dress. A recent controversy surrounding a young Namibian fashion designer and a South African stylist who, on separate occasions, wore the headscarf without the dress, reignited the debate. Some people from the Herero community seeing nothing wrong with it, while others saw it as an “insult” to their culture.
Young fashion designers like McBright Kavari have over the year pushed the boundaries on what a Herero dress should look like. He’s come under fire for changing the modest structure of the dress but he insists that he will continue doing what he does. While many criticise his work, others copy his designs and its undeniable that it’s designers like him who have sparked a renewed interest in the dress by younger women. He has also drawn international interest in the dress by participating at international fashion shows and being the only designer who has showcased the iconic dress at Windhoek Fashion Week.
An older, more seasoned fashion designer, Cynthia Schimming shares what the dress means to her as a designer and as a Herero woman. “It forms part of my cultural identity and I personally value the elements of the dress that started during Victorian times but are still present today,” she says.
The dress is definitely evolving and with every generation, Herero women are embracing more flamboyant styles and colours for their dresses. Surprisingly though, the Herero are going back to the early forms of the dress, as seen with the box-shaped headscarf making a return.