Costume drama: How Namibia's Herero tribe subverted the style diktats of their oppressors

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Colonial rule may be history for the Herero tribe of Namibia but the style conventions of their 19th-century German oppressors live on – albeit with a certain bovine-inspired twist...

When European women jettisoned their ankle-length frocks and the multiple petticoats that kept the frocks full and plump, they gained a great deal in the way of freedom. But they lost something, too – and what they lost is brought home by the magnificent presence of the women of the Herero tribe of Namibia, in south-west Africa.

As in Victorian England, voluminous clothes like these, composed of many metres of fabric, demand a certain level of affluence and culture, and express a certain social status: they are the prerogative of the relatively high-born, they are adopted upon marriage and worn ever after, and they dictate a certain way of walking, moving and behaving. You cannot scamper in such clothes, you cannot run for the bus; "A correctly worn long dress," as the anthropologist Dr Lutz Marten puts it, "induces in the wearer a slow and majestic gait."

The men of the Herero tribe, by contrast, are got up not like Victorian gentlemen but like soldiers in a relatively modern but somewhat impecunious and slackly disciplined yet stylish army, with the regulation khaki augmented by cardboard puttees and gaiters, by cowboy Stetsons and pink pants, by military caps topped with jackal fur and slouch hats adorned with soaring plumes.

The clothes the Herero choose to wear, both men and women, are a permanent reminder of the great scar gashed in the tribe's history in the late 19th century when they fell under the sway of German colonisers and came close to being exterminated.

All the colonial powers were guilty of racial chauvinism but, like the Nazis a couple of generations later, the Germans imposed their notions of who did and did not deserve to live with greater rigour and system than any of their European rivals. Herero resistance to their rule was suppressed with a genocidal fury that wiped out 80 per cent of the population; those who survived, once freed from concentration camps, were robbed of their lands, segregated from whites and forced to work in slave-like conditions.

German rule ended in 1915 when the German army was beaten by the South African – but, once liberated, the Herero men began not only dressing as much like their German oppressors as they could manage, but also organising their society along militaristic German lines, creating, as Marten puts it, "a national support network modelled on German military support structures, with local sections, top-down hierarchies and nationwide communication". With the murderous foreigners banished, the tribesmen were free to adopt the sharp, cool uniforms that only a few years before had carried such a weight of woe for them. "Wearing the enemy's uniform," as Marten points out, "will diminish their power and transfer some of their strength to the new wearer."

The women, meanwhile, affected the styles and the airs and graces of the Christian missionary ladies who had come among them in the 1890s. It was not just the majestic elegance that appealed. For as far back as their stories go, the Hereros have been raisers of cattle, and their dances of celebration involve imitating the animals' upraised horns and swaying movements. The dresses heightened that effect, the soft, well-rounded forms suggesting the comfortable plumpness of well-fed cows; the slow and ruminative style of walking suggesting the unhurried plodding of cattle. The missionaries would probably not have been flattered by the comparison, but for the Herero ladies, the look was irresistible.

And in case there was any doubt, the Herero women add a detail never dreamed of by the Victorians: head-dresses with cantilevered and gently upraised tips – very much like the horns of a cow.

'Conflict and Costume: the Herero Tribe of Namibia' by Jim Naughten, with accompanying text by Dr Lutz Marten (£30, Merrell), is out on 18 February. An exhibition of Naughten's portraits of the Herero tribe will be held at the Margaret Street Gallery, London W1, from 5 March to 13 April (margaretstreetgallery.com)

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