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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices