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
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific