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Published: 17 April 2021

By Andy Ross

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Discovering Textiles - Herero dresses

In the late 19th Century Namibia was known as German South West Africa, property of Germany during the European colonial expansion. 

During this period the first genocide of the 20th Century took place in an attempt to supress and destroy the Herero, Nama and San people of the country. It was a turbulent and violent time in the history of Namibia and the conflict led to rule by South Africa before independence was  finally gained in 1990. The final remaining sections of the country were only transferred from South African jurisdiction to Namibia in 1994. 

The German colonial expansion brought not only politics, but also dress. Victorian fashion for women included full-length skirts with petticoats and long sleeves, as can be seen at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin, and the Herero were forced to wear them too. They added their own take though. The traditional plain dresses became colourful and a headdress of twisted fabric, otjikalva, shaped to represent the horns of a cow, a traditional source of wealth in the society, was added. 

Nowadays the dress, ohorokova, has been reclaimed as part of Herero identity. It is a source of great pride, allowing healing of the great wrong that was perpetrated. In the last few years it has also become high fashion and is being reinvented by designers for the catwalks of the world. 

For some beautiful photographs of the Herero of Namibia by photographer Jim Naughten follow this link. A fitting tribute to the power and pride. 

(Photo on this page from Wikimedia Commons.)