Fabric, Fashion and Identity

– The story of isiShweshwe

The story of isiShweshwe is a long and complex story of intercontinental trade and cultural exchange. Although it’s roots are linked to colonialism, it is also tied to missionary movements and political resistance.

isiShweshwe and Colonialism

The cloth known as amajamane, amajerimane or isishweshwe has its origins in the East, and was originally made from cotton and blue dye from the indigo plant. Through trade, it spread to different parts of the world including the Cape, where it was initially worn by slaves, Khoisan and colonialists. The earliest origins of isishweshwe can be traced back to the craze for colourful indiennes (Indian cottons) which spread like wildfire across Europe from the mid-1600s. The complicated techniques for making multi-coloured indiennes in Central Europe were eventually adapted to the use of one colour only: indigo.

Skirt with separate apron
by Unknown
Iziko Museums of South Africa

Overall for domestic worker
Unknown 2010
From the collection of Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection: With Ethnix label.

Indienne

One of the oldest artefacts in the isishweshwe collection, this dress is an example of ‘Indienne’. It is made of Indian cotton (chintz or calico) and has a continuous pattern of delicate intertwined stems bearing leaves and flowers. The dress originated on the Coromandel coast of India in the third quarter of the 18th century. Indian chintz was extremely popular throughout the eighteenth century, and was imported into the Netherlands by the Dutch East India Company, thus making it available at the Company’s halfway station at the Cape.

Dress of Indian chintz
Unknown 1775
From the collection of Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection: Probably made at the Cape. Note the use of the indigo in some of the floral sprigs. The Indian method of applying designs on to cotton was complicated, and included the application of various coats of resist paste (in this case, beeswax) and mordants, alternated with dippings into madder red or indigo blue dye baths, and a final direct application of yellow dye where needed.

Blaudruck

Simplified resist-dyeing techniques were used to create a fabric of small, white, regularly spaced patterns on a deep blue background. This was known in Germany as ‘blaudruck’ (blue print). This fabric was transformed into garments for work-wear and peasant-wear, and became associated with European regional and Protestant dress, as well as expressing nationalist sentiments. When German missionaries and traders immigrated to the Eastern Cape and other parts of southern Africa during the mid-1800s, they brought their ‘blaudruck’ with them and traded with those they came in contact with. It became popular amongst women on mission stations. This fabric was later adopted by IsiXhosa women in the Eastern Cape to produce garments.

Jikiza skirt
Unknown 2012
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection: Showing uncut skirt panels.

Dress with apron-style detail
Unknown 2006
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection.

Selection of isiShweshwe fabrics to sew
Unknown
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection: Presented by Da Gama textiles, Iziko Soc History Collection.

Origins of the Name

There are two competing accounts for the origins of the name isiswheshwe. Some say that it is onomatopoeic and simply reflects the sound of the material swishing with the movement of the wearer. Others argue that it was named after the Sotho King, Moshoeshoe who was given indigo-printed cloth as a gift by French missionaries in the early 1840s.

Two-piece ele or dress
Unknown 2005
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection: Worn by Pedi married women.

isiShweshwe and Political Resistance

Just as the identities of its wearers have changed over many years, the fabric has evolved from its first context as a trade item and missionary-inspired garment. It was used extensively as a political statement against apartheid in South Africa, and even as a show of solidarity by liberals and left-wing groups.

Top
Lawson Brown 2009
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection.

Top
Unknown 2008
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection.

Teaching Needlework

 

In the mid-1980s, as part of a campaign to encourage a means of income amongst women in the apartheid-era Ciskei homeland, Marie Peacey was invited by Nico Ferreira, then Chancellor for Lennox Sebe (President of Ciskei), to teach needlework. For a period of 13 months, she spent alternate weeks at the Ciskeian Small Business Corporation in Mitford, where she taught women to make mola applique squares, which she then assembled into jackets, waistcoats, etc., for sale in clothing boutiques.

Jacket
Marie Peaceylate 1970’s
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection: Using mola applique techniques. In the mid-1980s, as part of a campaign to encourage a means of income amongst women in the apartheid-era Ciskei homeland, Marie Peacey was invited by Nico Ferreira, then Chancellor for Lennox Sebe (President of Ciskei), to teach needlework. For a period of 13 months, she spent alternate weeks at the Ciskeian Small Business Corporation in Mitford, where she taught women to make mola applique squares, which she then assembled into jackets, waistcoats, etc., for sale in clothing boutiques.

Albertina Sisulu, known as Ma Sisulu, was a South African anti–apartheid activist, and the wife of fellow activist Walter Sisulu.

Dress
Jolle Van Graan 2005
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection.

In the 80s, wearing isishweshwe printed fashion items was a sign of solidarity from white South Africans, liberals and left-wing groups.

Maternity Jumpsuit
Ann Finchamc. 1980
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection: Made for Sunshine Unlimited.

Child’s dress
Unknown 1990s
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection.

isiShweshwe across Africa

isiShweshwe  is currently produced by Da Gama textiles in the Eastern Cape, but it’s use is not isolated to South Africa. It has been incorporated into various customs and traditions across Africa.

Two-piece dress with head scarf
Unknown 2005
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection, possibly made by a Senegalese designer.

The Dress of Makoti

This is an example of the dress of makoti. To show respect and submission to the authority of her husband and parents-in-law, traditional practice dictated that a newly-married Xhosa woman would wear her ikhetshemiya (headcloth) low over her forehead, keep her shoulders covered, cover her hips with a blanket and wear a isishweshwe skirt and apron. She should stay with her parents-in-law for up to a year, a period during which her behaviour conveyed that she adhered to ukuhlonipha traditions of respect. Aspects of this practice are still present but are being eroded with urbanization. Head cloth, blanket and towel on loan from Siphokazi Mesele, nee Lindelwa Pamela Mbola, who wore them when she was makoti.

Dress of Makoti or newly-married Xhosa woman
Unknown 2012
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection: To show respect and submission to the authority of her husband and parents-in-law, traditional practice dictated that a newly-married Xhosa woman would wear her ikhetshemiya (headcloth) low over her forehead, keep her shoulders covered, cover her hips with a blanket and wear a isishweshwe skirt and apron. She should stay with her parents-in-law for up to a year, a period during which her behaviour conveyed that she adhered to ukuhlonipha traditions of respect. Aspects of this practice are still present but are being eroded with urbanization. Head cloth, blanket and towel on loan from Siphokazi Mesele, ne̩ Lindelwa Pamela Mbola, who wore them when she was makoti.

Swazi Man’s Amabutho Outfit

This is an example of a Swazi man’s amabutho outfit. The Sidvashi (skirt) can be red, maroon or brown isishweshwe, and must be covered by a majobo (lionskin) of leopard, duiker, reed buck or even baboon pelt, worn at the front and rear. In this case the pattern on the isishweshwe is libululu (snake) – the Swazi king’s favorite.

Swazi man’s amabutho outfit
Unknown
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection: Contemporary. The Sidvashi (skirt) can be red, maroon or brown isishweshwe, and must be covered by a majobo (lionskin) of leopard, duiker, reed buck or even baboon pelt, worn at the front and rear. In this case the pattern on the isishweshwe is libululu (snake) – the Swazi king’s favorite.

Herero women in Namibia, with their distinctive headgear, use isishweshwe.

Ohorokweva onde (dress)
Unknown 2005
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection, worn by Hereo women

Skirt-and-top outfit
Meiga Abdoulaye 2012
Iziko Museums of South Africa
isiShweshwe Collection: Designed for Mail-South Traditional African Clothing. Meiga Abdoulaye comes from Timbuktu, Mali, from where he derives the inspiration for his costume designs. isiShweshwe is but one fabric in the range he uses.

Research —

British Museum

Google Arts & Culture

error: No