Dress: Living History of Genocide & Cultural Identity

Kristina Akhrarova

"Conflict and Costume", Merrell PublishersJim Naughten

The Herero genocide was committed by the German Empire in German southwest Africa, now Namibia. It was the first genocide in the 20th century, occurring between 1904 and 1908. One of the largest and wealthiest indigenous groups, the Herero Tribe, was nearly annihilated. Over 70% of the Herero people were killed, women were raped, and children were hanged. Herero dresses, of Western origin, were copied from the German colonizers. Despite the unmistakable Victorian dress being considered fraudulent, it is a traditional ethnic dress for the Herero Tribe. As a living history of genocide, the Herero dress also represents defiance of who the Herero people are, what psychological trauma they overcame, how they restructured themselves, and how far they have come as a community. As a symbol of their identity, the Herero dress represents how the tribe has turned its pain into glory. The meaning of the dress, as a cultural practice, conveys the effect of colonial and postcolonial relations of authority and wrestle with foreign hegemonies.

Prisoners from the Herero and Nama tribes during the 1904-1908 war against Germany.Unknown Author - Der Spiegel

Although The Herero Tribe may have assimilated Victorian dress to commemorate Queen Victoria or cattle horn-shaped headdress from Dutch and Huguenot immigrants, they consciously picked and borrowed from a range of cultures. With the end of the German-Herero War, there was an active exchange and constructive activity with individual choice, both in the past and in the present. The Germans, English, and Dutch have all adopted Herero practices. Long dresses have historically been worn by white women in Namibia to Herero gatherings as a sign of respect.

Ethnic clothing has a burden that is not benign. In the 1980s, men used to insist that women wear traditional attire as a habit of an older practice in which the dress was [is] visual proof of their husbands' possession. Women usually wear such dresses upon gaining marriage maturity but prefer Western dress styles if their husbands approve. When seen through the prism of gender relations, the outfit connotes women's dependency, if not servitude. Dresses are highly expensive, so they are often acquired as a nexus for bond kin relationships. The younger women might borrow fabric from the older women for a special event, while the older women would pester male relatives or individuals they hope to turn into relatives to buy fabric. Requests are always framed in terms of relationships, debts for domestic services, or female dependency on men's resources. In spite of the fact that Herero women dress traditionally at home, they wear Western clothes if they work as clerks, nurses, teachers, consultants, or radio broadcasters. However, on occasions such as weddings or funerals, all women must wear Herero dresses without exception. It is significant that men recognize that Herero dresses are heavy and hot to wear. Such statements indirectly contrast their own muscular strength with that of women. Moreover, if their wives do not wear Herero dress, men may have difficulty finding jobs and achieving a position in society. Finally, men have no experience wearing the dress. As a result, they have never experienced the sense of self-mastery that women embody when they wear the dress.

Herero women are known for their meticulous hygiene habits, bathing twice a day and washing clothes frequently. When a Herero woman washes a dress, wrings out the water-heavy fabric, does the petticoats and the headpiece, and then irons each piece with a coal iron, it is a laborious task she carries out herself rather than having children do the work. Wearing the dress requires skill.

As part of a multi-layered consciousness, Herero Tribe sees their dress, like their lives, through time and multiple lenses, sometimes with uncertainty, sometimes with irony.

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Dress is a fundamental element of social evolution. It comprises one of the most basic building blocks of inequality. Fashion, likewise, is neither frivolous nor trivial. It matters, has consequences. Dress and fashion have a significant impact on the way people live, define themselves, and operate within their own habitats. It is a game of differentiation, the means by which one ethnic group distinguishes itself from another, one social status and religious affiliation from another. Dress and fashion help identify the foreign, the minority, and the marginal, and can emerge as an influential means by which people challenge their status and reshape their identity within their own societies or on the global stage. In order to understand the complexities of what people wear and why, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, philosophers, semiologists, linguists and many others input their immense expertise. The study of modern civilization fashion along with mass production can derive no assistance from world history before comparatively modern times. In human history fashion is new and its future path is unknown.

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