modern south african traditional wear

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South Africa’s diverse mix of cultures, ethnic groups and religions has given rise to a variety of traditional dress. In African cultures for example, age and social standing is reflected in the clothes a person wears. Here, we take a look at the various types of traditional wear found in South Africa.


The Xhosa culture has a complex dress code informed by a person’s social standing, and features beautiful beadwork and printed fabrics. Traditionally, women’s clothing and accessories show the different stages of life.

Their main items of clothing include long skirts and aprons in beautiful printed or embroidered fabrics. Elaborate beaded necklaces called ithumbu are worn around the neck, as well as beaded bracelets and anklets. The iqhiya or headscarf is traditionally worn by married women. To complete the ensemble, embroidered capes or blankets are worn around the shoulders.

Xhosa men traditionally filled the roles of warrior, hunter and stockman and as such, animal skin formed an important part of their traditional wear. On special occasions embroidered skirts are worn with a rectangular cloth over the left shoulder, or a tunic and strands of beaded necklaces.

A Xhosa man in traditional garb, Eastern Cape © South African Tourism/Flickr


In Zulu culture, women also wear different attire at different stages of their lives. A single young woman wears her hair short and only a short grass-reed skirt embellished with beads, while engaged women will cover their breasts and grow their hair.

A married woman covers her entire body to indicate that she is spoken for. She wears a thick cowhide skirt that has been softened with animal fat and charcoal. Traditionally, women covered their bosom with a cloth, but nowadays cotton vests or beaded bras are worn along with beaded necklaces.

The most iconic adornment are circular-shaped hats called izicolo, which are worn by married women. These hats were traditionally made of grass and cotton and measured as much as a metre across to protect the wearer from the sun.

Zulu men and women in traditional dress © Willem van Valkenburg/Flickr

Zulu men traditionally wear animal skins and feathers. Because the Zulu revere leopards as the king of all predators, only royalty are allowed to wear leopard skin. A front apron (isinene) and a rear apron (ibheshu) are worn to cover the genitals and buttocks. The tufts of a cow’s tail called amashoba are worn on the upper arms and below the knees to give the appearance of greater bulk. Headbands are only worn by married men.


The Ndebele tribe are renowned for their intricate beadwork and brightly coloured homes painted in striking geometric designs. The main element of Ndebele women’s wear is an apron. Girls wear small beaded aprons, while older girls wear isiphephetu, a beaded apron given to them by their mothers, and isigolwani which are thick beaded hoops worn around their necks, arms, legs and waist.

Married women wear longer aprons made of hardened skin that are lavishly decorated in geometric designs. They also wear isigolwani and copper rings called idzilla around the neck, ankles and arms. Girls and unmarried women traditionally do not cover their breasts, whereas married women cover their upper bodies with blankets in multi-coloured stripes or beaded designs.

Ndebele men wear animal skin aprons and beaded breast-plates or iporiyana which hangs from the neck. The iporiyana is a symbol of manhood and is given to a young man by his father after he has undergone initiation. Animal skin headbands and ankle bands are also worn along with a cape


PictureXhosa Woman Smoking “Long Pipe”. [Photo]. Retrieved from South Africa by unknown. The “Long Pipe” is very common in Xhosa culture. The ritual is preserved for a mother or an older woman, and young Xhosa girls are forbidden from smoking.

One way that many people communicate about who they are is through their clothing. Clothing is a part of a “symbolic process whereby many people’s reality is produced, maintained repaired and transformed” (Martin, J. N. & Nakayama , 2013, p. 94).  Clothes can be an indicator that one is from a certain religion.  For example, if a man is wearing a yarmulke, the small hat that Jewish men often wear at religious ceremonies, one would know that he was Jewish.  Clothes can also indicate somebody’s wealth or poverty, their status, affiliations, and their ethnicity, and is also dependent on how traditional one is in regard to their own personal culture.  According to David Ramushu (2014), customary dress in modern Africa is also dependent on your beliefs and often the various ethnicities themselves that can be found in South Africa.

Many South Africans dress in modern Western clothing that are similar to the United States.  However, during special occasions and holidays some “Afrikaners wear traditional clothing that is different for each gender.  For example, the boys and men wear pants and vests.  While the women often can be seen in “long dresses and bonnets for formal folk dancing called volkspele, while male folk dancing partners wear shirts with vests and long pants” (“Countries and Their Cultures”, 2014).

While the Xhosa culture, of which Nelson Mandela was a part, have a distinct clothing: “the hang of the hat, the colour of the dress, and the bibs, bracelets and beads suspended from their bodies. Few words need to be spoken to convey the status of a person in Xhosa society” (“Xhosa Traditional Dress”, 2014).  Many outsiders of the Xhosa might not understand the meaning behind many of their clothing, which might appear just colorful.  In Xhosa culture, “young unmarried women will wear ochre-coloured blankets, and the tribal elder will walk past wrapped in his blanket, his face covered in white clay; and a married woman will linger at the stall, carrying a large beaded bag and puffing on a long-stemmed wooden pipe” (“Xhosa Traditional Dress”, 2014).  Xhosa traditional dress comes in various shades, shapes, sizes and hues – each with its own particular message that would not be clear to someone outside the culture.  For example, if a lady’s head is covered it means that she is married.  If her turban goes below eye level, it means she’s newly married.  Status in the society can also be gleaned by the elaborateness of the headpiece as well as Xhosa beadwork.  Xhosa ceremonies also require particular dress; for example goatskin leggings and a necklace of turquoise (which connects him with his ancestors) are worn at a man’s first sacrificial killing of a goat (“Xhosa Traditional Dress”, 2014).

Many of the various other religious, cultural, ethnic, and racial groups also have very particular ways of dressing for traditional ceremonies and occasions as well.  Dress is an important way to communicate about one’s identity and is an essential part of shaping
one’s identity.  Therefore, it is important as an intercultural communicator that one is sensitive to how certain groups dress and the meaning behind the clothing so one doesn’t offend someone without even realizing it, or so that the intercultural communicator may derive that meaning which is already-assumed to be understood by someone from the Xhosa culture.

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