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african traditional wear rules, nongiyana, umqhele

Four traditional clothing items and who gets to wear them

2 September 2016 ARTS & CULTURE


By Nomali Cele

Every heritage month it happens. South Africans dressed beautifully, either to celebrate their own culture or to show their appreciation of other cultures. However, there are protocols to be observed when wearing traditional attire. Usually, we are meant to be able to tell someone’s stage of life, whether they are married and so on, by the traditional clothing they wear. But with dilution, we have lost those guidelines and it seems everyone wears whatever part of a culture’s traditional dress they find attractive or cool.

Seeing as we’ve just celebrated Heritage Day, here’s are four traditional clothing items and who gets to wear them:

Venda culture // Mapala beads

african traditional wear rules

Mapala is made up of two thick cotton strands, strung with beads and worn like a necklace, facing the back. Mapala beads are worn by young women and are meant to signify that the wearer is young and fertile and like “a flower that attracts bees”.

Image by Francois van Zyl (source)

Zulu culture // Ungiyane

african traditional wear rules, nongiyana, umqhele

Ungiyane is a headpiece that is made from animal skin (the way isiphandla is made from animal skin). The other form of ungiyane, called umuqhele, is made from leopard skin and worn by people of high standing, such as chiefs and kings (they also tend to dress in all-leopard traditional wear).

Ungiyane is worn by married men or men of mature standing in the community.

Indian culture // Red bindi

african traditional wear rules

On-air personality Sureshni Naidoo

While the bindi has sadly devolved into an accessory in many western countries, it’s still symbolic and meaningful in Indian culture. It comes from Hindu tradition and is a body decoration — a red dot placed on the centre of the forehead. Both men and women wear bindis which symbolise their marital status, religion and social class. The red bindi also signifies love and prosperity — great aspirations for a marriage — and why married Hindu women, in particular, wear them.

Ndebele culture // Umbhalo

african traditional wear rules

Umbhalo is the colourful Ndebele blanket that is most often worn by older women. However, culturally, the blanket is also given to a girl when she has undergone iqhude. This is the coming-of-age ceremony performed for girls who are going through puberty. When a girl has started menstruating and is regarded as on her way to womanhood, she is isolated for a week which culminates in a celebration and the handing over of umbhalo. The colourful blanket (colour often include schemes yellow, blue, brown, green and red) signifies her entry into womanhood.

Image from Ephasini Lamabhudango a short film by Ndumiso Sibanda, starring Tsholofelo Maseko

Do you know any interesting traditional wear and who is allowed to wear it? Share with us!


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