beadwork with bells

Explanation of married womens’ dress

The stylistic development of married womens’ ceremonial dress in this area is a commitment to their creativity and joy. This is an art of abundance in an area known for grinding poverty and hardship. These garments are as much a celebration of their life and creative triumph over adversity as they are about aesthetics.

The function of these clothes is more than mere adornment: They are worn for display at weddings, as an indication of status at ritual occasions, to show respect (hlonipa) for elders and in-laws, for fun when watching dance displays, and particularly as an indication of love and commitment in welcoming their migrant worker husbands home at long weekends.

These garments are stylistically distinct from those found in other parts of Kwazulu Natal:
Capes, skirts, bodice covers and hats are made of various fabrics. Coloured cotton, vinyl and fringing are obtained from trading stores. Preferred adornment comprises of plastic beads, brightly coloured telephone wire, buttons, metal studs, and imitation jewellery. A variety of found objects are recycled from industrial environments in order to beautify this assemblage.
Recycling of ornaments and bead work from older pieces is common practice and expedient considering the financial investment in these garments. For example: The rounded metal studs sewn onto skirts or spread over the surface of animal skin bodices were originally recycled generations ago from Anglo- boer war uniforms. These small tactile buttons can be equated visually to the use of carved wooden nodules called amasumpa adorning the surface of Zulu headrests, milk pails and pots.
Some historic materials are used for their apotropaic qualities, such as grass, animal skins, sinew and bovine stomach linings. Ceremonial attire is constructed by layering fabrics and textures together and over each other, concealing and revealing aspects of the wearer. Extensive padding around the hips accentuates their ideal of womanly beauty.

zwelimbovo with patches

By redefining their bodies, these woman add an architectural solidity and strength to their proportions. The encrusted surface texture of the outer garments appears armoured, impenetrable. We speculate that this accentuates the psychological concept of these women as untouchable beings and in a sense discloses the existing power relationships of absent husbands. One might add that in contradiction, by emphasising the definition of the waist and hips, the garment carries a frisson of sexual titillation.