The stylistic development of married womens’ dress in (Umkhambathini, Cato ridge, Hammersdale)
Married women of the valley of 1000 hills and Zwelimbovo area epitomize poise and raw physical beauty. This impression is due to their striking garments, statuesque deportment and long stride.
Geographically, the valley of 1000 hills and Zwelimbovo comprises a landscape of rolling green hills in KwaZulu dotted with communities and clans banded together into small villages. Although this is a patriarchal society today households are largely headed by women, responsible for family life, agriculture and the supplementation of income through craft projects and beading. Men work in the cities as migrant labour returning periodically throughout the year.
Traditionally Zulu garments were designated by Chiefs. Clans and families were allocated styles, beading patterns and particular colours making the wearer immediately identifiable within the community. Today in this area, women take the initiative reinterpreting couture and the concept of what beauty is by using unique designs, colour combinations, texture and unusual materials to characterize these garments. According to Zondi (2010) their beadwork and garments have a celebratory function, and it is an individual way of expressing the wearer’s pride for their culture.
From the 1960’s to the 1980’s the 1000 hills bead work became stylistically distinct from other Zulu work. It was characterized by small geometric patterns and bright neon colours outlined by black, developing into large panels with glimmerings of colour, the image easily described as surveying urban sprawl from a distance at night. This work, created within the regional style of the people, was disregarded by serious bead work collectors as being “Too modern looking”, a concept which ironically led to the survival of this art form.
Some may speculate as to how the inspiration for this visual language developed. The women themselves say that their bead work was inspired by indigenous plant material. But is this all? Although this art form was born in the rural areas we propose that many of these women were exposed to urban street culture through economic necessity. In order to augment their income there is a precedent of women bringing bead work to the Durban beachfront to sell to tourists. Their garments when viewed in an urban setting have a certain theatricality resembling the rickshaw costumes of Zulu men plying their trade in the same area.
Postcards of the rickshaw bearers photographed in the early 1960’s depict men with hastily constructed garments. Their clothing was improvised, recyclable, used an array of materials and safety pins were contrived as a means of fastening. These are also the methods utilized by Zwelimbovo women. By the late 1970’s rickshaw costumes developed into outrageous manifestations of artistic expression, used commercially as bold advertisements enticing tourists to catch a ride. Concepts of impermanence are used to advantage by rickshaw men who swiftly turned around new styles and ideas to glean a competitive edge against fellow rivals.
This sort of idea and competitive edge is used by women to develop individual expression and to push each other into inventing new ways of doing things. Their clothes reflect personal aesthetics of what beauty could be and how to present it.