The Ndebele people of South Africa and Zimbabwe are arguably one of Africa’s most distinctive and therefore easily recognisable tribes. With their unique geometrically patterned homes and garments of ornate beadwork, the Ndebele people are proving to be an endless source of inspiration for artists and designers around the world.
Hollywood sat up and took notice when fashion mogul Kimora Lee Simmons arrived at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s prestigious Costume Institute Gala in 2008 swathed in a knock-out Ndebele-patterned ball gown. Simmons helped design the gown with American designer Kevan Hall and VogueUS’s former editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley. Her fashion choice certainly made people sit up and pay attention, and it brought this unique design even further into the limelight.
Kimora Lee Simmons showing off a Ndebele-inspired gown
So what’s the story behind this popular unmistakably unique print? Well, the Ndebele tribe has its origin in South Africa and Zimbabwe dating back to the 1600s. The design and patterns used by the tribes are most visible in the creative paintings decorating their homes. Interestingly, these designs were once used as secret communication during post-occupation times – the patterns spoke of strength and perseverance, and possibly even communicated secret plots of resistance. But the history behind the graphic design of this print holds far more significance for the Ndebele people.
Marriage symbolizes a significant rite of passage, particularly for the Ndebele woman. Once she is married, the new bride is responsible for decorating her home in the distinctive geometric colourful designs. She will use her free hand to create the images adorning the walls of her home, typically drawing inspiration from the environment around her. The back of the house is painted in earthy colours, using charcoal, clay and ground ochre. The front, in comparison, is a vivid representation of the Ndebele wife’s creativity, with vibrant shades of yellow, blue, green and red.
One identifiable fashion trinket of the Ndebele people is the isingolwani, the collection of multi-coloured hoops worn around the neck. In traditional customs, these hoops are worn by girls during their initiation into womanhood. During this period, they are secluded from the rest of the tribe and are taught by the older matriarchs in preparation for married life. The girls learn invaluable skills like beading, cooking as well as the symbolic painting of their new homes. The colourful neck hoops are made by twisting grass into a circle, securing the hoop tightly with cotton. To ensure the rigidity and sturdiness of the hoop, the band is boiled in sugary water and then laid out in the sun to harden for a number of days. Thereafter the hoops are decorated with brightly coloured beads in distinctive Ndebele fashion.
At their initiation ceremony, girls are also presented with an apron called an amaphephetu, a sturdy rectangular garment decorated with vivid three-dimensional graphics to symbolize the event. These aprons are later substituted for robust, square-shaped aprons made of leather. It is on her wedding day that the prestigious nguba or marriage blanket is worn.
Another striking form of jewellery distinctive to this tribe is the idzilo or idzila – elegantly stacked brass rings worn around the neck, legs and arms. On her wedding day, a bride is given a set of these rings from her husband to be worn as a symbol of her devotion to him. Generally speaking, the wealthier the husband, the more elaborate the rings. In earlier days, a woman was to wear these rings until the death of her husband. However, this is no longer customary, with modern-day wives only wearing their adornments for traditional gatherings. This may be a good thing, considering that some women were known to wear rings weighing up to 20 kilograms!
It is no wonder that fashion designers from across the globe are drawing inspiration from the distinctive and eclectic Ndebele style. One designer that displayed a totally unique take on this classic design was Brazilian designer Alexandre Herchcovitch who, in his 2007 Spring collection, fused Ndebele patterns with street punk style. Herchcovitch recognized the one-of-a-kind designs of traditional Ndebele fashion and fused it with non-conformist punk-rock wear. The result was a critically acclaimed collection of never-before-seen African-punk fusion.
Most recently, UK Vogue dedicated an extensive fashion editorial to the plains of Africa in their May 2012 issue. Entitled “High Plains Drifter”, the photo shoot was shot by acclaimed photographer Mario Testino and featured an eclectic mix of Ndebele patterns alongside other bold graphic prints.
Today, visitors are welcome to explore the Ndebele culture by visiting sites such as the Kghodwana Cultural Village in Bronkhorstspruit, or the Botshabelo Mission Station in Mpumalanga, South Africa. The latter is the traditional home of renowned Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu.
The prolific Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu donning full Ndebele regalia, standing in front of one of her works
For further reading on the influence of African culture on contemporary fashion, check out http://www.afroccentric.com as well as www.krugerpark.co.za and www.southafrica.net for further information on the Ndebele tribe.
For your own taste of authentic Ndebele art, visit Sapellé’s Artisan Collection where you will find beaded Ndebele hairbands made by women from South Africa. Each one is said to tell a story about love and life. Find them here
Contributor: Lesleigh Kivedo