The South African Clothing Rainbow

By Doris Rivas

South Africa is a country with a lot of diversity. People from different cultural, religious, linguistic and economic groups all live together in the same country. This diversity but also the way that people find unity in their diversity can be seen in South African clothing.

Traditional attire depends on a person's culture. Within each culture, there are also special clothes for people depending on their social status. For example, a young, unmarried woman will usually be seen wearing a very different type of traditional outfit than an older, married woman, while a traditional healer will wear something else entirely.

It is not often that South Africans wear traditional clothes as everyday outfits anymore, however. Most people dress in Western clothing and leave the traditional garb for special events. Even then there is often cross-pollination.

An example is the clothing that young Xhosa men are supposed to wear to show that they have just gone through initiation. After the ceremony that officially announces their manhood, they dress in long trousers and a shirt, along with a jacket and a 1920s style plaid cap. They have to wear this for three months and are not allowed to take off the jacket when it's hot. Sometime in the past this type of outfit became the symbol of being an adult man and the culture has adopted this as tradition.

Another, more recent type of fashion cross-pollination is the use of elements from traditional garb in fashion design. A-line skirts based on what Xhosa women traditionally wear, Zulu and Ndebele beadwork and dresses made of Indian sari fabrics are examples of this. Probably the most distinguishing feature of this design trend is the bold use of color everywhere. The Rainbow Nation is not a people who wear black or grey all the time.

A popular design element that has emerged in fashion in recent years is the use of 'shweshwe' in everything from skirts to shoes and bags. 'Shweshwe' is a strong fabric that has white geometric print on a brown or blue background, although a red background is also becoming more common. Traditionally only Basotho women wore this fabric and they only used it in dresses and matching headscarves.

Since the advent of democracy after a long liberation struggle, icons from the country's history have also inspired design. The most popular is Nelson Mandela, whose face is often seen on T-shirts, wristwatches and print fabrics. As the country's people are finally embracing their identity as Africans, no matter what their skin color, the African continent pops up everywhere in prints on fabrics, in jewelry and even tattoos.

The fashion industry in the country has also exploded with new designers. With the support of local retail stores and of course consumers, many of these designers have become successful enough not only to show off their work at the annual SA Fashion Week, but also to sell their designs in an economically viable way the rest of the year. So supportive are the people of the Rainbow Nation of South African clothing that in many youth subcultures, certain local brands are more desirable than famous international brands.

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